Rakhi Paliwal, 23, vice-president of Upli-Oden panchayat in Rajsamand district in Rajasthan, is the only elected woman panchayat member who rides a motorbike, gets up at 4am in the morning to counsel women against open defecation, attends law school during the day and updates her Facebook page regularly using her smartphone.
In March this year, I was travelling by road with three women on a journey called Red Rickshaw Revolution, whose purpose was to identify and celebrate ordinary women doing extraordinary work. We were meeting and interacting a woman every day and most that we had met were identified and located before we reached their place. Not Rakhi Paliwal. When we were passing through Kumbhalgarh in Rajasthan, a friend of mine from Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan called Paras Ram met me, asked me about the purpose of our travel and whether we had a plan to meet Paliwal. I did not know her and had no idea about her, but Ram insisted that even if we had to change our schedule, we must meet her, as “she would be the epitome of ordinary woman doing extraordinary work”.
At 9am at a pre-fixed place, Paliwal approached us on her Hero Honda motorbike. When she decided to contest in the village council elections, her entire family and village community boycotted her and denied permission to file her nomination. She insisted and had her way. “I have a very strong belief and conviction that through honest politics, one can serve the people,” Paliwal said.
For more than 50% of her village households, she has promised to provide toilets before the end of this year. She has even got a local corporate sponsor for building public toilets in her panchayat. “It is quite ironical that our women cover their face from all and go for open defecation,” she said. At around 8am Rakhi heads to Udaipur, 50km one way, on her motorbike to attend law classes. By 2pm she is back to visit all the schools and whatever other work that she can attend to. She is well versed with most of the 29 subjects of the panchayat.
She is also very active on Facebook. At last count, she had 259 friends on Facebook, and her latest update with picture and description was about the tree plantation initiative in the village. Always equipped with a dual SIM smartphone, she is always connected and checks mail, updates her status on the Facebook and also insists, “I would like to connect all our panchayats in Khamnore online and hope to bring website to each one of them.”
Paliwal must be the only one of her kind from the lists of those 1 million elected women representatives (EWRs) of panchayats across India. Yet, she conveys a strong message of the possibility of women leading from the front with digital intervention at the grassroots level through more than a million women representing about 37% of the total number of 2.8 million elected representatives of the panchayats. Considering that Panchayati Raj Institution (PRI) will soon have a constitutional amendment to increase the percentage of women to 50% from the current 33%, the total number of EWRs would go up to 1.4 million. It is interesting to note that the maximum number of elected women is from the scheduled castes and tribes, and more than 25% of them are illiterate and more than half of them have barely passed middle school. Yet, all the elected women carry mobile phones as a communication tool, which has not only given them empowerment but a personal tool that could potentially be utilized for hundreds of purposes including that of having governance responsibilities.
I would like to strongly suggest PRI at the centre and in each state to exclusively target the EWRs and have special capacity building sessions with them on how to use mobile phones. PRIs should also create a mobile community with all EWRs numbers to carry out the monitoring of all the work in progress in the panchayat villages. It is needless to mention that PRIs must make strategic plans to move to mobile governance through EWRs and perhaps women such as Paliwal can guide PRIs how to create an online community of EWRs and get a million hooked to the Internet.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and curator of the mBillionth Awards. He is member of the working group for Internet proliferation and governance, ministry of communication and information technology. Follow him on twitter @osamamanzar.