“This is just the beginning; there is much to do and fight for”, said Kavita Arya (31), Dalit Pradhan ( village council head) of Rauliyana Gram Panchayat in Uttarakhand. Rauliyana is a unique Gram Panchayat ( elected village council) in Uttarakhand. It is an all-women Gram Panchayat, one of the 13 in Uttarakhand today.
All women panchayats have existed in states like Maharashtra, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat and Haryana. Uttarakhand’s all-women Panchayats point towards a greater participation of women in politics, particularly, in rural governance.
“When I decided to contest and hoped to win, I also imagined what an all women Panchayat would be like”, said Hema Negi, the 22-year-old Pradhan of the all-women Gram Panchayat of Pachissi.
“ As women, I think we are more attuned to the needs of the community, and together we are stronger and can do more and much better. Though it has only been a year, it feels like a significant achievement that an all-woman panchayat has come into being”, she added.
Champa Miral (28), Pradhan of another all-women panchayat in Nagkorali agrees.
“When there are women in all important leadership positions whether as Pradhans, Up-Pradhan (vice president) or ward members, decision-making is different. It is easier for us women to engage with each other as well as mobilise other women in the community. We are certainly more accessible and approachable than men.”
Nargis Devi (29), the audacious vice president of Pachissi Gram Panchayat added, “Watching each other’s work gives us courage and confidence to perform better. If we remain passive and allow them to hold us down, they will. We needed to stand up and assert our rights.”
How All-Women Panchayats Are Different
All Women Nagkorali Panchayat
“There is a certain tug of war for power between men and women in a mixed Panchayat. Somehow the dynamic between women is easier to manage, I think”, said Basanti Arya (60), a former ward member.
“Women often tend to navigate conflicts better. I am saying this based on my experience in the federation (a collective of elected women representatives) and how we have resolved and advocated for many critical issues. It allowed us to share more equally in decision-making”, she added.
All women Panchayats are a boost to women’s political participation in local governance. It strongly indicates an increased social acceptance of women in leadership positions. These Panchayats also have the potential of mobilising more women into politics, occupying public office and spaces, accessing resources and collectivising other women as political agents.
Elected Women Leaders on The Frontlines
Young women are increasingly contesting in elections and claiming political power. They have also been at the forefront of Covid-19 response.
Hema Negi had the hard task of ensuring all the 45 returnee migrant workers are in safe quarantined spaces.
“When my request to use one of the schools as a quarantine centre was rejected by the administration, other ward members, former elected women representatives and I spoke with the community and arranged for some of the empty houses to be cleaned and sanitised for use as quarantine zones”
In the absence of any administrative support, Negi also successfully mobilised the community to support the workers with food rations, masks, and help with other COVID19 related information.
“It has been challenging but we had to do what needed to be done”, she asserts.
Deepa Devi (43), a former ward member of Pachissi Gram Panchayat, narrated the instance of how they saved the government primary school from closing down during the lockdown.
“During the lockdown, there was a lot of nervousness about the possibility of the school shutting down as only 2 students remained in the village. So we went door-to-door and spoke with parents whose children were attending the nearby private school. We explained how they could save the fee money if they sent the children to the government school where education is free. After relentless persuasion, parents agreed and now we had 27 students”
They also hired a part-time female teacher to support students to continue their education online. In Nagkorali, women leaders worked hard to ensure people were linked to Mahatma Gandhi national Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme( MGNREGA), the largest government rural employment guarantee scheme.
“About 100 people have accessed work so far. We are making sure more get jobs under the scheme in the coming days. It has helped many households to have some source of income and sustained livelihood during COVID-19,” said Prabha Mehra (33), a ward member of Nagkorali Gram Panchayat.
Intergenerational Solidarity Among Women Leaders
It was equally interesting to listen to the former elected women leaders and the unfolding vibrant intergenerational dialogue with a great sense of pride in their achievements.
Basanti (50) a former head of Mawe Gram Panchayat in Uttarakhand was particularly proud of the water harvesting systems she put in place during her tenure between 2015-2019.
To address water scarcity, which was a cause of poor agricultural yields, the Mawe Gram Panchayat under her leadership built “check dams” (small barriers built across the direction of water on shallow streams) for water harvesting. It helped in recharging groundwater reserves. It took two years to complete with money from the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS).
“250 households have benefited due to these water harvesting methods. This has been one of the biggest achievements of our tenure. Now the baton has been handed to the new leaders. Our achievements have encouraged many other women to step forward”, said Basanti.
In all this, the Veerangana federation, a collective of elected women leaders, enabled the women leaders to achieve their objectives.
“It gave us a distinct language of collective action, the realisation of the power of our voices and finding pathways to solving common problems. I don’t have to fight alone”, said Basanti.
” In whatever matters they need us, we will support the young elected women leaders”
Intergenerational Solidarity Among Women Leaders
Access to political power comes with its fair share of challenges.
The experiences of Kavita Arya (31), the Dalit Pradhan of Rauliyana Gram Panchayat expose the nature of structural barriers of caste that impedes women’s participation in decision-making in rural governance.
“I have been accused of siphoning money from the panchayat budget. All kinds of abuses are hurled at me because of my Dalit identity. People cannot fathom how a young Dalit woman can become a Pradhan”, she said.
“In the beginning, some even tried to pressure my husband to force me to quit office. Hearing everyday insults have affected my mental health.”
Kavita,however, is determined to continue to carry out her duties.
“I knew I had to contest once the reserved seat was announced. How else are we to address years of injustice? I hope it becomes a thing of the past, but until then, I will fight for my right to be here and work for inclusive governance.”
Caste and patriarchy continue to encroach upon women’s right to participate in politics. Kavita and other elected women like her defy these structural discriminations, and in the process, they are reconfiguring existing power relations.
Reimagining The Future
From one election to the next, there is an evolution in the vocabulary and attitudes of elected women leaders – a language shaped by a strong consciousness about their rights and steeped in ideas of gender equality and social justice. With more young women entering the fray, we witness an articulation of aspirations, possibilities in the midst of multiple uncertainties, assertion of identity, and in the process, giving a new thrust to grassroots governance.
So, how are young women leaders re-imagining the governance? The pandemic has been overwhelming and exhausting. There is a certain degree of restlessness as routine administrative processes have now begun to become functional and delays are inevitable. At the same time, elected women are raring to go, and this is most visible in their equally ardent articulation of local solutions.
Hema Negi recently donated part of her family land for construction of an Anganwadi (crèche) centre.
“We urgently needed a proper, safe structure for the centre which is currently being run in a temporary rented shelter. The block sanctioned money but there was no land available. After various rounds of discussions with the family, they agreed to donate the cowshed area for building the Anganwadi centre.”
For many, it is their first experience of political power. There is renewed solidarity as new and former elected women representatives come together.There is a common consensus on the critical issues that need immediate attention-education, water, access to health (especially maternal health) and livelihood opportunities.
“The more we choose to remain quiet out of politeness or fear, the more ridicule we are bound to face. Silence is not an option,” said Kavita.
Women leaders navigate through unique challenges and opportunities ensuring their accountability to the most marginalised social groups, especially as the pandemic continues to disrupt political processes.
“We may be young and inexperienced, but it’s important that we speak up firmly if we want to make sure that these next five years are utilised for better and inclusive development of our Panchayats,” asserts Champa.