As one chats without a qualm, the others’ gaze seeks approval at every assertion. Both leaders, the firebrand and the demure, the seasoned and the young, have had the grit to fight all odds as a grass root leader to mark achievements that will always keep them at the top in the minds of their fellow citizens. Let us introduce Asha Devi and Sushma Bhadu, residents of village Phagi in Rajasthan and village Miya Khadani in Haryana, respectively, the chalk and cheese that work towards the betterment of their villages in different yet similar ways.
Miya Khadani, Salam Kheda and Chabla Mori villages in Fatehbad, Haryana comprise of 400 odd families belonging primarily to the Bishnoi community, with most living below the poverty line. When Sushma stepped into the village of Miya Khadani, where she presently resides, in all her bridal finery to find that she had to walk several miles to get a mere glassful of water, she protested. Fetching water for cooking, water for washing, water for drinking—all from different sources, was so tedious that two of her newly made friends ‘ran away’ to make a home elsewhere. It was then that Sushma began talking to women in her village about the need to make a change. Today Sushma has installed a boring with a booster pump that distributes piped water to every single habitation in her village as well as the other two under her jurisdiction. But, this is not the single most significant contribution of this affable lady. Breaking social taboos in khapland is beyond bravery; it falls in level of commando. Baying for the discarding of the veil amongst her fellow kin brought accolades and flak at the same time. Village elders even today deride her for not covering her face whist conversing with senior men. But the young believe in her and have followed unflinchingly, adding that “how can we speak with someone eye to eye, if we cannot see his eyes?”
The veil is symbolic of woman subjugation, where a married woman is made to cover her head and face with a garment to prevent her from meeting the eyes of any village elder or stranger. It rises from a sense of alienating the woman from her rights of assertion and freedom but is endorsed by the community as a mark of respect.
The need to ‘unveil’ rose in Sushma when, as a sarpanch, she found the veil debilitating in her interaction with government officials. She found herself cocooned in her veil as people spoke to her asking her to see this, read that or sign there. It was then that she consulted her family and involved them in her decision. With her family on her side, she walked out confidently to engage all the other panchayat members in her decision. On 22nd July, 2012, after two years of being the sarpanch, Sushma unveiled her face in a Mahapanchayat, attended by senior residents of nearly 35 villages. Every scheme, both governmental and self-driven, that she undertook thereafter struck gold. The villagers claim zero female foeticide, with families with only daughters opting for sterilization (and not waiting for a son), and every BPL girl child reportedly receiving assistance with annual education grant of Rs 5000 from the sarpanch’s office.
Asha, the daughter of a school teacher, has seen it all. She has the training and the making of a leader. But, household duties in her early days prevented her from taking on the mantle of a sarpanch, and more. As her children grew up and settled, the seasoned lady began her stint in 2000 as the ‘neta’, with—as she claims—the active support of her husband, and went on to be an elected member of the zila parishad from 2003 to 2012. The villages of Madhorajpura, Gopalpura and Phagi, which are her areas of influence, have a population of 25,000. Asha’s dream project is not just education of the girl child, but seeing them in an income generating profession. The Kasturba School was established by a zila parishad resolution, which was initiated by her. She has seen to it that it functions impeccably. With hundred percent seats filled up, this residential all-girls school has students who have achieved laurels in varied fields.
In an area where orphaned girls and those coming from poor families are prone to exploitation, abandonment, abuse and ostracism, such an initiative could go a long way in ensuring a safe childhood and a bright future for girls. Asha’s unrelenting work towards ensuring the smooth functioning of the Kasturba residential school goes to show how she managed to keep her dreams alive despite minimal funding coupled with public disinterest.
Survey Findings: Identifying the Gaps
Despite the upside, there were several downsides that our survey revealed. Being the first women elected under the reserved seat mandated by the government, Sushma is the only woman to wield power over the three villages. Asha climbed a step further to reach the top rungs of the panchayati raj institution (PRI). Yet, both are finding it an uphill task to align women at the grass root in a way that their voices may be heard. Asha is aware of the mahila sabha, while Sushma drew a total blank as Haryana does not yet have any statutory provision mandating it; both having been unable to organise any women group meetings. The closest anyone has got to it, is by putting together a ‘satsang’, a prayer meeting, that is primarily attended by a certain caste and community. This essentially negates the cause of decentralised governance.
Issues of violence against women, alcoholism and drug abuse amongst men, and setting up of liquor shops in the vicinity were often cited by the women of the respective villages during the survey. Both the leaders talked about cases where they have personally intervened. Yet, hardly any voice has been raised publicly to condemn or curb this activity. There are in fact legalised liquor shops in Phagi, while Miya Khadani has a liquor shop in the neighbouring village which is visited by the menfolk on a daily basis. The women in both these areas are neither able to voice their concern about domestic violence nor about alcoholism in the gram sabha, which is held at least twice a year, as it is difficult for them to speak before the men. In addition, public disclosure of domestic violence is frowned upon by rural society—as it is understood to be part of the man’s exclusive jurisdiction. Asha and Sushma both find it difficult to remedy this.
Asha’s school-for-the-girl-child dream and Sushma’s young children not missing a day of school are examples of how important education is in their lives. They both work closely with educational institutions – one being the co-ed school in Miya Khadani and the other being the Kasturba all girls residential school. They both show a marked improvement in enrolment and lowering in drop-out rates in case of female students. Plans are afoot to upgrade the schools to the next level – from 8th to 10th.
The anganwadi is off bounds as selection of its personnel is under the direct control of the state. The anganwadi workers, primarily women who are paid a small honorarium, were found to be recruited for more than 10 years in both the villages. As the anganwadi workers are well-informed and forthright, they could be nurtured as future leaders. Kamla, the anganwadi worker of Miya Khadani has observed a decline in the age of children as far as sexual maturity is concerned. She feels that both boys and girls should be included in adolescent health and hygiene programmes, but the anganwadi centre caters to only girls and women—the boys do not get any formal sex education. Champa of village Madhorajpura claims that they are hardly able to run any programmes due to paucity of funding. The poor state of their dark and dank anganwadi building requires urgent renovations. However, one aspect that emerged with a clear focus was that the onus of family planning was understood to be in the women’s domain—with tubectomies being undertaken in all cases. No men ever came forward in both these villages for sterilisation drives.
Apart from the leaders, respondents in the village cite lack of employment opportunities as their biggest grouse. Asha introduced us to several self-help group beneficiaries. Mangi Devi, of Bhankrota, has been instrumental in setting up SHGs since 1997. She has conducted activities to encourage women to send the girl children to school and regularised immunisation; her latest achievement is a milk collection booth. Her motto is “gaon ka paisa gaon mein (the village’s money should remain in the village)”, thereby building a self sustainable model for replication. Anjana Kumavat, of Madhorajpura, was empowered by the SHGs being run with the help of the Centre for Community Economics and Development Consultant Society, an NGO. The presence of an NGO in Asha’s village for over two decades has made a sizeable difference in setting up SHGs, 52 in Phagi block alone, with a turnover of 1.25 lakh per annum. Each SHG comprises of 10-15 women with activities that range from developmental work to dairy. There are however, no SHGs in Miya Khadani—and the funds of the three that were established were reportedly embezzled by the previous regime.
Asha and Sushma, the eloquent speaker and the quiet listener, belong to a socio-economic echelon that is vastly similar. The problems thus are also comparable. But the routes are different. Sushma finds it easy to take the yoke off through the social route, Asha finds education and agriculture a more acceptable path. The survey however revealed identifiable gaps—a need to enforce a mandate of mahila sabha, a need to get issues of domestic violence and alcoholism to the forefront, a need to put in place a girl child education cum placement option, a need to promote the SHG-NGO tie up on a long term basis and more. But above all there were two other issues that call for greater sensitivity and understanding—first being the role of the husband and the other the role of political parties.
Feminism based on the premise of equality among sexes has often been the basis of gender policies. At the grass root, where information is the key, women are often found lacking. Sushma barely visits the other two villages, and almost never finds time to take a round of her own village, reason being her household duties. Apart from being an innovative sarpanch, she is expected to be a good daughter-in-law, wife and mother. Unable to bear the triple burden she willingly ‘delegates’ her duties to her man, Bhagwandas. This willingness makes for a separate area of study. Both Sushma and Asha freely acknowledge the role of their husbands in shaping their destiny – and they are grateful for the ‘freedom’ that they have got. It is this perspective of the survey that points towards a separate framework or parameterization for women leaders. A national point/gradation system for a woman leader should be made mandatory to cultivate quality leaders. Criteria such as attendance in various meetings, understanding governmental schemes, having proactive ideas of governance, level of assistance from her husband, etc., may be included. Although the Indian government, along with UN agencies has many capacity building programmes for women, they rarely include the men in the discourse. Just as we seek to put women in pivotal roles, male support cannot be disregarded, and needs to be put in perspective, amalgamating rather that excluding.
The most robust section of our democratic process, the political system is perhaps the prime-most reason for a well-defined decentralized system at the grass root. Although the Indian constitution envisages apolitical lineage for the PRIs, they are invariably coloured; elections are fought along party lines. The fallout of this is that PRIs are unable to churn out an independent agenda arising from the felt needs of the villages. They conform to a top-down approach that ‘tells them’ rather than ‘asks them’ what to do. Sushma treats the people of her village as her own – everyone welcomes her as we take a round, and the connect is immediate. She feels that no leader can lead if she doesn’t feel from her heart, and social work cannot be a plea for power.