Battling caste and gender stigmas
IT is the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities which have generally been excluded at the decision-making level in villages. Their voice is often ignored or stifled, especially, that of women. SC/ST women have a double disadvantage of being suppressed by the caste and gender factors.
A constitutional provision does exist for the election of a certain number of women from the SC/ST to panchayats. So they have, at least, managed to find a toehold in Panchayati Raj institutions. Some of these women have tried hard to be heard at panchayat meetings, demanding justice for their communities.
Booti Kol was elected zilla panchayat member in Banda, Uttar Pradesh, in 1995. During the election for the zilla panchayat chairman, there was a keen tussle and Booti's vote suddenly became invaluable.
As she belonged to a poor and vulnerable family, contending factions thought it would be easy to force her to vote for their candidate. She and her parents were threatened, even by dacoits. They tried to forcibly take her to the polling station.
She escaped and sought shelter with social workers. Despite the presence of dacoits and gangsters, the social workers escorted her to the polling station. Her independent vote was decisive for the election. Booti later raised several issues, including exploitation, of her community. After the expiry of her five-year term, she continues to organise self-help groups of Kol women.
Rajjo was elected vice-chairman of Sultanpur Chilkana nagar panchayat in Saharanpur and improved civic amenities in two villages. A polite and friendly woman who is warmly welcomed by all the poor families in villages, she tried her best to get ration cards, widow and old-age pensions for several families and succeeded in most cases.
Though she is from a poor family, she was so devoted to her work that she paid the bus fare from her meagre resources to travel to the district headquarters. Rajjo was so popular that she could have easily won a second term. But she refused to contest the election last year.
When asked why, she said: "I come from a very poor family and this post of vice-chairman has become an economic burden. I did not get any honorarium or travel allowance for all the work I did, big land-owners stopped employing me in their fields. They were reluctant to employ a vice-chairman of the panchayat as their worker.
"But I had no other source for earning a livelihood. A voluntary organisation offered to pay my bus fare. So many people started coming home that I felt sad I could not even offer them tea. So I decided I will not stand for election a second time."
It is a pity that while corrupt and affluent representatives can easily seek a second term, honest and poor women like Rajjo have to withdraw. There is a strong case for paying a monthly honorarium (the equivalent of the legal minimum wages) at least to selected panchayat representatives from poor families.
To reduce the financial burden on elected women candidates from poor families, some voluntary organisations have been organising training programmes and meeting them to sort out their initial difficulties. Dehradun-based Pragti is one such organisation. Its team met Leelawati, a Buxa tribal who had been elected pradhan from Rasoolpur in Hardwar district.
She was eager to help the people but lacked practical experience. She felt she could not fulfil her new responsibilities as an influential villager was instigating people against her. With the Pragti team's help, she gained confidence and started participating actively in panchayat work.
Leelawati was able to get a bridge and road sanctioned which her predecessors had failed to do. After she started learning to read and write from her son, her confidence grew. She got 145 widows and elderly in her panchayat area under the pension scheme. Shanti Devi of Missarwala village is another Dalit pradhan who resisted corrupt officials. She asserted that in any land distribution effort, people below the poverty line should get priority. Despite her keenness to work for the villagers' welfare, her work was hindered by influential villagers and corrupt officials who wanted a cut in development funds. Representatives of the semi-nomadic community of the Van Gujars suffered worse. Until 10 years ago, they had not cast their vote. Their names had not been registered as voters. It was Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, a voluntary body, which approached the Election Commission and had them registered as voters. Then they got a chance to participate in the panchayat election. And in the very first effort, women were elected. Sen Bibi was elected from Ganeshpur as a panchayat member or ward representative. She played an important role in getting ration cards for many Van Gujar families. When the ration shopkeeper refused to accept their ration cards, she approached social workers to obtain foodgrain at a fair price for her community. Bano Begum was elected a ward member from Kulhal panchayat.
Since her illiteracy became a handicap while doing panchayat work, she enrolled with a literacy programme to acquire basic literacy skills.
In the 2000 election, some influential men conspired to delete the names of several Van Gujars from the electoral rolls. With the help of Pragti, the Van Gujars, including women, fought for justice and had their names included at the last minute. This time, too, women like Taj Bibi and Aklo Bibi were elected at various levels of the Panchayati Raj system. Since the Van Gujars live in forests, sometimes they are not informed about panchayat meetings on time.
Influential villagers treat these forest dwellers with disdain and ignore them at panchayat meetings. But after having been excluded from the election process for so long, they are at least coming forward to contest elections and are even winning in many cases. In Sawalkhera panchayat of Dewas in Madhya Pradesh, the Dalit pradhan who is physically handicapped, worked hard to set up a sewing centre and open other employment opportunities for needy women. In Ramtek panchayat (Madhya Pradesh) a Dalit sarpanch, Sojar Bai, struggled against the corrupt practices of a government official that led to his suspension. In the process, lakhs of rupees were saved for village development. In many villages, influential and prosperous people have tried to remove honest women representing SC/STs. Women like Chaggibai in Rasoolpur, Ajmer; Kiran Meghwal in Seghasar, Jodhpur and Rampyari in Para, Ajmer; thwarted such efforts.
However, in many areas, villagers with money and muscle power succeed in ousting Dalit women representatives.
In Shivpuri, a powerful man took advantage of the illiteracy of an Adivasi sarpanch, Bhakti Bai, to get her own signature for her removal. In Karmi panchayat of Tikamgarh, the Dalit sarpanch, Janki Bai, was removed and her husband beaten up. She was kidnapped on the day of the no-confidence motion.
The experience of Dalit and tribal women representatives in Panchayati raj institutions have been a mixture of joy and distress.
Chances of their success improve in villages where voluntary organisations and people's movements are active. Rajjo was helped by Disha, while Booti Kol was supported by Samaj Sansthan. Such help, particularly in the initial stages of their career, and in times of crisis help them cross the barriers of caste and gender.