You are here: Home Features Grassroots women get a shot at power in South Indian state
Grassroots women get a shot at power in South Indian state

Sep 15, 2013

Women sarpanches complain that the men are in a habit of pushing them into the background when it comes to dealing with district-level officials or making decisions related money, writes Usha Turaga-Revelli..

Mahbubnagar: Andhra Pradesh has provided 50 per cent reservation to women for the first time in the panchayat elections held recently. With half of the total 21,590 panchayats in the state having been allotted to women, the polls – that took place in three phases – have thrown up many successes as well as some learnings. Surprised candidates, intensely political contests complete with gimmicks and deceptions, and clear battle lines drawn between the major political parties, were all part of the electoral process.

When her panchayat was declared reserved, Jyothi of Metlakunta in Mahbubnagar district suddenly found herself being pushed into the political arena. She filed her nomination because her husband, a long-standing politician in the area, was forced to withdraw due to this reservation. She says, “It was completely out of the blue. Here I was this housewife whose role was restricted to supplying chai to the endless stream of my husband’s supporters and then, quite unexpectedly, I am made to wear this party kanduva (upper cloth worn usually by men in rural areas) and become a leader. Even now the feeling has yet to sink in.” The fact that her husband, too, was taken aback by the notification reflects in the many flex banners that still adorn the village, with his smiling image seeking votes.

But Jyothi’s inexperience is not about to hamper her work since she has a firm supporter in four-time ward member, Chukka Bai, who has decided to take the first-timer under her wing. Chukka Bai declares, "It was earlier Sarpanch saab. Now it is Sarpanch Madam. The issues are the same and we will fight for them. Whatever she needs to know, we are here to explain."

Incidentally, the reservation notification did not just take the women by surprise, but severely hit the ambitions of many male politicians, who resorted to their bag of tricks to deal with this “problem”. For instance, while a village in Prakasam district ‘chose’ an old beggar woman as its consensus candidate, just to avoid an election, elsewhere in the state a candidate advanced his wedding date just so that his new bride could stand in the elections in his place. "The power has to remain within the family. What else can he do?" a local journalist laconically comments. At places, the Election Commission even disqualified candidates for auctioning the posts of sarpanch.

But despite such efforts to cast a shadow on the polls and manipulate the results, the reservations have given wings to many women who were up for the challenge. Savitha Srinivas, Sarpanch of Garshakurthi village in Gangadhara mandal, Karimnagar district, is happy that she will play a major role in shaping the future of her community. She says, “I had no political aspirations before this. But when our panchayat was reserved for women, I kind of started seeing so many issues around me – and also ways to solve them. So, I thought, let me take the plunge. And today I am proud to say that I won on my own steam as an independent candidate.”

Interestingly, despite the fact that Andhra has been going through troubled times owing to the volatile Telangana issue, this was not a factor that affected either the contestants or the voters at the grassroots. They stuck to the basic development plank. In Tunkimetla village of Mahbubnagar district, the absence of proper roads was the central issue, while in Bomraspeta mandal, it was the poor drains. Health care, schools, public toilets, drinking water, uninterrupted electricity supply and aid to farmers were some of the other major issues that dominated the campaigns.

Today, in fact, there is unanimity in identifying the challenges. Limited funds is one and the new sarpanches and ward members are all worried about how to make allocations and how to lobby for more money. "The road that my son takes to the school is broken down and full of potholes. I know its repair should be a priority but I am already being told that there are no funds this financial year. There are many such roads and I know all mothers, like me, would be worried too," remarks Shakuntala Yantrapati, a leader from East Godavari district.

Of course, the one aspect the poll experience has highlighted is that women sarpanches and ward members need to make dedicated efforts to win over their constituency, manage funds and, most importantly, handle hostility from the men under their governance. Sadly, these are tough hurdles to get past. Observes S. Janakamma, a former sarpanch from Anantapur district, who has dealt with the problem of lack of control over the panchayat, "In the villages, the domination is never overt. The men make way purely because it is the rule and they have to let a woman contest. Often, the sarpanch herself has no say in what happens in the panchayat. It is the senior party leaders who take decisions. There was a time when my supporters clashed with opponents and I got to know of it only when a case was registered and I was summoned to the police station."

Women sarpanches also complain that the men are in a habit of pushing them into the background when it comes to dealing with district-level officials or making decisions related money. In Mahbubnagar district’s Pulponupally village, sarpanch Manemma is called only to sign or pose for photographs while her husband has de facto been playing her role, unquestioned and unchallenged.

However, for every Manemma, who has been being relegated to play a minor part, there’s also a Savitha Srinivas. This feisty leader, who garnered a majority of 400 votes, winning 1,620 votes out of the total 3,200 polled in Garshakurthi, is firm that she will not relinquish her hold over the agenda of her panchayat. "I am a graduate. And I have won in spite of the local dynamics and caste factors. Of course, the goodwill of our family over generations has helped. But now that I am here, I am going to do my work. The nearest Public Health Centre is 8 kilometres away at Gangadhara. I am going to lobby for one here to make it convenient for at least four villages. There is also a library sanctioned that I need to start setting it up," she says with determination.

After a moments silence, Srinivas declares with a broad smile, "I am going to be a model sarpanch, like that lady from Rajasthan.” She is referring to Chhavi Rajawat about whom she “remembers reading in the papers long back".

In Dhanwada mandal of Mahbubnagar, women have more than half the seats – apart from those reserved they contested from general seats as well. "Keep watching, the numbers will be even more in the next elections," asserts Tirupatamma of Jangamreddy village in the mandal.

The women sarpanches and ward members, it appears, are taking a lot of interest in the political and administrative matters in their villages. And they are out to prove that they are no longer willing to a mere “pretty” presence in the panchayat office.

Most Read
Most Shared
You May Like




Jobs at OneWorld










Global Goals 2030
OneWorld South Asia Group of Websites