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Putting Her Best Foot Forward

By Rinku Pegu

4 May, 2003

Soon after dates for the panchayat polls were announced in Uttaranchal, 48-year-old Maya Devi readied to contest for the post of pradhan in her gram panchayat of Chak Jogi. But she was not prepared for the treatment meted out by the villagers, once her candidature became public knowledge. Overnight, Maya Devi, a popular women's activist, became an outcast in her community for daring to challenge the male incumbent, 70-year-old Khorg Bahadur Singh.

Says Maya Devi, "The men argued that if I did not withdraw, the third candidate belonging to a different community would be victorious." To break her resolve, some villagers began boycotting her and the family-owned shop.

But if it was merely an issue of community pride in an uneven contest why was no pressure exerted on the incumbent to step down? Particularly when Khorg Bhadaur Singh has been the pradhan for over 20 years. The bogey of community in peril was falsely raised to keep the constituency within the preserve of male candidates. Maya Devi took a defiant stand against patriarchal standards and fought the elections. But not before undergoing huge psychological turmoil.

Maya is not alone. Undeterred by the chauvinist male attitudes that seek to confine women only to the reserved seats, women in the villages of this hill state are waging their own political battle of assertion and articulation of their identities.

Seven years after first going to ballot, armed with 33 per cent reservation, the women have strategised on effectively increasing their political participation by taking the fight right into the men's domain. Not content with the 2,496 seats earmarked for them, over 350 women in 12 districts (barring Haridwar) have contested in general constituencies in the recently concluded Panchayati elections.The significance of holding local elections for the first time in a nascent State is not lost on the women. In village after village, enthusiastic women voters aged between 18 and 80 gathered in droves to learn and understand how to exercise their votes correctly. Several NGOs working in these areas were roped in by the Central Government to educate women voters on how to retain the validity of their votes.

Motivated women are not letting even long-held traditions come in their way. Take the case of Natho Begum, the incumbent pradhan of Enfield Grant gram panchayat. Though she will be in confinement for six months as she was widowed recently, Natho Begum has not shied away from contesting the elections. Family members and friends are campaigning for her.

The women were effectively using the campaign trail to unfurl their agenda. In block after block one could hear the women canvassing on issues that affect their daily lives like safe drinking water, schools, health centres, roads. Indeed, among the pressing problems faced by villagers in Uttaranchal are access to water and timely medical aid due to the hilly terrain. Women are the worst sufferers given their anaemic condition and the complications that arise during pregnancy.

But some women have taken the agenda much further by displaying a mature understanding of the context in which the political economy functions. Meena Kumari from Kuwawala in Doiwala Block, who has contested for pradhan post, asserted that her top priority, if elected, would be to redistribute land to the poor and the landless. Asked how she would go about it, Meena Kumari promptly replied, "by retrieving the panchayat lands which the factory owners have appropriated on the outskirts of our village". In the last two years, poverty has increased dramatically in Kuwawala as two factories that employed over 80 per cent of the villagers were shut down on environmental grounds. There is also a growing realisation among the women that local elections are a means to bring positive change in their lives. Otherwise how can one explain the phenomenon of a group of 70 women self-help groups (SHG) coming together in Jaunpur Block of Tehri district and putting up a joint candidate for the post of Zilla Parishad member? Many women's organisations, not backed by any political party, have taken on the challenges of even a district level Panchayati election. In a professional manner they have set up election committees to take care of activities, right from collecting funds to planning the campaign details and actual canvassing. While their enthusiasm is unmistakable, their journey has been far from smooth. There have been reports from a few districts about the various attempts to sabotage the candidature of women candidates by withdrawing their nominations secretly. In the instances where women candidates enjoyed a strong showing, the husbands were offered various posts as a bribe to get their wives withdraw their nomination. Indeed, entrenched male attitudes have not taken kindly to the increasing vocal assertions by the women of their political rights. It has been reported from Attakfram gram sabha how women supporters of Pushpa Rana who has stood for pradhan, were threatened with ostracisation if they openly canvassed for her.

The experiences of women members reveal their problems. To draw the pradhan's attention on an issue, the women members had to try doubly hard while their nominees for schemes like houses under the Indira Awas Yojna were often ignored. Many were told that their role was confined to signing on the dotted line as instructed by the male sarpanch. And if the sarpanch happened to be a woman, the male members would express their hostility at times by taking them to the courts. In Dehra Dun district alone, the courts rejected 10 out of 11 no-confidence motions passed against women pradhans.

However, conservative male attitudes were not confined to the village level. Often elected women members were treated shabbily by the block level officers. Shaila Rani Rawat of Agatysa Muni Block in Rudraprayag district recalls how she was never offered a chair at the Block office. Or how a junior engineer threatened to take away a particular road project from Tunwala village if, Mithilesh, a kshetra panchayat member, made an issue of the fact that local villagers were not being employed by the administration. Under the Panchayati Raj scheme, it is mandatory to employ local labourers for generating jobs.

If anything, the strong showing of the women aspirants in Uttaranchal have put paid to the criticism of the reservation policy, that it would be exploited only by the politically connected and vested interests.

The process of politically empowering women through reservations in the local elected bodies has helped in the wider mobilisation of women. On many occasions they have provided the leadership for collectively organising women to get their legitimate demands fulfilled, like electricity connection or implementation of widow pensions. The village women are able to make common cause from the midst of enforced social backwardness because of the helping hand lent by the various NGO's working with an engendered approach.

While in their first term, elected women members learnt to negotiate their new found positions in an inherently male dominated system, the task before them in the following term would be to confront adverse institutionalised practices, like corruption. And if the motivation and enthusiasm of the women in Uttaranchal are an indication, the promise of firm strides from small beginnings is visible indeed.