This article was published as part of Gateway House’s Democracy in Motion report on 9 AUGUST 2012.
In the summer of 2012, I took a journey through the villages of six states in India: Gujarat, Assam, Bengal, Odisha, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh.
It was a fascinating journey, and I returned full of hope. In our villages lives a vibrant India, and one where there are many fine examples of good governance driven by strong local grassroots participation.
I saw that in places where the people took active part in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs are local governance bodies in rural India), government subsidies and schemes were more efficiently and honestly utilised. Consequently, these villages had noticeably higher development indicators.
Equally interesting: where larger numbers of women were on the Panchayats, or more women were Pradhans (heads of the village governing council), the outcomes were better. For example, in Lobsan village in Sabarkantha district in Gujarat, where the Pradhan was Zahera Daruwalla, the village primary school was better staffed, facilities for drinking water were better, and the village was cleaner and more hygienic, than the other villages I visited in the same district.
To my pleasant surprise, very few of these women were regarded in their villages as proxies for the men in their families. While many had initially stood for elections on the quota reserved for women in PRIs, I was delighted to see that many women were also confident of standing and winning on merit.
The story of the Didis or Sisters of Sampoorna, in the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, is one such amazing example.
The Karanjia block in this district is an area that has been historically characterised by high poverty levels and mass migration to cities. The population of this area is predominantly adivasi (tribal)—the Santhal, Munda, Bathudi and Kolha are the major tribes here. Villages are located in the fringe and buffer areas of the forests of Simlipal, and the adivasis are dependent on forest products.
The women of this district are artistic. Each home is beautifully decorated in colours and designs that could grace the museums of Paris. But their days are long and hard. Every morning, they rise at 4 a.m. and go in groups to the forest to gather sal leaves. When the day’s work is done, they sit until late at night weaving the leaves into plates and containers that are then picked up by middlemen and shipped to the temples of South India, for the distribution of prasadam to devotees. The selling price of these natural, eco-friendly and bio-degradable plates ranges from Rs. 60 to Rs. 100 per thousand—by any standards a pittance for the amount of effort put into making them, and indeed for their true value.
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Pradan and foundations like the Royal Bank of Scotland Foundation, have worked successfully in Karanjia block to organise women into self-help groups (SHGs). These groups focus on economically empowering their members. They encourage savings, help in the formation of thrifts, enable micro-credit, and facilitate alternative livelihood options such as producing and packaging spices and rearing commercial poultry, so that women have access to supplementary sources of income.
In many parts of the country SHGs coalesce to form a federation that enhances the economic strength of the groups. One such, called Sampoorna, was formed in Karanjia comprising 400 SHGs and a membership of approximately 6,000 women drawn from 255 villages.
Unlike other federations, Sampoorna, guided by Sulakshana Pandit, a bright 28-year-old young lady who works with Pradan, decided to focus on political empowerment rather than on economic activities.
Funded by a United Nations programme for women’s rights, Sulakshana and her team started workshops for the members of Sampoorna, to create awareness about PRIs and their role in village and district governance. In February 2012, as the panchayat elections approached, Sulakshana asked the Sampoorna didis if any of them would stand for the 125 panchayat ward seats in the Karanjia block.
To her astonishment, 137 women said they would. Supported by members of their SHGs and their friends and families, the Sisters of Sampoorna formed a formidable group. Confronted by this development, the established political parties swung into action—intimidation, monetary clout, and other tactics came into the picture. The women stood their ground, the elections were keenly fought, and the outcome is a wonderful example of Democracy in Motion.
Of the 125 panchayat ward seats, Sampoorna candidates won 88. For the 13 posts of Gram Pradhan or Sarpanch (head of the village panchayat), 29 Sampoorna sisters contested and 7 were elected. For the 13 Panchayat Samiti seats (this tier is an administrative division comprising a group of villages), 33 Sampoorna candidates filed papers and 8 won, and for the Zilla Parishad (at the district level) 8 Sampoorna sisters filed nominations and 2 succeeded.
This is an impressive set of statistics. As I interacted with the didis of Sampoorna, I found that their spirit was even more impressive. Those who had won shared a clear and focused agenda of the changes they would like to bring about in their villages. Those who lost felt no sense of dejection—they were confident that by holding those who had won accountable, they could also make a significant contribution to improving the quality of life in their villages.
I believe the example set by the Sisters of Sampoorna in Karanjia will, in time, resonate through our country. They have shown what can be achieved when ordinary citizens have the courage to come forward and participate in the political process. More importantly, the villagers who voted for them have shown that democracy is a gift—but only if we chose to put cynicism aside and exercise our franchise wisely.
About the Author : Meera H Sanyal is the Country Executive and Chairperson of the Royal Bank of Scotland, in India. In 2009 she stood as an Independent candidate for the Lok Sabha elections from South Mumbai. In 2011 she was the only woman leader from India to be invited by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to join her International Council on Women’s Business Leadership.