The need for basic amenities is leading more and more women in Uttarakhand to contest polls, writes SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY
“Forget X-ray and ultrasound facilities, our area doesn’t even have a doctor. We need to travel to Mori in an emergency,” says Sharmila Rawat, the newly elected pradhan of village Makuri in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district. “The village roads are so bad that no ambulance can come in, the patient has to be carried on a charpoy till the highway,” adds the 27-year-old.
Sharmila, with a frail frame and a striking smile, sindoor thickly lining her middle parting, is a first-time pradhan, though she has been in the poll fray from a reserved seat once before. “I have come out of my home because I am tired of not having the basic amenities,” she states. Sitting next to her is Poonam Gosain, yet another newly elected pradhan, from village Kot in the State’s Tehri Garhwal district. She fought the elections thrice, won twice.
She too is disappointed with the dismal state of her area. “Electricity and medical facilities are almost nil. Pregnant women suffer the most. Many die during delivery. ANMs (auxiliary nurse-midwife) are supposed to visit our village but they rarely come.”
Poonam’s double win has given her a newfound confidence though. She now talks of possibilities. “Gaon mein naya rasta khula hain, is baar bijli ka kaam karana hain.”
Then there is Nirmala Thapa, a third time pradhan from Vijaypur Gopiwala in Dehra Dun district. Familiarity with the system and a few local achievements under her name have granted her even more self-assurance than Poonam.
Forty-four-year-old Nirmala says, “Early on, I realised that you can’t depend on others for your development work.” During her last term, she says she had the village road to Guchipura paved and the local Shiva temple renovated. Next on her list is a State Bank of India branch in her village.
“This will also happen,” she says confidently, but remarks , “I feel janta mahila pradhan ke piche par jati hain. It could be either because they feel women are far more committed to development than men pradhans or they just want to harass us with constant demands so that we bow out of a bastion so far considered male-dominated.”
Mull over the journeys of Sharmila, Poonam and Nirmala to public life, catapulted by a need for development in their areas, and you will find over 500 other women pradhans and members of the recently held panchayat polls in Uttarakhand waiting to pour out similar stories at this congregation. The occasion is an open forum for them, organised by the NGO Panchayat Rule and Gender Awareness Training Institute (PRAGATI) in the State Capital Dehra Dun.
PRAGATI also regularly organises such functions in Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Haryana to achieve gender equity in local self governance “to provide the newly elected members a platform to raise their concerns and clear doubts.” One of the achievements of its advocacy is the passing of the Uttarakhand Panchayat Law (Amendment) Bill 2008, which makes the State the first to bring 50 per cent reservation in Panchayats and a double term at the pradhan level for women.
Ruchi Kukreti, who heads PRAGATI, points out, “We invite Government officials to the forums too to talk about various development schemes which the elected members can take to the people. ” Kukreti also talks of poor skill enhancement training and gendered construction of proxy leadership. “The myth that the open seat is a man’s seat is also a major deterrent for women to contest these seats,” she adds.
Mingle with the participants, and you spot these factors at play. Take 51-year-old Lakshmi Devi from Sidri gram, block Mori. A first-time pradhan, she is unlettered and dependent on her husband to read and write any official document.
However, what seems a silver lining is is the women pradhans’ to-do list — geared to making a difference to their everyday lives. Devi, for instance, wants to start an English medium school in her village. “Also, we have no gas stoves, looking for firewood in winter is very difficult.”