Even with 56% presence, J’khand women sarpanches struggle to be heard

Ranchi (IANS) Only 11 of the 95 women heads (pradhans) in Dhanbad district of Jharkhand, responded to calls themselves on their mobiles, while the calls to 84 women heads were attended by their relatives, as per a survey.

The shocking result came after a media house in Jharkhand took up a survey a few months back to check how active the women representatives elected to the Gram Panchayats are in Jharkhand.

The calls to 84 women heads was picked up by their husband, brother-in-law, son or any other relative, who responded by saying …. “I am the husband of the chief”, “I am Mukhiyaji’s brother-in-law”, “I am Mukhiyaji’s son…Tell me, what is your work?”

When the 11 women heads, who attended the calls on their mobiles themselves, were asked about the development schemes in their panchayats, two-three of them said that their husbands or their relatives would be able to tell better about this, because they look after the field work.

This is the reality of the participation of women representatives in the work and development schemes of most of the gram panchayats of Jharkhand. There is a total of 50 per cent reservation for women in the three-tier gram panchayati raj system in the state.

In the elections held in the state in April-May last year, women were elected to about 40,000 posts out of some 63,701 posts in the panchayati raj institutions. In terms of numerical participation of women in panchayat level politics, this figure should be considered very hopeful, but the ground reality is the opposite. In the name of women representatives, their work is looked after by their husbands or by some influential man in their family.

In Jharkhand, the husband of a woman head is generally known as ‘MP’, i.e. ‘Mukhiyapati’ or ‘Mukhiya Pratinidhi’. In most of the panchayat meetings, instead of the woman head, her husband participates. The command over the decisions of the panchayats is also in their hands.

Even while meeting administrative officials at the block, sub-division and district level, these people introduce themselves as the chief’s husband or representative. In Jharkhand, there are peace committees for maintaining peace at the panchayat and block level. There too, in the name of women public representatives, their husbands or other male members of the family play an active role.

However, the state government has written to the Deputy Commissioners of all the districts, instructing them to ban the husbands, fathers or family members from attending meetings or gatherings instead of the women representatives. 

Senior journalist Sudhir Pal, who has been working on issues related to the empowerment of the panchayati raj system for the last two decades, says, “By winning the panchayat elections in 2022, women have become a part of the local governance system on about 56 per cent of the posts. Women representatives of tribal dominated areas of Jharkhand are more conscious about their rights. Their active participation in the functioning of panchayats has also increased continuously. The reason for this is that there is relatively less discrimination between men and women in the tribal society. Women of the tribal society have been more active socially as compared to the general rural society.”

“Despite winning the elections, it has not been very easy for women representatives in panchayats to create their own identity and separate path. The patriarchal rural society does not want to see women in prominent or influential roles,” Pal added.

A few months ago, in Dudhani panchayat of Dumka district of Jharkhand, a tribal woman head Julie Marandi was beaten up by six people, including Rakesh Yadav, the deputy head of the same panchayat, in the panchayat building, dragged by her hair and thrown out of the panchayat building. Yadav also hurled caste based abuses at her. The police later arrested some of the accused.

Last July, a complaint of misbehavior with Guddi Devi, head of Purnadih panchayat under Lesliganj block of Palamu district, by the BDO of the block came to light. Guddi Devi says that she was speaking with a mike during the Gram Swaraj Abhiyan on the situation in her panchayat, when the BDO forcibly snatched the mike from her hand and misbehaved.

Prasanna Mishra, a senior journalist from Hazaribagh, says, “Even though there is more than 56 per cent representation of women in panchayats, they are not able to truly exercise their rights. Even today, women’s participation in the Gram Sabha is not easy.”

However, despite adverse circumstances, many women representatives have carved out a distinct identity with their activism and work and were also awarded at the national level.

Last March, Munni Devi, head of Pithoria, Ranchi, received the Swachh Sujal Shakti Samman from President Droupadi Murmu. She did great work in water conservation, liquid waste management, in her gram panchayat.

In the panchayat where there was a serious water crisis, taps have now been installed in every house. Munni Devi worked hard to take the government scheme to every house of the panchayat. She says, “This is an honour for every person in the panchayat. Everyone cooperated in taking the government scheme to the ground.”

Neelam Tirkey, the head of Kamde panchayat near Ranchi, once worked as a daily wage labourer. In 2010, she was elected ward member in the panchayat for the first time. She did commendable work, after which she was elected to the post of chief twice consecutively.

Similarly, Indu Devi, who was the head of Kapilo panchayat under Birni block of Giridih, changed the picture of the entire panchayat. Along with improving the system of panchayat schools, she worked in the field of water management, garbage disposal, toilet construction, road construction and received the Nanaji Deshmukh Best Panchayat Sustainable Development National Award for three consecutive years — in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Her panchayat was also selected for the Deendayal Upadhyay Panchayati Raj Award.

Apart from panchayats, there has been a continuous increase in the participation of women in state politics. When Jharkhand was formed in 2000, the proportion of women MLAs in the state assembly was only five per cent, which increased to 10 per cent in 2010 and in the present assembly the number of women MLAs is 14.81 per cent.

There are a total of 12 women MLAs in the 82-member Jharkhand assembly. This is the highest number of women MLAs in the state so far.

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