After being elected unanimously to the local council, ‘Padwoman’ Maya Vishwakarma and 11 novices aspire to bring development to the village through joint action.
Mehragaon, Madhya Pradesh: Rameti Bai could not believe her ears when her husband Shishupal came back from a meeting and told her she had been chosen for the position of panch (ward member) in Mehragaon gram panchayat. The 41-year-old had never ventured out of her house for a job or a social cause and could not contain her happiness. Like her, 10 others were overwhelmed by their selection to the post, done unanimously by the village elders to form an all-women local body.
Mehragaon panchayat, where the administration has formed 11 wards, always saw fierce arguments over the selection of candidates in the run-up to elections. Frustrated with this oft-repeated cycle of tension, the elders decided to give a chance to women to rule the panchayat this time, all unopposed. They chose Maya Vishwakarma, the most educated woman in the village, as the sarpanch (panchayat president), and gave her a free hand to pick ward members.
"There has never been an uncontested election here until this day," says Anand Rajput, a village youth.
"As soon as the elections are announced, an atmosphere of hostility builds up. This time, however, things are different. Not only did we empower women; we also ensured that the ones who passed muster had never contested an election before."
The three-tier local body polls are presently underway in Madhya Pradesh, with the first phase completed on June 25 and the next two scheduled for July 1 and July 8.
A call for change
Mehragaon comes under Saikheda block in Narsinghpur district. Agriculture is the mainstay of its economy. However, it's located nearly 100km from the administrative headquarters and is the last village that borders Hoshangabad district. This has proved to be a handicap, when it comes to pursuing projects for the development of the village. "A male-dominated elected panchayat has not brought us any special benefit. That's why we decided to constitute the entire panchayat unopposed. But we had the task ahead to select a suitable sarpanch and panches," recalls Surendra Kahar, a village elder.
Subsequently, a mass meeting was organised, where Jaihind Rajput, a young farmer and social worker, proposed the idea of a mahila samras panchayat. The elders unanimously welcomed it. "Then, after hours of brainstorming, we decided to elect Maya Vishwakarma as the sarpanch and encouraged her to pick a team of panches in such a way that all classes were represented," Kahar adds. Though six wards are reserved for women, they have not been utilised properly by the village women.
"In most cases, the husband of the elected woman decides things on her behalf. Through the mahila samras panchayat, we addressed this issue, as well," points out Jaihind Rajput.
Asked whether anyone had opposed the new model, Ramesh Rajput, a senior social worker, says, "Everyone agreed to the proposal. There was no dissent as the decision was made jointly at the village meeting."
A matter of pride, not prejudice
This is the first time in the history of Narsinghpur district that a mahila samras panchayat has been formed. The responsibility is huge, but the resources are scarce. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had announced an incentive of Rs 15 lakh to such 'pink panchayats', an amount that could come in handy for the new office-bearers.
"I'm sure our panchayat will create a separate identity for itself," Maya Vishwakarma tells 101Reporters. "From this small village, I went on to earn my PhD from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, and then became a scholar in California. I've been making persistent efforts to uplift tribal and rural women, in my position as the founder of the Sukarma Foundation. Taking note of all these achievements, the villagers have bestowed the sarpanch's role on me."
Incidentally, Vishwakarma is known as the ‘Padwoman’ of India for her relentless mission to eradicate myths surrounding menstruation among rural women and to provide them with sanitary products.
Stressing that she will do full justice to the duty entrusted upon her, she adds, "I will bring all problems to the notice of the district headquarters and the state without fail."
The road to development
Though Mehragaon has a paved road and provisions for adequate water and power supply, the main problems here are education and health facilities.
"The first priority should be to open a primary health centre. A high school is also required, besides measures to generate employment in the village. Small-scale industries should also be promoted here," says Anand Rajput, listing their basic needs.
Kirti Bai, a panch, says she's ready to take up such challenges.
"Till date, I have only taken care of my family. Now, the village elders have given me the opportunity to serve our panchayat. I was quite inspired when the village head opined that women only needed to be given a chance to prove themselves," she tells 101Reporters. "Neither the administrative officer came to the village to address our needs, nor did any MP or MLA help. Now that we have a chance, we'll work wholeheartedly to fulfil our responsibilities."
Kala Bai, another new panch, says she, along with her husband and daughter, was at the meeting where the decision to elect her was made.
"First, the elders listed our past experiences and the fights that ensued. After long-winding discussions, they agreed to form an all-female panchayat. My husband was the first person to agree when my name was discussed for the role of a panch. My joy knew no bounds!" the 30-year-old shares.
Indira Bai felt like all her suppressed dreams were coming true.
"At school, I was a class monitor. I always wanted to do something different, but got tangled up in household chores after marriage. In a typical village setup, the daughter-in-law does not get any opportunity to expand her world beyond the four walls of the house. But when my father-in-law and husband congratulated me to become a panch, I was truly happy," the 33-year-old says.
However, Rameti Bai had to face her mother-in-law's opposition initially, before other family members schooled her about the importance of the post she'd be holding.
"I was quite surprised when my mother-in-law quipped whether I'd take care of the children or work. But when the rest of the family explained things to her, she agreed," Rameti adds.
The other panches — Saraswati Bai (55), Uma Devi (37), Halki Bai, Shakun Bai (32), Mridulata (52), Ahilya Bai (62) and Pinky Bai — are also confident about taking on the responsibilities of their work, while maintaining the trust of villagers. They intend to get the gram sabha's consent before taking their proposed action plans to the administration. This way, they truly want to honour the idea of a samras panchayat.
Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli
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