Hyderabad: Mahila Shishu, as the name suggests, is an application dedicated to women and children.

Developed by engineers of the National Informatics Centre (NIC), the Union government’s information and communication technology arm, the application brings government departments tasked with health, nutrition and livelihood of women and children under one umbrella.

In undivided Andhra Pradesh (AP), for example, women and children constitute 63% of the population, giving Mahila Shishu the potential to make an impact on the lives of a highly vulnerable section of the society.

Before the application was piloted last December in Manchal mandal in Ranga Reddy district near Hyderabad, various departments working for women and child welfare were functioning in isolation. Each department would maintain its own database and services registry, leading to duplication of data and seepages in welfare schemes.

In undivided AP, Anganwadi workers, or field level workers of the department of women and child development who provide antenatal care, supplementary nutrition, immunization and health check-ups services apart from nutritional and health education to pregnant women and newborn children, maintained its own register of activities.

This register would differ from the records maintained by an auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM) who is employed by the state’s health department. The ANM is responsible for handling pregnancies, child birth, maternal and child healthcare, family planning, nutrition, immunization and treatment of minor ailments apart from health education—its responsibilities overlapping with the services offered by an Anganwadi worker.

Likewise, the department of rural development that provides livelihood support maintains its own records of beneficiaries. The rural development department helps self-help groups (SHGs) in villages and also operates the rural job programme, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employee Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS)—both of which see huge female participation.

“Different departments have different registers and they are maintaining separate identities, and there is a problem of referential integrity," says K. Rajasekhar, deputy director general of NIC in Hyderabad.

Before they embarked on the project, Rajasekhar and his team observed that the lack of a common database was leading to multiplicity of efforts by different departments. They realised that if the women and child welfare-focused departments shared data of their beneficiaries, they could avoid duplicity, plug leakages and save time.

“The objective of Mahila Shishu is to provide one-stop, non-stop, platform-agnostic, technology-agnostic, open source-based solution to monitor the implementation of various welfare programmes targeted at women and children," says Rajasekhar.

The team used open source technologies to build the solution, which can be scaled up easily and integrated with existing databases without much effort.

“Unless we have an integrated view, it is very difficult," says Rajasekhar. “It (the solution) is very much essential for the success of all the schemes of the government of India and state line departments."

Mahila Shishu allows one-time registration for the three different stakeholder departments from anywhere in the world via Internet.

That doesn’t mean it needs Internet access all the time— a luxury in rural parts of India where most government welfare schemes operate. “Persistent Internet connection is not required," Rajasekhar points out.

End users who are typically field-level workers of women and child welfare, health and rural development departments can feed data into their devices even when there’s no Internet access. The data is automatically synchronised when the device connects to the Internet.

Because the data is up to date, the solution has been designed to send out alerts to Anganwadis and ANMs on upcoming dates for health checkups, vaccinations or immunizations. This helps prevent any laxity on the part of field-level workers, thus helping expecting mothers among others get timely medical attention.

Also, if the system detects an anomaly, such as a health problem in a patient, it automatically alerts and recommends treatment. This could be especially useful for pregnant women who would need timely medical and nutritional advice. It helps in identifying high-risk cases on time and makes treatment procedure more streamlined.

Rajasekhar and his team consulted gynaecologists and nutritionists and incorporated their inputs into the software. This helps Mahila Shishu make the right health recommendations.

The team also designed the solution to be device-agnostic,meaning even a user with a phone with basic features can update the database through text messaging. Field-level workers can thus periodically update details about their activities and the list of beneficiaries from a personal computer, tablet, smart phone or feature phone.

To help people who can’t understand English, the application also has a regional language interface; in this case, Telugu.

NIC has trained field-level workers and their supervisors on using the application,which continues to be in use in Manchal, though it hasn’t been extended to other parts of the state.

Rajasekhar attributes this to the state’s bifurcation and the elections in April-May that led to the formation of two separate governments. The two governments seem to be still settling in, leaving little time to roll out this project across the two states.

As the application was developed for the united state, Rajasekhar has been lobbying with both the state governments. “After the elections, we have been pressurising both the state governments so that they don’t need to re-invent the wheel," says Rajasekhar, who is optimistic of wooing the governments into adopting Mahila Shishu.

He also plans to take Mahila Shishu national. Because of its multi-tenancy and scalable architecture, Mahila Shishu can be customised to match the requirements of other state governments. If the solution is implemented across all states, which is what Rajasekhar is trying to achieve, it holds the potential to impact about 64% of the country’s population.

The key to Mahila Shishu’s success is supervisors keeping a close tab on the activities of field-level workers. By constantly monitoring the data from Anganwadi and healthcare workers, supervisors can plug leakages and address various issues. They can monitor field-level functionaries’ work by checking a summarised report on registrations done, activity undertaken, and high-risk cases sent to them at periodic intervals.

“Technology-wise, it is feasible, but monitoring is the key," says Rajasekhar. “Till it is institutionalised, continuous monitoring is required, so that it is effectively implemented."

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