Weaker sections of society challenge the power structure in Uttar Pradesh's panchayats

Lalaram comes from a poor family of potters in Nahri village of Banda district in Uttar Pradesh. Decline of the traditional occupation pushed his family deeper into poverty and the starvation death of one of its members was widely reported.

Today, however, Lalaram is the elected pradhan of Nahri panchayat, and has emerged as a symbol of hope for the poorest sections.

Lalaram, moreover, is only one among nearly eight such backward class or Dalit candidates in Naraini administrative block who have challenged and defeated the might of the dominant class of their villages or their proxies in the last panchayat elections in November 2010. Since then they have strengthened their position by carrying out their new responsibilities with dedication and commitment.

What is common to all these panchayats is Vidya Dham Samiti (VDS), the organisation that carried out an intensive campaign for free and fair panchayat elections.

Raja Bhaiya, the young director of VDS says, “In most of these villages a few rich and powerful feudal families try to dominate local politics. In several panchayat elections they have used unfair means for several tenures to ensure that they or their proxy candidates retain control of panchayats. But this time a strong effort was made to challenge the prevailing power structure dominated by a few.”

In Nahri panchayat, for instance, Lalaram had to face rich candidates who were willing to spend huge sums of money to win elections. Lalaram’s enthusiastic supporters may have been poor themselves but they made small donations for this cause. When election results were announced, Lalaram won comfortably with a margin of 130 votes. Mostly pro-poor candidates were elected as ward members. One of them is still a college student but eager to make a good contribution.

They have worked together to implement NREGA properly and speed up work like bunding, land-levelling and tank-construction. Other work like reconstruction of an old school building and road construction has also been taken up. As a result, says Rajaram, a villager, forced migration has been checked. Earlier trucks picked up workers like cattle to take them away long distances for work under highly exploitative conditions. "Now we have more employment opportunities within our village,” says Rajaram.

Bilharka was one such village in the grip of feudal hierarchy. Even when as a result of compulsory reservations a Dalit woman pradhan was elected in 2005, she wasn’t allowed to challenge the power structure. Even social activists felt threatened when they ventured into the village to hear the complaints of weaker sections. Most among the poor had to go to a polling booth a long distance away where due to the influential class, they couldn't vote. This time the poor got together and demanded a voting booth nearer their hamlet. At the new polling booth they could vote without fear and their candidate Mangal Singh won with a comfortable margin of 151 votes. Together and along with VDS, they have been able to improve cultivation in the land owned by marginalised farmers.

Pukari panchayat too has a new Dalit pradhan, Giliya Ahirwar, who successfully challenged the 65 year domination of village politics by an extended feudal family. His performance in regularly calling monthly meetings of the gram sabha, and carrying out land-levelling, bunding work has helped him to further consolidate his support-base.

In Panchampur the weaker sections mobilised to support a backward class candidate Ramesh Lodh who challenged the five-decade old domination of a family. In Kartal panchayat, Lal Bahadur Lodh could also win due to the weaker sections uniting and has speeded up development activities.

Clearly, in these panchayats there is improved participation of weaker sections. Gram Sabha meetings are held more regularly, and development work is better linked to the needs of people.