COVID-19 dampens expansion of women-led prasadam project in Uttarakhand

Women in Uttarakhand make prasadam packets as religious offerings for tourists visiting shrines

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Thursday 02 April 2020

Plans for the expansion of a women-led initiative unique to Uttarakhand — and tied to the state’s religious tourism circuit — dampened after the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak and a subsequent nationwide lockdown invoked by the Union government.

The prasadam project — launched as a pilot programme in 2018 — is a promising initiative aimed at upgrading the livelihood of women in the Himalayan state.

The Uttarakhand Gramin Vikas Samiti — a collection of several self-help groups (SHGs) in the state — joined hands with the state government for the pilot, that involved preparing prasadam packets for the state’s Kedarnath shrine, with the help of 844 women.

The women were able to prepare more than 42,000 such packets, working part-time for a few hours, selling them to religious tourists and generating a turnover of Rs 16,26,040 for their livelihood collectives within two months.

Each woman enhanced her income this way by Rs 5,000-6,000.

The prasadam packets they prepare, consist of laddoos made of amaranth or ‘chulai’ — a local rain-fed grain that grows in abundance in hilly areas across the state — and locally-made incense sticks and other ingredients.

Chulai is a part of several offerings made at the state’s religious shrines. Locals earlier made offerings using crystal sugar or mishri. An idea to roast chulai and mix it with jaggery to produce laddoos as an offering, later gained popularity.

The prasadam project was soon extended to other shrines in Uttarkashi and Chamba.

The success of the initiative revealed the hidden potential of a local enterprise that could give women extra income.

The move also generated income for villagers who earned relatively less.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, put brakes on the further expansion of the initiative.

The challenge now is to make optimum use of trained women and extra chulai stock lying in the villages.

“One of the ideas we are looking at is to promote Chulai as a breakfast cereal. This may take some time but it is feasible,” said Pankaj Bijlwan, a local doctor associated with the project.

“We may have lost on this year’s tourism season but there is an opportunity emerging in the form of Kumbh next year,” he added.

This was not an exclusive initiative, but was weaved into several other activities of women associated with different SHGs, according to Ahmad Iqbal, a senior bureaucrat who is associated with the project.

“Right now, women are being involved in other activities like making masks because of the pandemic. We are trying to ensure that those who were part of Prasadam initiative do not suffer,” he said.

Amaranth is known to have several health benefits that can help in several ailments, according to BD Singh, former CEO of the Temple Committee that was instrumental in purchasing prasadam packets from SHGs.

“Value-added products can be marketed in other forms. All that is needed to be done is to sell it by promoting its benefits. It can still be a tool in upgrading the livelihood of many more women of the 11 districts of the state,” he said.

Uttarakhand — with its 625 shrines — is visited by millions of religious tourists every year.

The Char Dham circuit — that includes Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath — sees an average annual footfall of two million.

These numbers were expected to increase manifold by 2026, once the all-season roads project in the ecologically-fragile state is executed, according to officials.

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