The tale of two women panchayat leaders

By Savita Hiremath

ANEKAL: Ashwatthamma Narayana Reddy (52) and M Munirathnamma (51) are pictures in contrast. The former is from a dominant caste and a well-off family while the latter is a Dalit with a strip of land as a bare means of sustenance. Munirathnamma is an ardent practitioner of a radical sort of politics while Ashwatthamma is basically a social worker whose politics talks in terms of incremental change.

Similarities too abound. Both are empowered in their own way with years of experience in public sphere despite familial responsibilities. It's these common traits that counted when they grabbed the opportunity provided by reservation for women in panchayats.

Under Ashwatthamma's leadership (1994-2000), the annual earnings of Chandapur gram panchayat in Anekal taluk, Bangalore Urban, grew from Rs 4,998 to over Rs 11 lakh. She constructed a library, a primary health centre and anganawadis in all the six villages within the GP limits.

Her efforts won her the `Outstanding Woman Panchayat Leader' award last year. "Yes, yes. All this has been possible because I'm a woman. That makes me proud," she says.

In the neighbouring Attibele GP, Munirathnamma, a Dalit activist, was elected from a woman general ward last year. She has got the panchayat sink a borewell, eight drinking water taps. Under various schemes, she got two houses allotted to her constituents, one of them is Muslim.

Unlike her disinterested women colleagues, Munirathnamma carries a copy of Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act as she criss-crosses her segment and visits various power structures. "Officials can't browbeat me as I've grown up staging dharnas and demos. I won't rest until I'm given convincible explanations," she says, who has studied up to Standard VIII.

Both Ashwatthamma and Munirathnamma were active in public realm much before they became part of village politics. Having established Yashaswini Mahila Mandaligala Okkoota in 1989, Ashwatthamma has helped thousands of women become self-reliant. Munirathnamma was always an integral part of her organisation -- Praja Vimochana Chaluvali -- an offshoot of Dalit movement.

In early 90s, Munirathnamma was prevented by her family from contesting polls as they were not sure of her winning. With innate desire egging her on, she was unrelenting the next time. Confident, she didn't even bother visiting the polling stations during voting. Visit she did, only to sign her acceptance once she emerged victorious.

Whereas Ashwatthamma, initially a dummy candidate, refused to play to the gameplan of her relative who wanted her to withdraw so as to pitchfork his daughter. Elected unanimously to the presidentship reserved for women, she defied the relative who sought to control her. Ashwatthamma got down to brass tacks to streamline panchayat finances. She tried taking control of the village market, hitherto run by the taluk panchayat. It was then the turn of another relative to play spoilsport, but in vain. He even lodged a complaint with Lok Ayukta alleging bungling of funds. She fought back and proved her innocence.

"I'm thankful to them who tried to clip my wings. I wouldn't have done the work otherwise," says she, who guides and continues to be a source of inspiration to her successors.

Munirathnamma' energy and outspokenness have had many astonished. Whenever there is panchayat meeting, she wakes up at 3 am to cook for her family and sets out to work. The day ends with overseeing the night school for women. "Why 33 per cent? We want 50 per cent reservation for women. Women should rule from panchayats to Parliament."

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Referred by: Mukundan CM
Published on: May 21, 2001
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