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A woman ‘sarpanch’ finds her place in the sun

A woman ‘sarpanch’ finds her place in the sun
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First Published: Sun, Mar 14 2010. 11 35 PM IST

At home: Sunita Devi, sarpanch of Garhi Hakeeqat in Haryana, holds a meeting at her residence. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
At home: Sunita Devi, sarpanch of Garhi Hakeeqat in Haryana, holds a meeting at her residence. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Updated: Sun, Mar 14 2010. 11 35 PM IST
Garhi Hakeeqat, Haryana: What pleases Sunita Devi most about her position in Garhi Hakeeqat is not the Women’s Reservation Bill promising mandatory reservation for women in the electoral process that will promote many like her, but the proud remembrance of the day she climbed up the village chaupal.
At home: Sunita Devi, sarpanch of Garhi Hakeeqat in Haryana, holds a meeting at her residence. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Until three years ago, the rules were stiff. The chaupal, a raised, circular platform-like structure for public meetings was, for all practical purposes, considered a preserve of men; and every woman, even when passing by, had to cover her head.
It was important for 42-year- old Sunita Devi to break the rule. Since April 2005, she has been the sarpanch (gram panchayat head) of Garhi Hakeeqat, one of the 321 gram panchayats in Sonipat district and a total of 6,155 in Haryana, out of which nearly half are governed by women.
In her second year as sarpanch, in 2007, Sunita Devi chanced upon a rare moment of awakening under the fierce afternoon sun. All the men in the village had gathered around the chaupal to hear a woman activist from neighbouring Harmana Majra. “Men were garlanding and welcoming her. When women of the village went to do the same, they stopped us,” she says.
The men’s opposition to women invading the chaupal prompted a rage in her. “Just as she was a woman, we are women, too. I asked myself why I was never accorded the same respect, despite being a sarpanch,” she recalls at her tin-roofed house in the village, seated on a plastic chair next to a makeshift toilet.
After that day, she never had to struggle with the question. She hailed all the women, previously denied entry, and led them to the chaupal with their veils in place. “We had voted for her and she was doing the right thing in leading us,” says Neelam Devi, a housewife from the Dalit community who voted for her and now helps her in spreading awareness on sex determination tests, a particularly serious problem in Haryana, where female foeticide is common.
“If women sarpanchs conduct meetings, undertake development initiatives and lead by example, this will bear out promises of every affirmative action policy of the government in favour of women, including the mandatory reservation for women in panchatati raj institutions (PRIs) and the Women’s Reservation Bill,” says Amita Singh, chairperson of the Centre for Policy and Governance at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
The Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill 2008—popularly known as the Women’s Reservation Bill—was passed by the Rajya Sabha on 9 March and has now reached the Lok Sabha. Once passed, the proposed legislation will reserve 33% of the seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislatures for women.
The 73rd amendment to the Indian Constitution, brought in 1992, changed the way public goods are delivered in India. Through PRIs, of which the smallest unit is the gram panchayat, local councils directly elected by people now approve their plans and budgets for welfare decisions. To protect the interests of women, the landmark amendment also mandated that a certain percentage of seats in PRIs be reserved for them.
Handling power
In most states, including Haryana, which has the worst male-female ratio (861 women per 1,000 men) for all ages in India as per census 2001, being a sarpanch is a huge leap for a woman. Yet, women struggled to come to terms with such power in a male-dominated society. It was thus natural that since the day Sunita Devi became sarpanch of the village panchayat in April 2005, she hadn’t ventured out a day without her veil, almost always remained quiet in the panchayat meetings while husband Balbir Singh transacted business, and worried more about her family’s lunch hours than the kutcha roads in the village for the first two years.
With no prior political experience and little interest in contesting the polls, Sunita Devi’s initiation in politics came by sheer chance. Garhi Hakeeqat was earmarked as a reserved seat for women in 2005 by the Haryana government and her husband, an Ayurveda practitioner and farmer, after having lost twice in panchayat polls in the past, saw it as a great opportunity to grab the seat.
This was a common occurrence. Analysts agree that rural panchayats reserved for women end up being indirectly governed by men, mostly the kith and kin of the sarpanch.
“Primarily, such political roles have been considered male-dominated activity,” says Rita Sarin, executive director of The Hunger Project, a non-governmental organization (NGO) working among PRIs in several states including Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
“Yet, more younger and educated women are contesting panchayat elections now. This year, as we go into third panchayat elections in states, the situation has completely changed with women participating and leading more than ever before,” Sarin added.
The world over, statistics on political participation remain skewed in favour of men. While almost every nation entitles women to equal rights and participation in politics, a Unicef report in 2007 showed that women accounted for only 17% of parliamentarians worldwide until July 2006, and a woman headed the government in only seven countries. A review of the key metrics in the Lok Sabha since 1952, based on a compilation by PRS Legislative Research, a not-for-profit, non-partisan research initiative based in New Delhi, shows that out of the 543 members in the 14th Lok Sabha, only 8.7% were women, down from 9.2% in the 13th Lok Sabha.
Making a difference
Academic research into the way political participation by women in local institutions such as panchayats show that there are subtle and important changes in the way local communities are governed.
One 2008 research paper authored by Esther Duflo, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and R. Chattopadhyay of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, on “The Impact of Reservation in the Panchayati Raj: Evidence from a Nationwide Randomized Experiment” points out that panchayats governed by women are more likely to attract participation from other women and also tend to favour supply of public goods needed by local women.
“The idea that women-headed panchayats are indirectly governed by men is largely a misconception. Both in West Bengal and in Rajasthan, what we find is that women sarpanchs do very different things than men. They invest more in the goods that women really care about, in particular drinking water,” wrote Duflo in an email response to Mint. Garhi Hakeeqat is one of the few gram panchayats in the district which have fared well in development initiatives, say officials and local NGOs working in the area. “It was possible because the sarpanch was very proactive.
Especially in education, she took immediate measures to arrest the dropout of girls in schools,” says Ved Prakash, president of the Suprabhat Seva Samiti, a local NGO, which works among gram panchayats in Sonipat.
Tackling dropouts
Kiran Rani, a 13-year-old class V student from the Dalit community, kept dropping out of school every alternate year until two years ago. “The problem was very severe earlier, but the sarpanch tried to help us in every way. She supervised teachers’ attendance, connected with and convinced women that education for girls was of utmost importance,” says Rajbir Singh, headmaster at the school, pointing to the records register which bears the enrolment figures: 38 boys, 42 girls in classes I to V.
When she became a sarpanch five years ago, there was little indication that Sunita Devi might take on an inspirational role. The minutes for the gram panchayat meetings show how she has been able to influence change.
Entries between 4 April 2008 and February 2010 show an exhaustive body of work in the village, especially in education and infrastructural work in Dalit neighbourhoods: “Paint on school walls, boundary wall for the school, construction of rooms at the school, cementing of roads in the Harijan colony, installation of tubewells, water tanks and taps in Harijan households, street lights, cleaning of pond, labourers’ wages and a small grant for purchase of cricket bats and ball for children in the village.”
Vicky, who uses her first name, came to stay in Garhi Hakeeqat after her marriage seven years ago. In her village Govani, about an hour’s journey away, water taps work once in three days. Here, in the Dalit neighbourhood where she lives and runs a small utility store, every house got a water tap and a water tank installed two years ago.
“My mother-in-law’s kidneys are damaged. She needs to be washed every day. If not for a tap, I don’t know what would be done,” she says, pointing to an old woman on a jute cot, looking visibly ill and weak with constant coughing.
Overcoming bias
But some decisions weren’t easy, Sunita Devi says. When she tabled a letter before the panchayat asking for consent to fine alcoholic men in the village, there was huge uproar and the proposal was never passed. “Even when I took rounds for monitoring of infrastructure development in the village, people made fun of me,” she recalls.
“People think that they would be less good leaders… Women do suffer from this prejudice, and this is why they do not run and are not elected without reservation,” says Duflo. “Reservations have helped overcome this bias.” A study commissioned by the ministry of panchayati raj in 2008 shows that 15% of female elected representatives stood for re-election. The study also showed that reservation was the biggest reason for women (37.3%) to stand for election.
A month away from the panchayat elections in the state, Sunita Devi is preparing to don the role again. On average, Sunita Devi conducts three-four meetings in a month, far more than the compulsory requirement of a meeting every three months.
Every week, when the panchayat is convened, Sunita Devi is accompanied by Balbir Singh, who now helps her only when men of the village try and hoot her down. Singh also helps four other women members of the panchayat read records, discuss problems and interact withthe local block development office to push proposals for construction, streetlights and hand pumps among other things. In return, he jokes: “She makes sure that the fire in my kitchen keeps burning.”
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First Published: Sun, Mar 14 2010. 11 35 PM IST