It was not like any other day at the maternal health centre. Four hundred people were gathered – villagers, the media, senior staff, even the village council. At the front of the crowd stood a woman with a microphone. She read the centre’s records aloud. One by one, women in the crowd stood up to verify they had received the items assigned to them. It’s what is known as a social audit, and one woman was behind it all.
Rashi* is the designated specialist at this “Anganwadi” centre – local maternal health clinics created as part of a national Indian programme to cut maternal and infant mortality. Their name is derived from the Hindi word for courtyard (‘angan’), which in rural India is the social heart of a house. Just as a courtyard is a centre buzzing with activity, an Anganwadi centre is a hub for mothers and babies in communities across the country.
Responsible for running the centre since 2003, Rashi is a one-stop information point for all mothers and children in the village. She provides food and nutritional support, and expectant and nursing mothers alike depend on her for care and advice. Yet in 2011, it looked as if her work might be cut short.
Every month, a regional supervisor visits the centre to confirm it is open and functioning, and should continue to receive food and funding. Yet Rashi says her supervisor would only sign if she was bribed first. When Rashi refused to pay, the supervisor refused to sign.
Despite being cut off from much funding, Rashi persevered in opening the centre daily. But without the monthly signatures, her work went unrecorded. On paper, it looked as if she had shut up shop.
Then a new supervisor started. She too offered Rashi an unofficial solution: pay 70,000 rupees (US$1,550) and the centre would be re-registered, no questions asked.
But this time, Rashi says, the offer came with a threat. The supervisor claimed the payment was a penalty for Rashi’s “absenteeism” – the sum roughly amounted to Rashi’s salary during the months the centre had not been signed for. If Rashi refused this time, she would lose her job.
When Rashi approached Transparency International India, we suggested she clear her name with a “social audit” – a public event where all those who had benefitted from the centre during the supposed months of closure could stand up and make their voices heard.
Hearing about the plans shocked her seniors in the office. They visited her centre and released the money due to Rashi for the running of her centre. Still Rashi went ahead with the audit. Together with Transparency International India, she gathered the women at the centre of the village, inviting the supervisor to watch.
As client after client confirmed Rashi’s honesty, the case closed with a public reconciliation between her and the supervisor. It’s an important step, says Ashok Kumar Singh of Transparency International India. “The Anganwadi centres are the government’s main means of bringing healthcare to India’s rural communities. We need to work together to make sure they succeed.”
*Name has been changed