Bundelkhand: Women make their presence felt in gram panchayats, and lead the change
What changes when women cross the fault lines and take charge in local governing bodies? Many believe that women leading a panchayat can put the focus back on issues such as water and girls’ education.
Aishwarya Tripathi 29 May 2023 2:17 PM GMT
Mamna village (Mahoba), Uttar Pradesh
Thirty years ago, in 1992, India enacted the 73rd and 74th Amendments to its Constitution, reserving a third of seats for women in rural and urban local bodies to ensure greater representation for women in general and other excluded groups in particular, such as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. In many states, 50 per cent of the seats are now reserved for women.
But what changes when women cross the fault lines and take charge in local governing bodies?
“Women leading a panchayat can really turn around the situation of a village,” said Chandra Shekhar Pran, Founder, Teesri Sarkar, is a public campaign for the institutional development of panchayats.
“Women in panchayat add a humaneness to a governing body and stay more focused on social and human development issues rather than material transformations,” he added.
Pankunwar is a living example of it. She was an elected panch of Mamna village panchayat in Kabrai block, Mahoba district, Uttar Pradesh, for two consecutive terms from 2011 to 2021.
The 37-year-old panchayat member has been constantly encouraging other women panchayat members to raise issues at the panchayat meetings around access to water and girls’ education.
“Barsaat me pair itne-itne khap jate the pani bharne me (During the rains, we had to walk in calf-deep mud to fetch water),” Pankunwar told Gaon Connection. She consistently raised the issue in panchayat meetings and now the village has an unkempt but pucca road.
“I used to tell other members that unless they raised issues around water and education, how would they get solved,” she said.
Pankunwar has also been advocating for a pani ki tanki in Mamna village, to harvest rainwater. Water is often considered a woman’s business hence when women find representation in the panchayat, they raise questions around access to water and push others to find a solution.
Mamna village lies in Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, which is notorious for recurring droughts. Under the Jal Jeevan Mission of the central government, the village has got water pipelines laid but no taps installed.
The women have plugged the water pipelines with a plastic bottle and a polythene bag. “We know how important this water is, and it’s difficult to watch it getting wasted,” said 35-year-old Ram Devi.
Pran of Teesri Sarkar reiterated how panchayats with women leaders were more empathetic, inclusive and ensured larger participation of women from poor socio-economic sections.
“They also have great financial discipline and know which issues to prioritise in case of a budget constraint,” he told Gaon Connection.
Women and water
Pankunwar’s legacy of raising issues related to women and children is being carried forward by Pooja — one of the three elected women in the current gram sabha, out of 12 members.
Pooja is constantly worrying about the school-related issues in Mamna. Her three children study in the same school, where all the taps were jammed.
Thanks to her relentless efforts, the pradhan was forced to replace the jammed taps in school.
“No man talks about the water issue in gram sabha meetings. They talk about nali (drain), kharanja (brick-covered roads). Why would they? After all, it is only the women who have to deal with water-shortages, and only a woman can understand the pain of not having water,” Pooja told Gaon Connection.
Ganga Ram Tiwari, a male panchayat member, dismissed the problem of water access in Mamna, as an “occasional problem.”
“I am an elected panch, and if I were to become a pradhan I would solve the problem of chutta pashu (stray cattle) and arrange for land for gaushalas,” he told Gaon Connection.
Education for the girls
“The first thing I would do (if elected as a panchayat member) is root for a school till twelfth standard in my village. This is important for the girls of Mamna,” Ram Devi told Gaon Connection. Her daughter, Geeta Devi, had to sit home for a year after she passed out of class VIII from the government school in Mamna. Her father was reluctant to send her out of the village to study further.
“Geeta cried and cried for days,” Ram Devi recalled. Finally, Pankunwar’s daughter Ruby Verma, convinced Geeta’s family to send her to Mahoba city — 10 kilometres from Mamna — to complete her school education.
Ruby is lean, energetic and informed — well suited to be appointed a panchayat sahayika, in January last year. The panchayat sahayika aids the gram pradhan in implementing the panchayat development plan.
Ruby knew the importance of education for someone like Geeta who belongs to Dalit community and her push has ended up in Geeta joining Veerangna Avanti Bai College in Chhatarpur.
“The first thing I did was to paint important telephone numbers on the panchayat wall office. This makes things easier for everyone,” 24-year-old Ruby explained to Gaon Connection. She is a link between the women of Mamna and the panchayat, as women usually are hesitant to reach out to the male pradhan, Kishori Ahirwar.
Pankunwar is proud that her daughter is part of the third-tier of government crucial for rural development. After all, it isn’t easy for women like her to get a step in the door.
Not an easy journey for elected women
When Pankunwar was elected as a panchayat member, she was treated as a rubber stamp, and not called to any of the gram sabha meetings. “The pradhan would send over someone to get my signature on a register,” she told Gaon Connection.
Initially Pankunwar wasn’t aware what she was signing for, so one day she demanded to know what she was signing.
“I was told it was a confirmation that I was present at the panchayat meetings and agreed to the work undertaken by my village panchayat,” said Pankunwar. She has not stopped asking questions since, Pankunwar laughed.
Nurturing the sisterhood
That is the reason women should be an active part of panchayats. “They act as information-providers for other women of the village. The men don’t inform women about anything,” said Pankunwar.
Forty-year-old Asha Rani can’t quite remember when she got married. She has mustered up enough courage to step into the panchayat office to demand access to water during gram sabha meetings.
“During the early days of our marriage, my husband thrashed me if I stepped out of home. But, things are different now. If he lays a finger on me, I will file a report at the police station,” Asha Rani told Gaon Connection.