“Young People Should Run The Panchayat Administration”: Story Of A Young Adivasi Woman Leader
For Laxmi Bhil (23), the Bhil Adivasi Sarpanch (President), Kabra Village Council, Bhilwara District, Rajasthan, contesting elections was both taxing and rewarding. A nursing student, Laxmi fought hard against the prevailing notions of women’s space in politics and questions about her ability to run for public office as a young woman.
Laxmi was 21 when she ran for the office of Sarpanch in her village. She had political aspirations from an even younger age, especially to serve the most marginalised groups.
A first generation student, she is the first and only person from her village to pursue higher education when she enrolled in BSc Nursing course in Udaipur.
“I was not interested in studying nursing. I wouldn’t say I like injections. I took up the course only because my father persuaded me. It was his dream. I wanted to study humanities. But then I yielded because nursing also allows me to serve society.”
She is currently in her final year and divides her time between completing her education and dispensing her duties as a sarpanch.
Laxmi has other reasons to enter politics. Her Gram Panchayat falls within a predominantly a mining area which has implications on the health of the people. Mining has affected the local crop yield, polluted water sources and destroyed livelihoods in the region, making it very fragile.
As a public representative, Laxmi intends to work on these issues during her time in office. “I need time to learn more and build my skills before I can approach this giant corporation.”
There are other issues she wants to address during her tenure.
“Children of this panchayat have to travel long distances to pursue higher education. As a result, many drop out. For girls, the situation becomes even direr as they are forced into early and child marriage. I want to ensure a complete stop is put to this harmful practice.
“Apart from education, I also want to focus on healthcare and ensure people have access to basic amenities in the panchayat. My community has remained backward even to this day. As the majority of people have never attended school, they find it difficult to acquire decent jobs.”
“I also want to enable women to have access to vocational skills so that they can be self-reliant.I want to bring in a major shift in the way things were done in the past.”
As a woman running for public office, she has seen the deep-seated patriarchal norms that governed women’s participation in decision-making processes. She wanted to increase the visibility of women in a hyper-masculine political space.
“Women should come forward in all fields, including politics, especially now that there are opportunities due to quotas.”
However, these spaces need to be safe for women too. Violence against women in politics is a clear deterrent to women’s political participation – be it voting, running for or remaining in elected office.
“Women will have the confidence to step out of their houses if their safety is ensured.”
Laxmi found support in her friends and her mother, who accompanied her on the door-to-door election campaign
“Press the balloon button. Make Laxmi win.”
She was particularly keen about mobilising the younger voters in her constituency.
“’Young people step forward, and run the panchayat administration”, she was often found saying during her campaign.
Laxmi’s mother was her constant source of support throughout her campaign. Deu Bhil, who had never attended school herself, left no stone unturned to make her daughter’s campaign a roaring success. at times when Laxmi was exhausted during the campaign, her mother gave her the extra nudge to persist.
“I have gained complete support for my candidature from my parents. They have never forced me to get married (unlike many other girls in the village) and have allowed me to soar.”
Prem Lal Bhil, Laxmi’s father, was often seen assuring the constituents that his daughter would not end up as another ‘proxy’ candidate. He had encouraged her to follow her dreams since she was child.
Even though she was one of the youngest among the candidates, men in the village stepped out to encourage her as well.
“Women are in no way inferior to men. They shouldn’t shy away from politics. We want the person elected to office to perform their duties irrespective of their gender,” said Madhuji Jat, a resident of Kabra village.
“We are confident that she will stand for the larger causes affecting the community. The earlier presidents have only focused on making money. However, we see Laxmi as competent, educated and passionate”, said another resident of the village.
“People in our society want to control women. They don’t want women working. I think reservation puts women on a level playing field. Women have remained devoid of their basic rights for centuries. They should not have to live in fear and should be able to access opportunities equally. I hope Laxmi will leave her mark for the next generation of women and girls.”said Premlal Bhil, Laxmi’s father .
On election day, women turned up in large numbers to exercise their franchise. “This is a huge opportunity to elect the right leaders. Now is the time to express our choice. Voting is our right, and we want to choose a president who will work for our issues,” said several women voters.
After her win, exhausted but fired up,Laxmi said, “Now that I have tasted electoral victory, I am excited about the future. I want to perform well, earn the community’s trust and respect, and do something constructive. I want Kabra to become a model gram panchayat.”
Getting Down To Business
Laxmi got to work immediately. She joined THP India’s leadership workshops to build her skills and capacities. It has been over a year, and Laxmi is always on her toes monitoring panchayat services and infrastructure. For better nutrition and healthcare facilities, especially during the pandemic, she makes sure that the anganwadi (creche) centres function smoothly. Along with another panchayat president, she got the Rajasthan assembly president to sanction a water project worth INR 17,05,00,000 (USD 22,973,01), laying pipelines that will ensure piped water to each household in 11 villages.
“There are many miles to go,” says Laxmi. She is aware of the challenges and how they would shape her interactions, choices, and work she will be able to engage in. But she is determined to leave a meaningful legacy behind.
Laxmi continues to inspire young women with aspirations to enter politics. 22 young women who were part of The Hunger Project India’s adolescent girls’ programme also contested the Rajasthan Panchayat elections for various positions. Of these, eight won the ward member seats in the Sirohi district.
[In 2020, THP India undertook an elaborate photo project of visualising women’s representation and participation in local governance. We began with a documentation of the electoral process in the gram panchayat (village council) elections in Rajasthan, walking alongside three women candidates on their respective campaign trails. And it culminated in Karnataka in 2021, where we conversed with three newly elected women representatives in village councils embarking on new leadership journeys. The six-part series includes profiles of women candidates and elected women representatives refusing to bow down to the status quo. The work is currently on display at the Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, Sweden.]
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