She received the national award for the best woman panchayat president.

Nirmala Bhaskaran represents what policy makers long ago called the Panchayati Raj. It meant development at the grass roots and women leaders taking the lead in women's empowerment. A former two-time president of Mudichur Village Panchayat near Tambaram, she received a national award for the best woman panchayat president more than a decade ago.

She contested for the post of village panchayat president in 1996, when she was 29 years old and after getting elected, got down to business immediately. That was also the year when elections to urban and rural local bodies in Tamil Nadu returned after a long gap.

The concept of women self-help groups was at a nascent stage then and her initial years as panchayat president were those of struggle. Mobilising public support for causes such as women's empowerment and enabling their financial independence and subsequently their families' growth and progress was met with some hostile opinions.

“But I managed to overcome that when people realised that growth had to be inclusive,” says Ms. Nirmala. Three other priorities were laying of roads, expanding water supply and street lighting. “We achieved near self-sufficiency in my first term itself,” she recalls. We then began to focus on other aspects such as computerisation of panchayat administration.

Repeated inspections by officials from the Kancheepuram district administration, especially from the District Rural Development Agency, revealed that there was no error where they could pull up its staff or elected representatives. The meticulous, transparent, people-friendly and straightforward administration and cent per cent compliance with laid down norms made way for Ms. Nirmala to receive the best woman panchayat president from former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in 1999.

“I was re-elected and I guess the good work that we did paid,” she observes. Having studied only till the tenth standard, she realised the importance of higher studies for women after becoming the panchayat president and made sure her daughter, Priya did not stop anywhere. Priya is now in her first year post graduation, while her son, Nithyanandan is pursuing engineering. Her husband Bhaskaran is a businessman.

“Not once have my husband or relatives interfered or coerced me during my tenure as president and I am very fortunate,” she says. On certain occasions, she was unable to prepare and serve meals on time for her children or even help them with their studies, but her husband always filled the gap.

“I am glad in the way Mudichur has evolved over the years, becoming a model for grass roots administration. It has now become an example of community level participation in solid waste management, protecting local resources and women's empowerment,” she says.

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PersonalitiesMay 14, 2012