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THIRD WORLD RESURGENCE

Women panchayat leaders: Breaking stereotypes, bringing hope

A two-day workshop organised to consider the experience of recently elected women representatives to village local councils (panchayats) in the Indian state of Rajasthan heard some stirring accounts of the dynamic role they are playing to bring about social change in their constituencies. Bharat Dogra and Reena Mehta report.

WHO said that elected women representatives at the grassroots level in India are merely meek followers of dominant male family members? This frequently presented image of women panchayat1 representatives was sharply challenged by women panchayat leaders at a workshop held recently in Tilonia village in India's Rajasthan state.

The two-day workshop was organised jointly by Barefoot College and the Association of Local Governance of India (ALGI). The participants at this workshop were mainly those women panchayat representatives who have taken some important initiatives in their respective panchayats. The main purpose of the workshop was to learn from their experiences.

In Rajasthan, panchayat elections were held only last year and many present in the workshop were elected for the first time and have completed only one year in office. But their performance so far gives hope for the future.

According to Ram Kanwar, a ward panch2 of Kardha panchayat in Ajmer district of Rajasthan, 'during the time of election a rich and powerful contestant offered me 5,000 rupees to withdraw my name from the contestants list, which I refused. All the women in the ward voted for me and made me the winner. I feel obliged towards these women and I'm working for their welfare. After becoming panch, the first thing I did was to provide widow's pension to four women in the ward which was long pending. Also during the monsoon season my village faced the problem of floods as one of the influential families in the village had encroached upon the area of the natural flow of rain water. Nobody in the village was ready to remove the encroachment as they were afraid of the influential family. I single-handedly went inside the waist-deep water and, with the help of a spade, cleared the water path.'

Somewhat similar sentiments were shared by the sarpanch3 of the Harmara panchayat of Ajmer district, Naurati Devi. According to her, when she started a drive against encroachment after taking office, she faced threats from vested interests but these threats didn't deter her. She narrated another incident in which she took action against a mate of MGNREGS.4 She exposed his corrupt practices and this exposure finally led to a jail sentence for this corrupt mate. According to her, this has sent the right message to all mates that they are not above the law. She faced problems because of this as several vested interests ganged up against her family and branded her daughter-in-law a witch. Not to be cowed, Naurati initiated legal action against her tormentors and some of them are now in jail.

Maina Devi, sarpanch of Tikawara panchayat, said that when she became sarpanch, the secretary of the panchayat didn't provide any records to her for almost two months and used to come into the office drunk. She put her foot down and told the senior officials that she would not come to the office until the secretary was changed. Her protest showed results and a new secretary was provided to the panchayat.

Voicing similar concerns was ward panch of Dhindwara panchayat, Pusi Devi. According to her, the sarpanch of her panchayat was involved in corrupt practices and, fearing protests from the ward panches, did not call for meetings with them. 'When we threatened him, he agreed to mend his ways and now we have started regular meetings of the panchayat'. According to her, after becoming ward panch, she took the initiative of regularly organising ward sabha (assembly) and has selected a five-member committee of voters of the ward to monitor the work done in the ward.

She commented very aptly, '200-250 houses in the ward have controlling power over the panch, and several panches have controlling power over the sarpanch. Neither panch nor sarpanch can work against their wishes.'

Committed to the trust of the villagers is the sarpanch of Vijaypura panchayat in Rajsamand district, Rukmani Devi Salvi. Before Rukmani, her husband Kalu Salvi was the sarpanch of the panchayat and during his tenure Vijaypura became a model panchayat of transparent practices. It was the first panchayat to have a transparency board and open all the information of the panchayat to all. Both husband and wife are widely discussed examples of honesty and transparency. Although they are dalits, both became sarpanch on the general seat because of the broad-based support for them. During election time last year some of the contestants spent hundreds of thousands of rupees on campaigning whereas Rukmani spent only 2,200 rupees and won. According to her, mostly women voted for her as they had seen the honest work done by her husband in the previous tenure and were sure that Rukmani would do the same. Rukmani has not disappointed those who put their faith in her. Recently she also won the Women's Political Empowerment Day Award.

Kamla Bai is sarpanch of Tilonia panchayat of Kishengarh block of Ajmer district. Her achievement is that she dethroned the 55-year rule of one family in the panchayat. She is illiterate but has full confidence in herself and her abilities. Although she continually faces problems from those she dethroned, she is undeterred by it and wants to show to all that a woman can do a lot if given the opportunity.

Listening to their inspiring stories, one can say that it is not only these grassroots women representatives who are marching towards a brighter future but, as a result of their contributions, so is the society at large.

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist and currently a Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. Reena Mehta is a freelance journalist.

Endnotes

1.    The panchayat is an elected village council in India.

2.    An elected member from a smaller settlement within a panchayat.

3.    The elected head person of a panchayat.

4.    A village-level official who supervises the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

*Third World Resurgence No. 250, June 2011, pp 46-47


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