“Can medicine taste good?”
Parbin Sultana Barbhuiya thought to herself, as she looked around her office last August. In the Integrated Child Development Scheme project office in south Assam’s Hailakandi district, where the 32-year-old is supervisor, lay heaps of iron folic acid tablets, collecting dust over months. “They just refused to have it,” she says, of the scores of children and pregnant women Anganwadi workers had reached out to with these tablets, known for fighting anaemia.
“They didn’t like the taste, they said it made them nauseous, and yes, they were even a little suspicious of it,” she says.
However in Hailakandi, an ‘aspirational district’ bordering Bangladesh, 47.2 per cent of the women of reproductive reproductive age were anaemic (2015 National Family Health Survey), which meant that the district had the most anaemic children below five years, adolescents and women of reproductive age in Assam.
“This is the time when they [pregnant mothers] needed the nutritional supplements the most,” says Barbhuiya, who has been on the job for nine years. She wondered what she could do to make the medicines “more interesting”.
Ronica Devarshi, posted in Hailakandi as the district lead of the Assam Swasth Bharat Prerak Program under Tata Trusts and Ministry of Women and Child Development at the time, had the answer. Between 2016 and 2018, the 24-year-old had frequently visited several villages in Himachal Pradesh where NGO Jagori Rural Charitable Trust was working. “On one such visit, I learned that anaemia was a rampant issue which affected women and adolescent girls there. The NGO had decided to fight this by using a local recipe comprising amla (gooseberry) and jaggery to make jams and chutneys,” says the Guwahati-based Devarshi, who is now with the State Project Management Unit, POSHAAN Abhiyaan, Assam.
Devarshi brought the same concept to Hailakandi, but with a sweeter twist: candy. “Rather than using the ingredients to make chutney or pickle — why not candy?” she remembers thinking to herself. She looked up number of YouTube videos of ‘imli candies’, which she tweaked to make what she called: ‘Amla gur candies.’
To make the candy, they got the ingredients ready: a few gooseberries or amla, some jaggery or gur, and salt. “First we cut the amla into very small pieces, then put it in the mixer grinder and made it even smaller,” Barbhuiya remembers, “We cooked it on a pan, till the amla was dry, added some gur and salt.”
The ingredients, then in a paste-like form, were rolled into little round balls the size of marbles, “like small laddoos” describes Barbhuiya. “In the beginning, it wasn’t taking form, it was either too runny or too sticky,” she says, “We did a lot of trial-and-error, and finally the first batch of 20 bite-sized amla-gur laddoos were ready.”
In the following days, the candy was wrapped in foil and distributed it to the Anganwadi workers, who in turn took them to the women at the centres. “And what a response it was. The children were relishing it, the women were asking for more,” she says, “But the best bit was that they were finally getting their nutrients.”
Barbhuiya, who has done a B.Sc in Physics and is now doing a certificate course in nutrition, says amla is known to be a rich source of Vitamin C and antioxidants, while gur, or jaggery, is rich in iron, vitamins and minerals. “I was anaemic at one point too, and my mother would emphasise on the importance of amla,” she says.
The little project was then undertaken by the district administration and replicated on a larger scale, with the laddoos being distributed in various programs held across the district.
Across various Anganwadi centres, an amla candy revolution of sorts began — in a three-day program, more than 7,000 people across the district benefitted from the initiative.
“We wanted to make it a Jan Andolan and involve the locals too,” says Keerthi Jalli, who was posted as the Deputy Commissioner of Hailakandi at the time.
The following September was Rashtriya Poshan Maah — a government program launched in 2018 and aimed at improving the nutritional status of children up to 6 years, adolescent girls, pregnant women and lactating mothers — and proved to be the ideal platform. “We got grandmothers, mothers involved and every centre would have large gatherings of women, who would come together to make amla candy,” says Jalli, who was posted as the Deputy Commissioner of Cachar district in May. She has now been transferred to the neighbouring district of Cachar.
In the Hailakandi town club hall, women from 10-12 anganwadi centres would gather from 7 am to 7 pm to make the laddoos. “Some would cut the amla, others would powder the gur — they began to participate and give their own ideas, making their own versions of the laddoo,” she says.
Listing out the advantages of the initiative, Devarshi says: “It is simple, cost- and time- effective too. Since amla is locally available in our region, it can actually be replicated in all communities as the ingredients used are traditionally consumed in the Indian sub-continent.”
Over the months, variations of the amla candy were born: some added ginger, others added ajwain, and so on. “It got so popular that we had to begin sourcing amla from the neighbouring districts of Cachar and Karimganj,” says Barbhuiya. In November 2019, the candies were exhibited as part of the Assam Pavilion at the India International Science Festival at the Science City in Kolkata. In the following months, the Social Welfare Department in Hailakandi district also began a survey to test the efficacy of the candy on the reduction of anaemia. “
But with the pandemic in March, the initiative hit a roadblock in Hailakandi: the survey had to be paused and even the candy making — a group activity involving large crowds of women and children — had to put on hold. “Currently, lab tests are being undertaken by IIT-Guwahati’s Guwahati Biotech Park and National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research for toxicity and efficacy tests,” says Devarshi.
However, the hopeful bit, Barbhuiya says, is that she still gets calls and messages from women asking for amla recipes. “Some are making amla pickles, others are attempting murabba (jam) out of gur, amla and oil and so on,” she says, “This means only one thing: people have understood the importance of it and they have taken the learning home.”
Editor’s note: The article has been updated with factual clarifications.