Rani Sathappan's two terms as panchayat president were not without hurdles but she managed to overcome them.
IT seems irrelevant now to talk of the metamorphosis of Rani Sathappan from housewife to leader. After two terms of serving as the president of K. Rayavaram Panchayat in Pudukottai district, Tamil Nadu, she seems a natural leader. No doubt, she has had two terms to get her act together and the villagers, who elected her with a margin of 194 votes, did see her potential; but two state awards and additions to infrastructure were beyond their imagination. K. Rayavaram is ahead of other villages in the area. "We are a small panchayat," Rani begins, apologetically, "So it is probably easier for us to do things."
Though Rani makes it sound as if she has had an easy run, clearly her journey has not been without its hurdles. She does not flinch at saying her engineer-husband guided her initially, fresh as she was to administration, but insists that she has, since then, learned the ropes and taken over the reins. Orientation sessions at the political studies department of Gandhigram Rural Institute, Dindigul, were a great help, she admits. As she rolled up her sleeves, she discovered that her first task was to get the traditional village leadership (comprising only men) with the ambalam at its head on her side. With her husband's help, she managed to win them over and assured herself the support of the committee. This had a huge influence on the villagers. Once she cemented this relationship, it was time to begin the "real work" she says. Desilting the village ooranis and kanmais was Rani Sathappan's first step. Armed with the will of the people and their commitment to actively participate, Rani set about clearing encroachments, removing trees and overgrowth in the local water bodies. It was not without its share of problems, with red tape and long-winded government procedures. But at the end of a three-year battle, Rani managed to finish what she set out to do. The tanks are now brimming with water and the villagers are happy to see the fruits of their efforts. She does not take any travel allowance or meeting allowance that presidents are eligible for. Rani spends her own money for travelling and for small administrative expenses. Inspired by her example, the other members on the committee too plough back their allowance into the panchayat kitty.
Over two terms, Rani has also focussed on building women's self-help groups, improving sanitation facilities in the village, planting trees and ensuring immunisation targets were met. An added bonus was declaring the village a plastic-free zone. "Well, it is not entirely plastic-free, but unless we declare it, we will go nowhere," she says. The theme is to discourage the use of non-recyclable plastic in the village and reuse any available plastic item. Force will never work, she says, explaining in précis the reason for her success. "A leader must be convinced about the project, spread awareness among the people, ensure their participation and mobilise funds." Rani is clear she will not contest another time, even if it were possible. Besides, she will, after 10 years, have more time to make the rava ladoos she is famous for.