Rural women in Uttarakhand are increasingly asserting their presence in local governance despite various odds

Radha Devi, 54, had a good innings as a Pradhan (village head) when the seat was declared reserved for women in Meethi Beri village in Dehradun district during the first Panchayati Raj elections held in Uttarakhand in the late Nineties. When the seat became open (unreserved) in 2003, she decided to contest again to continue the development activities she had ushered in the area. That was when she came face-to-face with the ugly side of politics.

Men who had raised no objections when the seat was reserved for women, now became openly hostile over what they felt was her temerity in encroaching upon a now open seat that they regarded as a male preserve. Overnight, she became a figure of ridicule among the men in the village, who even penned an insulting song about her. Recalls Radha Devi: “Whenever I went outdoors, jeering comments would follow me and they would sing that song. Once, I was even attacked by a couple of men.”

A tough woman otherwise, she was on the verge of withdrawing her nomination when the women in the village rallied to her support. Meethi Beri had a strong women’s Self-Help Group (SHG) and its members accompanied her wherever she campaigned. They also escorted her on house visits to scold and counsel the men. Radha Devi went on to win her second term as Pradhan. It was a hat trick for her, when in the 2008 elections, she won the seat for a record third time — that victory is recognised as a first in local self governance in the State.

Again Mamta Devi, 35, a housewife with four children, had only studied up to Class V and felt ill-qualified to dabble in politics. Even then put aside her reservations and contested the reserved seat of Pradhan in Singhor village, in Dehradun district, to foil the chances of a rich and influential woman who hardly lived in the village.

Initially, Mamta Devi’s husband undertook all the activities of the panchayat, but before long she got better acquainted with her responsibilities and began visiting the block office and participating in training programmes with the ward members. She also learnt about many of the illegal activities her husband had undertaken in her name. Mamta immediately lodged a police complaint against her erring spouse. Her stance immediately won her the respect and confidence of her community.

Both Radha Devi and Mamta Devi, in their differing ways, reflect the new phase of grassroots empowerment of hill women. Uttarakhand, incidentally, is one of 14 states to have brought in 50 per cent reservation for women in all three tiers of the Panchayati Raj system. According to Dehra Dun-based organisation, Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), every five years, 85 per cent of the elected women representatives in local self government are first timers. In order to broaden their political education, vision and skills, RLEK has come up with capacity-building exercises for them. Through its resource centre — Panchayat Rule and Gender Awareness Training Institute (PRAGATI) — local leaders are being trained in advocacy and lobbying.

Established in 2000 to promote gender equity in local self governance in Uttarakhand, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand, PRAGATI focuses on raising women’s awareness across a broad range of issues. Damini Mumgain, a gender trainer with PRAGATI, says, “We encourage the formation of cohesive, articulate women’s collectives at the village level, which can take up their own group struggles.”

The impact of this intervention is discernible in the observations of village women leaders. Says Shaila Rani Rawat, in her fifties, who has come a long way since her first stint as Block Pramukh of the Khetra Panchayat from Agastyamuni in Chamoli district, “women worked in the fields from morning till night, in between taking care of the livestock as well as juggling family and household duties. Yet, they had no dignity, self respect or self confidence and were resigned to considering themselves inferior to men.”

Poor education, domestic violence, and superstitions based on caste were major problems in the area. Shaila decided to promote female literacy as a priority. “I opened my own high school, which has resulted in 70 per cent of the girls being educated in my area. This has also lowered child marriage by 20 per cent.”

According to Rawat, the development plans made by the government have not yielded the desired results. “The formalities involved in implementing government programmes hinder their execution. For example, construction work is contract-based, which often leads to the misuse of funds. The extent of corruption at various levels is evident from the fact that a very limited portion of the funds are actually being utilised, the rest is embezzled,” she alleges.

Ruchi Kukreti, PRAGATI’s chairperson, says: “The vision of the institute is not just to train elected women representatives local self governance but to prepare them as MLAs and MPs. Women strongly feel that as they constitute 50 per cent of the population, they must be represented at the national level, too.”

(Women's Feature Service)

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