Friday, January 7, 2011
Most elected women reps put their signatures, while their menfolk retain power
However, there are exceptions. Like Amarbati Markam.
Amarbati is a young Gond tribal woman from Dindori district in Eastern Madhya Pradesh. She had been leading a typical rural housewife's life till suddenly there came an unexpected upheaval in 2009. Panchayat elections were announced and this time around 50% of the seats were reserved for women. The Panch seat from the ward in which she resides in her village Jata Dongri of Samnapur Panchayat was reserved for women. Her family members decided to put her up as a candidate as she was slightly school educated. She campaigned and won the seat. However, she had no idea as to what the duties of a Panch were beyond putting her signature to proposals in the Panchayat meetings.
Then Amarbati was selected for training by The Hunger Project. This organisation in partnership with various NGOs works intensively to train elected women representatives of Panchayats throughout the country. There is first a residential training course and then the trainees are provided support in their work as Panches after they return to their villages. Amarbati learnt about the various laws and rules of Panchayati Raj and the political techniques of getting community work done through the Panchayats. She became the confident and articulate woman seen in the picture below.However, when she returned to her village and tried to implement all that she had learned for the development of her community she came up against the intransigence of the Panchayat Secretary. This worthy who is appointed by the government to help the elected representatives to carry out development works in the Panchayat instead in most cases works so as to further his own development and that of his superior officers in the Janpad Panchayat to the detriment of the people in the Panchayat.
A dour battle then ensued and Amarbati marshalled the other eight women panchayat ward members and filed a complaint against the corrupt practices of the Panchayat Secretary to the Subdivisional Magistrate. When this did not work she went with her team of women panchayat members to the District Collector and complained to him in writing with support from The Hunger Project. After repeated petitioning supported by documentary evidence of corruption by the Panchayat Secretary the Collector finally removed him from service.
This is a huge achievement by Amarbati and her co-panchayat members and its great importance can only be gauged in the context of the reality that prevails with regard to Panchayati Raj in Madhya Pradesh. Dindori like Alirajpur district where the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath is active is a Schedule Five Tribal Area and so in accordance with the provisions of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act 1996, the Gram Sabha or general body is the most powerful body in Panchayati Raj. However, taking advantage of the illiteracy and general lack of awareness of the tribals the Chief Executive Officer of the Janpad Panchayats at the Block level through their minions, of whom the last link with the citizens is the Panchayat Secretary, effectively wields all the powers and together these officials defalcate funds at will. The Panchayat Secretaries are paid only Rupees Two Thousand Five Hundred a month as salaries. Yet they do not reside in the Panchayats but in the nearest market villages or the Block headquarters where they have built big pucca houses and commute occasionally to the Panchayats by motorcycle. The big house of the Panchayat Secretary of Umrali Panchayat in Sondwa Block of Alirajpur district is shown below.The Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath has been waging a long drawn battle against the corrupt Panchayat bureaucracy for quite some time now and has managed to remove only two Secretaries so far. The main reason for this lack of success is that the corrupt Panchayat bureaucracy manages to coopt the elected Sarpanches or Panchayat Chairpersons and Panches into the system of graft and so thwart the decisions of the Gram Sabha. Thus, Amarbati's determination and success in the face of this kind of corrupt intransigence on the part of the Panchayat bureaucracy that must be there in her area also in getting her Panchayat Secretary removed is indeed a commendable achievement. All the more so because most elected women representatives throughout the country just put their signatures and it is their men folk who actually exercise their powers due to the overwhelming patriarchy that rules rural Indian society. This is anarchist and feminist activism of the highest quality. There are lakhs of women Panches and Sarpanches throughout the country but very few of them are provided with the training and later support that Amarbati has got due to the intervention of The Hunger Project. Otherwise Panchayati Raj in this country and especially in tribal areas would have transformed the face of the rural countryside and the lot of its oppressed women.