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PUCL, June 2003

Women leadership in panchayats
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.

Also see, Ten years of local self-government


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.

 

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