With her sharp features, shrewd eyes, erect posture, saucy wit and an abundance of vigorous energy, the first thing that Prakash Rani reminds you of is the stereotypical evil sister-in-law in a black-and-white Bollywood family drama.
Yet, the stereotype is definitely misleading. Prakash Rani, 36, works for the good of society, leading by example. Nothing exceptional, one would think. However, for someone who till 2004 was a typical housewife in the remote village of Gorkhi in Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh, where evils like 'purdah' (veil) and untouchability rule both social and personal lives, Rani's feat is truly commendable.
It was in 2004 that Rani began to think about her village - and ask questions. That year, Krishak Sahyog Sansthan (KSS), an NGO working under the Poorest Area Civil Societies (PACS) programme - an initiative of the UK government - began to organize self-help groups (SHGs) of women and talk about the power of collective action in Raisen.
Gorkhi was (and continues to be) a village riddled with problems: Women had to trudge through long, slushy stretches to fetch water from the village well. No health service existed within 50 kilometres of the village boundary. Electricity was simply a bad joke, while teachers at the village school were conspicuous by their absence. These were just some of the problems.
During the meetings held by KSS, the women realized that their most pressing problem was the long walk to the village well. Aware of her power, (she had become a 'panchayat' - village council - member by then), Rani demanded a special meeting of the 'gram sabha' (village assembly) to draw attention to the issue. As women identified with the problem, they responded to Rani's appeal and turned up in large numbers.
But the 'sarpanch' (village council head) and the 'panchayat' secretary did not show up. "There was no precedent in the village of women attending meetings, and they were offended," recalls Rani. "They felt their authority had been challenged."
However, the adamant women waited patiently for five hours for the two officials to turn up. Finally, they did as they had run out of excuses for the delay. "They had thought we would just give up and go away," says Rani, with her characteristic earthy humor. "But we said 'why should we go? Is it the men or is it us who are suffering because of all that slush?'" As a result of that one meeting, a concrete road was made right up to the village well.
During the meeting, the women also took up the issue of electricity. As a result, an application was sent off to the electricity board and the village eventually secured an independent transformer.
While one can't say that the transformer has resulted in adequate electricity supply - the voltage continues to remain weak - Rani is not disappointed. "One effort got us a transformer. More efforts will get us electricity," she says confidently.
The women also raised the issue of the perennially missing schoolteachers by organizing a march to the school. However, when the teachers turned abusive and told the women they had no right to protest, the group was compelled to return home empty handed.
The silver lining in the failed attempt was the breaking down of class barriers, prejudices and the stigma of untouchability. Elaborates Dr H.B. Sen, Director, KSS, "Untouchability is socially sanctioned in these interiors of Madhya Pradesh. When we began conducting meetings, we found that the Thakur (upper caste) and Dalit (outcaste) women would not sit on the same mat nor share snacks."
When Dr Sen started talking to the women about the prejudice, Rani was one of the first to respond positively. "The first time I had tea in the company of a dalit women," admits Rani candidly, "I nearly threw up." But instead of giving up, she went right on and had tea again at the next meeting. "On returning home from such a meeting, I would first have a bath. Now, I step into the kitchen right away."
Rani's enthusiasm is infectious. Other women have also been affected by the general change in the village. Today, at meetings, Rani and other dalit women from several nearby villages sit together on the same mat, drinking tea and sharing snacks. Furthermore, thanks to Rani's unrelenting advocacy, untouchability has been banished from the village 'gram sabha' and school. What is more, this change has ensured that the schoolteachers take their work seriously and attend to their duties more regularly. "Now they know they can't take us for granted," says Meenabai, Rani's dalit friend.
Similarly, the gender equation in the village has altered due to the rare courage shown by Rani, who for years had put up with the spendthrift ways of her alcoholic husband. Keen to earn quick money so that he could buy himself a drink, Rani's husband would lease out the family farm - rather than till it himself - for a pittance. "He would grab whatever little money he got from the lease and spend it on liquor. But once I started attending the meetings, I announced to the village that I would now look after our land lease arrangements and whoever tried to strike a deal with my husband would incur my wrath," says the empowered wife. The announcement worked. Today, Rani handles all transactions of her land and uses the money to take care of her family.
Rani has also ensured the well being of other village women. If ever there is a threat of violence from any husband, Rani collects all the women in the village - across caste lines - to accost the errant man. "We all go and tell the man, 'if you want to beat your wife, you must beat us all'. That never fails to put the man in his place."
Rani's 'panchayat' term came to an end in 2005 (she was elected in 2000) but her conviction in the need to work for her community is unabated. The level of socio-political consciousness, over and above individual aspirations, that she has achieved is rare for a woman of her circumstances and education.
At meetings, when the other women clamor around Dr Sen asking why their SHGs have not received loans, Rani is the first to reprimand them. "'Samooh sirf paise ke liye nahi hote' (SHGs are not just for money)," she declares, "We have to change our lives and that can't be done with money alone. Money will come, but till then we have to keep working. I don't mind if my SHG is the last to receive a loan. We have to keep making an effort for change in every direction."