Come July and the rural girl-child in Maharashtra will have a new companion. The state government is all set to launch the 'Maitrin' (Marathi for female friend) scheme, under which a she-goat will be gifted to select rural families that have a daughter in the 8 to18 years age group. The goat will supplement the family income, which, in turn, is expected to confirm a better nutrition for the girl-child.
"What generally happens is that parents are unhappy when a girl-child is born. The bias for a male-child is well known. We believe that this scheme will go a long way in improving the health parameters of the poor girl-child in rural Maharashtra," says Bijay Kumar, Commissioner, Department of Animal Husbandry, Government of Maharashtra.
The government seeks to address two issues at the same time with the launch of this scheme: Provide a tangible incentive to the parents of a girl-child and to encourage parents to take care of their girl-child.
This is in keeping with the schemes launched by both the state and central governments to help fight the bias against the girl-child as well as provide a better nutrition for her.
Earlier this year, the central government initiated the 'Palna' (cradle) scheme to encourage parents unwilling to bring up a girl-child to not get rid of their female infants by killing them or leaving them in public places, such as dustbins. (According to the Palna scheme, such parents can bring the girl-child to government-run orphanages so that that the state can look after them. The scheme drew flak from activists, who believed that it would encourage parents to give away their girl-child.) The 'Maitrin' scheme is in keeping with the government's efforts to decrease the bias against girl-children.
A year after the goat is given to the family, the family will be asked to take the girl to the nearby government hospital to take her hemoglobin count, which will reveal whether she is being well looked after or not. If the hemoglobin count has gone up, the family will be given another she-goat as an incentive. If the hemoglobin count is static, it would be reflective of the fact that the livestock is being used for commercial purposes and not for helping the girl-child in any way.
According to the recent National Family Health Survey-3 (data collected in 2005-6) India has among the highest number of cases of anemia in the world. The reasons range from high cost of healthcare facilities, poor quality of food and the low status of women in society. In Maharashtra, around 99 per cent of adolescent girls have anemia. Seventeen per cent of them are mildly anemic, 53 per cent are moderately anemic and 29 per cent have severe anemia. The survey also revealed that except for severe anemia, the percentage of girls in the remaining two categories (mild and moderate anemia) diminishes marginally with the increase in age from 10-14 to 15-19 years.
Asked as to why only a she-goat as an incentive and not any other animal, Kumar explains, "What we have in mind is that the girl in the family is expected to look after the goat as her pet. A young girl would not be able to manage any other livestock, like a calf, which would be big for her. A she-goat is also a low-maintenance animal and easy to handle with very few health problems. The she-goat also gains weight fast and has a short breeding period. Keeping these factors in mind, we felt that it is best to gift a she-goat and not any other animal."
Not only will the she-goat enhance the family income - goat milk can be sold in the market - it will also provide the girl an opportunity to get first-hand experience in livestock handling, which will help her as a grown-up.
"We have made a budgetary allocation of Rs 350,000 (US$1=Rs 40) for the first year, which may be increased depending on the response to the scheme. Initially, 4,500 families will benefit from the scheme. The families will be selected on the basis of the data provided by the zila parishads (district-level local governments). Another criteria is that the families should not have been assisted earlier by the state government," says Kumar.
The maximum number of beneficiaries from one district, which is 300, will be chosen from the Vidarbha region that accounts for the maximum number of farmers' suicides in the state. In addition, 100 families will be selected from each district from the rest of the state to reach a target of 4,500 families.
While the intentions behind the 'Maitrin' scheme might be exemplary, it remains to be seen whether it will have any major impact on status of impoverished girl-children in the state.