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Saturday, January 12, 2008

‘We won’t be doormats anymore’

India’s first all-women Muslim panchayat swept to power two years ago in Mewat, Haryana. They have been struggling to make real improvements in their village against the backdrop of a conservative, patriarchal society.

The feisty all-women Muslim panchayat in the interiors of Mewat (Haryana) is determined to make its presence felt. “There may be 3 million women panchayat members across the country, but we want our names to figure amongst those who count,” says 47-year-old Ashubi Khan who heads the all-women brigade.

When Ashubi says she wants her team to count, she means she wants her nine panchayat members to make a national impact on the basis of the projects they have executed. Their biggest achievement so far has been connecting their village to the Ujina canal which flows from Delhi to Rajasthan.

Mewat is a water-scarce region with village women forced to walk over a kilometre to fetch drinking water for their homes. Agriculture here is largely rain-dependent and there are negligible irrigation facilities. “Linking our village with the Ujina canal will help us grow three crops a year,” says Ashubi with pride.

But getting the pipes in place does not mean that water has started flowing. For that they will have to grapple with local bureaucrats in the irrigation department who will have to sanction the opening of sluices for the water to flow.

Members of the team realise that crossing this barrier will entail making innumerable visits to various government offices. They are used to it. Every achievement in their two-year tenure, whether it be kick-starting a high school, getting permission for a girls junior-level school, or improving the primary health centre, has meant knocking at the doors of the tehsildar, block development officer (BDO), local health workers, et al, all of whom have treated the illiterate women with disdain.

India’s first all-women Muslim panchayat was swept to power two years ago. The 73rd constitutional amendment mandated that 33% of all panchayat seats be reserved for women. When the turn came for the Neemkheda seat to be reserved for women, Ashubi decided to make a bid for it.

“ A lot of discussion preceded my decision. The men in our village had done nothing for us in the last decade. They would not even hold regular meetings. Therefore, the women felt it was time they tried to do something positive,” says Ashubi.

It’s easy to see why Ashubi was selected sarpanch. Her husband, Israel Khan, is the most affluent person in the village; he runs a business. Plus, their family owns 20 acres of land. Their beautiful home is equipped with all the latest gadgetry, and there is a white Sumo parked in a lane next to their house.

When I arrive at the house, the entire village is in the grip of a power cut. But here, thanks to a generator, a washing machine whirrs loudly from inside the house. Ashubi has sent word for the other panchayat members to come to her house, but since they work as daily labourers in the fields of better-off farmers they will take a while to reach the house. Israel and her nephew Sujuddin, a graduate from Jamia Millia University, use the opportunity to elaborate on what it was like to have a women panchayat head a backward and extremely conservative community.

“Men here do not like taking orders from women. Once they (the women) arrive at a decision, I spread the word around amongst the men folk,” Israel says candidly. “We are a village with a population of 3,500. Most of the villagers are illiterate and so do not comprehend what steps must be taken to improve their lot.”

Israel Khan is actively involved in implementing projects, while Sujuddin helps out, especially with the correspondence.

The panchayat women appear to have all their priorities right. The oldest among them, 70-year-old Mehmoona, elaborates on the responsibilities that fell on their shoulders once they were voted into office.

“We are determined to work hard. We have great plans to create some sort of social infrastructural network for the villagers. Unfortunately, not being able to read or write placed us at a great disadvantage because we had to depend on our husbands or on other villagers to explain the nitty-gritties involved in all this paperwork,” she says.

“It has been such an uphill fight for us. We made so many suggestions but no one would listen to us. Finally, in disgust, we jointly tendered our resignation last year. The worst thing is that even the local officer could not understand why a bunch of illiterate Muslim women wanted to come forward and improve their lot,” says 60-year-old Majiden.

Fortunately for them, Congress President Sonia Gandhi happened to read about the women’s resignation and asked Panchayati Raj Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar to intervene. His intervention brought in Meenakshi Dutta Ghosh, former Secretary, Panchayati Raj, who persuaded the women to take back their resignations. It also brought a local Haryana minister scurrying to their doorstep. He assured them that from now on they would receive a regular supply of water.

“For a few days, a tanker carrying water came to our village four times a day. But that soon stopped,” explains Ashubi. A daily bus service to help students studying in the nearby town of Pulwana was started, only to be discontinued 20 days later.

“Sab ghoshna karne aate hain, kaam koi nahin karta (Everyone talks, no one does the work)” is how they sum up these interventions.

But the women, probably because of their experience as daily wagers, were savvy when it came to ensuring proper utilisation of panchayat funds. The state government has allocated the panchayat Rs 12 lakh for road-building, Rs 1 lakh to construct proper drains, Rs 2 lakh for levelling work, and Rs 15,000 as part of the Jawahar Yojana.

“A lot of discussions preceded the utilisation of these funds. We wanted to make sure every paisa was spent and not swindled by contractors,” says Mehmoona.

It is because of their intervention that the village will finally get a pucca road. They also hope to have a drainage system in place by the end of 2008.

Other successes have been getting the primary school to start an all-girls wing. Fifty girls study here at present. The middle school has been extended up to the 12th class, and enrolment has shot up from 80 to 450 children.

“The people here are very conservative. They would not send their girls to primary school because that would have meant their studying alongside boys. Our initiative to have a separate primary school for girls has ensured that parents send their daughters to study,” Ashubi explains.

A village education committee has also been put in place. “Their job is to oversee the performance of teachers and ensure that they do not skip classes, as is the norm in our villages,” she adds.

The panchayat helps resolve family disputes and is trying to put a curb on dowry, though without much success. “Dowry is not a part of Islam, but no Muslim girl can get married today without her father giving a motorcycle to the groom,” says Ashubi.

The other problem in the village is that marriages are solemnised when the couple are still young. “If a girl or boy has crossed the age of 18, they will not be able to find a partner. My own nephew, Sujuddin, is facing this problem. He is 24 years old -- too old to be married to a village girl. If he were to marry a city girl, she would not be accepted by his relatives,” says Ashubi.

Their proudest moment came earlier this year when they were visited by the Norwegian Minister for Local Government and Regional Development Magnhild Meltviet Kleppa. The panchayat spent Rs 1 lakh in putting up a shamiana and entertaining the minister.

“Our country’s reputation was at stake,” says Israel Khan. “The panchayat earns Rs 60,000 a year from renting out 25 acres of common village land. We spent it all on khatir daari and mehmaan baazi.

“ We got prior permission from the local district magistrate before incurring these expenses,” he explains.

The women’s biggest complaint remains having to deal with local government officials. “We have to fight the local bureaucracy tooth and nail even to get small things approved. That tends to make one lose heart,” says Ashubi. “For example, they have laid the water pipes, but have not given us the water connection.”

The women feel that if nothing happens in the coming weeks they will once again resort to the extreme step of handing in their resignations. “We are not interested in clinging to power,” they say. This time, however, they will not do so quietly. They plan to hold a press conference in order to create a public debate around their decision to resign.

These women do not believe in pulling their punches. They are willing to work hard but feel the time has come for local bureaucrats to stop treating panchayat members like doormats.

Source: InfoChange News

Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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