A widowed woman who was beaten up and thrown out of the village for 'bad character' could return home and live peacefully. The Dalits of the village fought and won a legal battle to gain road access to a cremation ground. Dramatic as these changes are, they are only two of the many that a Dalit woman panchayat (local village council) president (sarpanch) has brought about in Eechampoondi village in Cuddalore district, Tamil Nadu.
L Amudha was sarpanch twice consecutively (each term is for five years), from 1996 to 2006. When she was first elected, Amudha found herself facing enormous opposition - and discrimination, on the basis of both her gender and caste. It was, in fact, her unrelenting stance on the cremation ground issue that won her acceptance and recognition. When Amudha became sarpanch, an 'upper caste' individual decided to prevent access to the cremation grounds by fencing off access to it through his land. He filed a case against Amudha in her official capacity for trespassing, and in her individual capacity for land-grabbing. She fought the cases and won.
She credits the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), Chennai, with much of her success. "When I was elected in 1996, I knew nothing about how to function as a panchayat president. HRF's training programs gave me courage and self-belief," says Amudha.
The HRF is coordinator for a programme called the Tamil Nadu NGO Alliance for Empowering Panchayat Government, which organizes about 10 leadership training programs for women sarpanchs every year.
Oscar Fernandes, President of the HRF, explains why his organization decided to work with women sarpanchs. "When 33 per cent reservation for women in local body elections was first granted, most women who came into the administration had no prior experience. Many of those elected had studied only up to Standard 10. Training was the immediate need - explaining what a panchayat was, tackling discrimination, enforcing gender rights, preventing domination by powerful people in the village, budget planning, right to common resources and so on."
HRF realized that the best way to disseminate all this was to form an organization of women sarpanchs, and so the Federation of Panchayat Presidents came into being. About 60 to 70 NGOs across Tamil Nadu play an active role in the Federation's activities, with HRF acting as the coordinator.
Of the 4,600 women sarpanchs in the state, 1000 are members, and Fernandes hopes that more will join after the new sarpanchs take over this month following the October 13 and 15 local body polls in 2006. The Federation has 200 state committee members and 30 district heads. District leaders, like V R Suganya, play a crucial motivating role in bringing other women sarpanchs together for district-level meetings and to become members of the Federation.
Suganya, sarpanch of the Velimalaipattinam panchayat, about 20 km from Coimbatore, explains how the programme works. "These programs help us understand our work as panchayat heads better. We meet and assist other women panchayat heads, attend workshops on government welfare programs and conduct investigations in problem areas. We would not have been able to do any of this on our own - either financially or in terms of logistics."
Suganya's story is very different from Amudha's. Her late husband was the village head. So, when it came to electing a woman sarpanch in 1996, she was the automatic choice of the villagers. Unlike Amudha and many others, Suganya had mass support. But there was still a lot of work to be done. "There was only one water tank for 2,800 people in 1996. Now we have built seven. We have also laid roads, introduced other conveniences, like sanitation facilities, and formed 20 self-help groups (SHGs) working with dairy products and breeding livestock." She has already completed two terms and is now beginning her third term.
Suganya attends at least six HRF events a year - whether training, workshops or investigations. Recently, she was part of an HRF investigation team that visited four panchayats in Madurai and Virudhunagar districts. Although these villages fall under the reserved category, Dalits were either not contesting posts or resigning immediately after the election. So a team consisting of HRF and partner NGO members, including the women sarpanchs, visited the four villages. They interacted with villagers, local politicians and officials like the collectors and police and found that reasons varied from harassment by upper castes to intimidation by local heavyweights. After the investigation, the NGOs continued working in these villages, assuring Dalits of support to function as panchayat heads without fear. Thanks to this initiative, after the October 2006 elections, all four panchayats have had Dalit sarpanchs sworn in.
The Federation has also helped the women work together as a united force. In 2001, for instance, when J Menaka, the president of Urapakkam panchayat in Kancheepuram was murdered while carrying out her duties, other women sarpanchs immediately got together. They conducted an investigation and submitted the results to the government, leading to the arrest of the culprits. In March 2006, after the state-level convention of the Federation in Chennai, a human chain was formed to highlight the various issues facing women sarpanchs.
HRF, meanwhile, has long-ranging plans. One of the most important changes they seek to bring about is the striking down of the law that permits district collectors to remove sarpanchs from their posts. "In no other country can an officer of the executive remove an elected person from office," says Fernandes. HRF has filed a case in the Madras High Court on this.
M Shanti, HRF's coordinator for the women panchayat presidents programme, says, "In the run-up to the elections, I worked to try and ensure that women interested in village welfare - rather than those with political clout - were put up as candidates."
That these efforts are bearing fruit can be seen in the words of M Ezhilarasi, 24, sarpanch of Thottikalai panchayat in Tiruvallur District: "I was elected in 2001 and have completed my first term. I am proud that we have been able to construct a building for the SHGs in our village. I did not contest this time as I am just finishing my Bachelor of Law course but I will definitely be back next time!"