Orissa’s Wonder Women
Orissa’s villages are beginning to see the benefits of committed women sarpanchs spearheading projects under the MGNREGS, and taking up problems and issues with government officials
There is a check dam in Laxmipur village, R Udayagir gram panchayat, in Orissa’s Gajapati district, which irrigates around 40 acres of land belonging to 70 small and marginal farmers. Premlata Raita, 48, the woman sarpanch of R Udayagir, is the person responsible for the dam. Indeed, she has initiated several projects under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) aimed at enriching the life and livelihoods of the people in her panchayat. In the last financial year she spent a record Rs 80 lakh under the scheme, earning herself an award from the state government’s panchayati raj department.
A total of 139 families were given 100 days of work under the MGNREGS in R Udayagir. In this tribal-dominated panchayat, categorised as a scheduled area under the 5th Schedule of the Indian Constitution because of its overwhelmingly tribal population, the enhanced income from wages under the MGNREGS and indirectly, through better irrigation facilities, land development, roads and other infrastructure, has improved consumption patterns. Says Manjuri Paika, a woman activist and winner of the governor’s award: “Income from the MGNREGS has helped us spend more on the education of our children, agriculture, reaching out to our relatives in other villages, and on community functions that increase socialisation in the villages.”
Proper implementation of the employment guarantee scheme has also checked distress migration in the panchayat; seasoned migrant workers no longer have to seek work outside their village.
Premlata has a long list of schemes implemented in the panchayat over the last three years she has been in office. She has provided pucca houses to 400 families under the Indira Awas Yojana (IAY) and the ‘Mo Kudia’ scheme, revived the Gaon Kalyan Samiti (village health committee), improved sanitation facilities under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). People have also benefited from the ASHA scheme, and schools offer midday meals to their children. Premlata approaches the BDO and tehsildar for any problem that may crop up. How does this simple 9th-standard-pass woman muster up the courage to face senior officials like BDOs and tehsildars? Premlata explains: “Initially, I was afraid of these senior officials. But eventually the fear went, as I am here as a people’s representative and have to work for people. It’s my duty to articulate the village situation at every official meeting, as people trust and depend on me. The faith and confidence of people in me provides me the courage.”
Premlata is a Christian and belongs to the Scheduled Tribes. Her husband Manika Raita works in a church, and they have a son. There was no indication of any form of ‘proxy’ power being enjoyed by male members of Premlata’s family.
Premlata was first elected a ward member in 1992; she became sarpanch in 2007. The long gap did not dampen her spirit. She ensures that the panchayat office is open on all work days. Peon Rama Goud says: “Even if madam has a fever she still comes to office.”
Premlata is one of several successful women PRI (panchayati raj institution) representatives Orissa has produced. The 73rd Amendment of 1993, providing reservation for women at the grassroots level, has gone a long way in the empowerment of Indian women.
Observations from Orissa suggest that the journey involved several phases, starting with awe and fear at the inclusion of women in party politics, characterised by ‘proxy rule’ by male relatives of the female representatives and dominance of male members and senior officials in decision-making, etc. Litali Das, a social activist who works with women’s issues, cites some instances. “In 2009, in Nuapada district, some women sarpanchs in Boden block wanted to convene a gram sabha. But the BDO was not convinced. The ladies then showed him the Orissa panchayati raj manual that stipulates the mandatory holding of gram sabhas at least four times a year. The BDO capitulated.”
We are gradually seeing the realisation of the objectives of the 73rd Amendment. The involvement of NGOs in generating awareness among women representatives has yielded results. Women are now able to participate in discussions and decision-making within the three-tier panchayat system. The first visible gain is, of course, the increased participation of women at village meets, not only in numbers but in the quality of their involvement.
Apart from becoming panchayat administrators, women representatives have also emerged as leaders, taking local issues up at higher levels. In one case, the Andhra Pradesh government was building a dam in the border area of Orissa’s Gajapati district. Three villages in Gangabada gram panchayat were scheduled to be submerged. Sarpanch Sumitra Sabar galvanised and led her community in launching a successful agitation and making it an inter-state issue. Her untiring efforts caught the attention of the powers-that-be; construction of the dam has since stopped.
In another instance, Sangeeta Nayak, sarpanch of Borda gram panchayat in Kalahandi district, mobilised around 3,000 people to block the collector’s path. They got a doctor appointed in the village primary health centre that had not seen a doctor for years. Similarly, Nayana Patra, a lady ward officer in Baruan gram panchayat in Dhenkanal district, has set an example in improving the education system in her village (the school dropout rate has since declined considerably), and in protecting local forests. Purnavasi Nayak of Damala gram panchayat, Gajapati district, has successfully set up market linkages for farmers in the area, vastly increasing their profits. In Bingharpur gram panchayat, Khurda district, under the leadership of Ruma Sahu, a lady ward officer, women are struggling to close down a liquor shop and have drawn the attention of the Chief Minister to the problem.
Minati Padhi of the Institute for Women’s Development (IWD), who has been guiding women representatives like Premlata Raita, says: “Our women representatives in panchayats are no less than Sonia Gandhi, Sheila Dikshit or Mayawati in terms of performance and leadership. The experiences on the ground provide enough evidence about the efficiency of women in politics. Members of Parliament should pass the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament providing one-third reservation for women in central and state legislature.”
By Pradeep Baisakh