On April 14, Radha Bai Bhilala, 22, ex-sarpanch (head of the panchayat - the grassroots governance body) of Madhya Pradesh's Burhanpur district, attempted suicide by consuming poison. In her head-on clash with the village's powers that be, Radha had reached the end of her tether.
An unmarried woman from the Bhil tribal community, Radha had created a stir when she was declared sarpanch on January 28, 2004 of village Hawali Khurd. Her opponents were powerful locals who had been controlling the panchayat for the past 14 years. Too scared to speak out openly, the villagers marked their protest by voting for the young woman who dared to contest against them. The former panchayat leaders and other influential persons - the landlords and upper caste people - however, were angered by her victory.
Not for a single day was Radha allowed to discharge her duties freely. The panchayat members were told not to stand with her on any decision. She was constantly asked to carry out the decisions of the powerful persons in the village. Even the local shopkeepers were told not to sell her anything.
On March 22, 2006, a no-confidence motion was brought against her and she was removed from her post. In the village's 16-member panchayat, signatures of at least nine members were required to oust her. Of those who signed the motion, four filed an affidavit in court and declared under oath that they did not know they were signing a no-confidence motion. Before action could be taken on this affidavit, Radha's opponents quickly called for a meeting to elect a new sarpanch.
Radha, forced to quit the post, and unable to handle the humiliation they heaped on her routinely, consumed poison. Fortunately, she was taken to the hospital on time, and two persons - Chhatar Singh and Lala Singh (the former sarpanch and his relative) - were arrested. Lying on the hospital bed, with both anguish and anger evident in her voice, Radha said, "They used to openly tell me to come to their house at night. My dream was to work for my village. But the power of my opponents and the corruption of bureaucrats shattered that dream."
Radha Bai's is not an isolated story. In the 2004 panchayat elections, thousands of women in Madhya Pradesh won the panchayat elections. Although exact figures have not been tabulated, 33 per cent of all Madhya Pradesh panchayat seats would amount to 106,975 women members. Of them, more than 1,300 women sarpanchs are facing false charges of corruption today. And 48 have been removed through no-confidence motions. A sizeable number - 30 per cent, according to a panchayat department booklet - of the sarpanchs are tribals.
And all this because influential persons have either found them not amenable to fulfilling their demands or are simply unable to tolerate the thought of a woman being the sarpanch.
Madhya Pradesh's Panchayat Minister Narendra Singh Tomar attempts to strike a reassuring note. "If it is found that any female sarpanch has been framed, taking advantage of her ignorance, action will be taken against the guilty."
The fact, though, is that most women sarpanchs are not allowed to work freely. They are either forced to sign on papers prepared by influential lobbies or become part of their husbands' politics. They are victims of politics by influential persons or the ploys of panchayat secretaries. (The panchayat secretary is elected by the panchayat members, and is meant to guide the panchs on rules and regulations.)
Munni Bai, Sarpanch of Raisen district, for example, is in jail for a crime she did not commit. She has been charged with embezzlement of Rs 5,000 from the panchayat's Family Welfare Fund. But Munni says she knows nothing about it. All the papers were prepared by the panchayat secretary, who explained them to her husband. She put her thumb impression only on papers her husband told her to. She doesn't know where the money went.
A tribal, Munni's financial condition can be gauged from the fact that even during her tenure as sarpanch, she continued to work as a laborer. Far from being able to afford a lawyer, when Munni went to jail, her children faced starvation. With tears in her eyes, she says that even death would be better than what she's going through. And Munni's husband, who had felt all important due to the attention the secretary paid him, is now completely ignored.
The government has launched several campaigns to address the wrongs done to these sarpanchs. There have been training programmes for women panchs and sarpanchs, literacy campaigns for them, and workshops providing them with technical information on various government schemes.
But all these schemes have been ineffective because of the corrupt administration system and the tactics of powerful locals in the villages. The result is that Munni Bai goes to jail, Radha Bai is driven to suicide and Anina Bi has to quit the post of sarpanch.
Anina Bi, who represents a backward caste, is bitter that corrupt officials succeeded in removing her from her post in spite of the fact that, during her four-year tenure, she played a vital role in the development of the village. She was the sarpanch of Sohagpur Janpad panchayat in Hoshangabad district.
The chief executive officer (CEO; a rank equivalent to deputy collector, and in charge of all the panchayats in a block) had demanded that she give him a fixed amount from all the development works sanctioned, threatening her with removal from her post if she did not comply. Says Anina, "There was no surplus money to pay off officials. When I refused to pay him a bribe, the CEO conspired to ensure that a no-confidence motion was passed against me. I have informed the Hoshangabad collector of the conspiracy. But I don't think that any action will be taken, because all officials - whether junior or senior - are anti-women. How, then, will I get justice?"
Anina Bi had purchased a sewing machine for women and trained them in the use of it during her tenure as sarpanch. Today, a number of women are sewing and supporting themselves. Similarly, a diesel mill for grinding flour - also managed by women - was also set up.
Anina has been forced to quit, but in just four years, she has proved that women sarpanchs can make a difference - if only they are allowed to perform.