Women leadership in panchayats

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MUCH has been said about women representatives in panchayats. A common picture is that of women representatives functioning as proxy candidates under the close observation and supervision of their ‘guardians’. The use of phrases such as ‘pati pradhans’ is common place. At the same time there are many women representatives and pradhans who have taken bold initiatives. They have not only set an example for male dominated society but also demonstrate that changes are taking place, albeit slowly.

Jagrani Devi belongs to a SC family. At present she is gram pradhan of Hamirpur gram panchayat in Kasmanda development block of Sitapur district in U.P. She was elected as gram pradhan for the first time in the year 2000, and has subsequently taken several initiatives for development in the panchayat. This interview with Jagrani Devi was conducted by team members of the Sahbhagi Shikshan Kendra (SSK) – a state level NGO working to strengthen panchayati raj in U.P.


How did you think of contesting panchayat elections?

For the last 20 years the post of gram pradhan was with a particular family of my caste. During its tenure the benefits of rural development programmes were primarily appropriated by some, the near and dear ones of the then gram pradhan. Most of the houses distributed under Indira Awas Yojana belong to the members of this family. Development projects were not undertaken. The village lacked in basic amenities, such as availability of drinking water.

In the year 2000 the post of gram pradhan was reserved for a woman belonging to a SC family. It was then that I thought of contesting elections. For me it was an opportunity to do some development work in the village. My family members were not happy with my decision and opposed this move. For them, being a woman, I was not capable of resolving conflicts in the village.


Who helped you in contesting the election?

When my family members saw that I was firm in my decision they cooperated. They took care of all my necessities during the election. My friends were also very supportive and came forward to help me during canvassing. They were with me day and night during the election.


What preparations did you make for contesting the election?

During canvassing, I went on a door-to-door contact. Some friends took up wall writing. Due to lack of financial resources, I could not use other methods of campaigning. On the other hand, other contestants distributed posters and pamphlets.


What difficulties did you face?

There were numerous difficulties I had to face. The family members of the previous pradhan made an all out effort to stop me from contesting. Just a week before the election, some other contestants framed a false case against my husband for illegal possession of ganja (type of narcotic), and he was imprisoned. I had to run from pillar to post to resolve the matter. Besides being a psychological shock, this incident had severe financial implications. I had to take a loan from my relatives and friends to bail him out.


What expectations did people have from you?

My fellow villagers wanted a pradhan who would work for them, for the well-being of all and not for a particular group of people in the village. During canvassing, I met people from every class and caste. During the voter awareness campaign (launched by SSK), I had made it explicit that if elected I would work for everybody and not for a particular group of people. That’s why people belonging to all castes and classes supported me. People also felt that since I don’t have any children, I would work honestly and be able to devote time to the work.


What did you feel after winning the election?

Of course, I was very happy. People were also happy that I had won by the highest margin of votes in the whole block. But at the same time I also felt a sense of responsibility. Interaction with government officials at the block level was a different kind of experience. Instead of calling me by my name, people now started addressing me as ‘pradhanji’. It was as if my entire personality had changed.


What initiatives have you taken for the development of your panchayat after becoming pradhan?

As a pradhan, I have got 10 link roads constructed, 15 hand pumps bored and 25 nalis (drains) made in all hamlets of the panchayat. Some other construction work has also been initiated. I hope to complete it in the remaining years. I have also ensured fair and timely distribution of pension for widows and old people, and scholarships for students belonging to scheduled castes. I am trying to get a female teacher appointed in our panchayat. A male school teacher has already been appointed. An extra classroom has been constructed in the village school. Efforts are underway to get a tubewell because there is no irrigation facility in our panchayat. Jointly, we have made an effort to stop unwanted entry of police officials in the panchayat. This used to be a regular activity earlier. Besides, I work as per the requirements of the people. If need be, I meet with government officials at the district and block levels.


What kind of support do you receive from the people?

I have the full support of the village on issues of common concern. Some hamlets in my panchayat, for example, do not have electricity. Everybody in these hamlets signed an application form and many accompanied me to the district office. Similarly, for placing a demand for a tubewell and a schoolteacher, I got full support from the people, as also for construction work that has been taken up in the village. In some instances, there have been difficulties due to personal conflicts, but they have been resolved through consultation.


What kind of opposition do you face while performing your role as pradhan?

I face opposition from some quarters in the panchayat. The maximum opposition comes from the previous pradhan. He is constantly busy in efforts to defame and undermine me. Hence, unnecessary problems are created in developmental efforts. For example, the earlier pradhan had encroached upon the link road. I had the construction work of the link road started but he had it stopped mid-way. I discussed this with the people in the village but peer group pressure failed to resolve the problem. Finally, I approached the district magistrate. He ordered the block development office to survey the area and take necessary action. After the survey, my complaint was found valid, the block development officer ordered removal of the encroachment, and the construction work resumed. My opponents believe that because of their money and muscle power, they will be able to corner all the work done at the local level.


What specific problems do you face, which you think you would not have had you been a male pradhan?

Certain problems are always there. Some threaten you with your life whereas others want you to behave like a woman. But I do not give importance to these things. Everybody has to die one day, so why succumb to threats. I believe that the work a woman can accomplish, men cannot. I also take full advantage of being a woman. I do not hesitate to meet with police officials, or officials at the district and block level. If I was male, it may not have been as easy for me to meet government officials and say all that I am able to. Or the policemen may not have listened to me at all. The usual image among the people, that I am a woman and hence weak, is gradually changing. Now even the men come to me with their complaints, such as about exploitation by the police.


You are also a dalit. Is there any unusual pressure because of this?

No! Rather, I get support from every section of the society in the village. People from all castes are with me.


What kind of a relationship do you have with officials at the block level?

The relationships with block level officials are very good. They help me in my work. The block development officer is always willing to help me. He often comes to the village to discuss problems and issues with the people.


If you are unable to solve the problem at the block level what do you do?

If problems remain unsolved at the block level then I go and meet the chief development officer at the district level. If the problem persists then I go and meet the district magistrate. At times, I have even gone to Lucknow and met officials at the state level.


What kind of cooperation do you get from your panchayat secretary?

The gram panchayat development officer (panchayat secretary) is always busy thinking about his personal benefit. Despite being salaried, he constantly has an eye on the development fund that comes to the panchayat. But I have never allowed any financial bungling in my panchayat. As a result, during my tenure, three gram panchayat development officers sought transfers. Financial withdrawals always take place under my supervision.


Does the gram panchayat secretary follow your instructions?

He has to do what I say. If he does not then there is no place for him in my panchayat. He has to come everyday to office, look after the development work underway and help me in other official work.


Do you think that requisite power has been given to the panchayats?

No. The gram pradhan till date works according to the administrative orders of the government. The pradhan is not free to take up any development work in the panchayat on his own. His financial powers are also minimal. Bank accounts are to be operated jointly by the gram pradhan and secretary of the panchayat, which at times creates problems. The money-making attitude of the secretaries is harmful for panchayats.


What role do they have in the decision-making process?

It is basically discussing issues on which decisions have to be taken. Most members participate positively in discussions and decision-making process. There are 13 members in my panchayat. Barring one or two, all the others participate in the meetings. I have made it clear to my fellow members that they too have an equal responsibility for seeing that development takes place in the panchayat. It is not my sole responsibility. I have asked them to place the problems of their wards in monthly meetings of the panchayat. The ward to be taken up first is decided at the meetings. Based on the availability of financial resources and the importance of the problems, development work is undertaken in all the wards of the panchayat. The responsibility of the work taken up in a particular ward is that of the ward member.


What is the main problem in your panchayat?

Unemployment. If a factory were to be set up nearby it would give us some respite from this problem. Second, some of the villages in my panchayat do not have electricity connections. We have given an application to the district magistrate signed by members of the gram sabha. The other problem is that of irrigation. We are making efforts to resolve this at the district level.


Do you think that the development work done till date is sufficient?

No. All panchayats should have basic amenities such as proper drainage systems, availability of drinking water, availability of link roads and housing for all. We have made some efforts in this direction, but much more still needs to be done.


What problems do women face in your panchayat?

The main problem is of daily bread and butter. The opening of a liquor shop in the village has also hurt their sentiments. Some of the miscreants in the village, after consuming alcohol, misbehave with women.


What specific effort have you made for the welfare of women in your area?

Women are the main source of my power and inspiration. Before becoming pradhan, when I had contested for a seat in the state assembly as an independent candidate, it was the women in the area who supported me and I got 12,000 votes. I have tried to organise women so that they are able to face all the difficulties and problems jointly and boldly. I have made attempts to motivate and encourage them, to come out of the four walls of their homes and take initiatives. They should develop self-confidence. I have always made a special effort to involve women in all development projects.