Mrs. Uma Sav: Inspirational Indian Village Manager

Despite deep fractiousness over the Women’s Reservation Bill, shining examples abound of how such quotas can right the skewed gender picture of India’s gender unequal political landscape and transform lives of entire communities.

The 73rd amendment to the Indian Constitution mandated 33 per cent reservations for women in local governments including PRIs (Panchayati Raj Institutions) in 1992. This led to a dramatic upward spiral in the participation of women at the local level. According to a Panchayati Raj Ministry study in August 2008, of the 27.8 lakh panchayat representatives, 10.41 lakh are women. With the government further augmenting the percentage of women’s reservations at the panchayati raj level to 50 per cent last year, the numbers will ratchet up even more.

However, despite this transformation, reports of how elected women ‘sarpanches’ and ‘pradhans’ are harassed and undermined are legion. At the same time, there are also innumerable feel-good stories on the empowerment of women at the grassroots.

It’s this mixed report card that was the focus of a recent national workshop – ‘Strengthening Women Leadership in Panchayats’ – organised by the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) in New Delhi. Around 75 women Panchayat Elected Representatives from Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Gujarat had gathered to share their myriad experiences of addressing developmental challenges in their villages.

As discussions unfolded, it became evident that, in most cases, being a ‘sarpanch’ was a huge leap for these women. But it was Uma Sav, 40, sarpanch of the 1,250-strong village Sinha in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, whose story was among the most remarkable.

Despite belonging to the upper caste ‘ghani’ community, this class eight dropout’s daily concerns only revolved around what to cook for the family and how to take care of her four children. “When I came to the village in 1989 after my marriage,” says the sarpanch, dressed in a bright sari, vermillion embellishing her hair parting, “I was shy and found it tough to even interact with people. But, deep down, I always had the desire to work towards community goals – like bettering the village environment, improving the terrible roads, building schools and toilets.”

But even then never in her wildest dreams had Sav imagined that one day she would lead her village in realising these goals. There were happy auguries, of course – Sav’s easy camaraderie with other villagers, a pragmatic approach to community problems and a sense of sorority that she was able to inculcate amongst the village women. Based on these traits, Sav was encouraged by the village women to contest the local panchayat elections. “I thought if people have faith in me, why not give politics a shot?” she says.

With no prior political experience and little interest in contesting polls, she had nothing to lose in any case. So when the government earmarked Sinha as a reserved seat for women in 2005, Sav, with her family’s blessing, became the sarpanch.

And this is how she began the transformation of Sinha. In the beginning, Sav systematically identified the major problems plaguing her village. Drinking water, sanitation services, cleanliness, education, the drying up of the village pond and construction of roads were outlined as priorities. These were followed by other issues intrinsically associated with the functioning of a panchayat – like people not attending gram sabha (village assembly) meetings and men trying to influence its decisions by intimidating members.

When Sav became a sarpanch, there was little indication that she might take on an inspirational role. However, the minutes of the gram sabha meetings reveal how the spunky woman has wrought an amazing makeover in Sinha. She has managed to build a Panchayat Bhawan, pucca roads, 200 toilets and boundary walls for the local school. She has also ensured the installation of street lights and tubewells, water tanks and taps in households. There is now a network of covered drains and a well-functioning Public Distribution System.

But what are Sav’s most important contributions? According to her it is the timely and adequate provision of healthy mid-day meals in schools and simplifying the process of getting old-age pension. As she puts it with a rare wisdom, “Children and the elderly reflect the health of a community. So I’ve consciously worked towards these goals. Besides, I can proudly say that every household in my village has a toilet today!”

Apart from the efficient handling of education and the mid-day meal provision, Sav has also put in place infrastructure for getting the village pond deepened under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

Any major roadblocks? According to the ‘sarpanch’, the going is tough mainly because of financial constraints. She is allotted an abysmal Rs 40,000 (US$1=Rs 44.6) per year from the panchayat funds. This means urgent work often has to take a backseat, or be staggered over a longer period of time.

Sav has also struggled to ensure the quorum of the Panchayat and grappled with the high-handedness of the men in the village and other Panchayat members. Attacks on her family and her husband, Mallu Singh, a farmer, by rival candidates have also occurred intermittently. With many of the male candidates ganging up against her and launching a slander campaign, the odds are great.

“The defeated candidates and the anti-woman sarpanch lobby have often tried to intimidate my family,” elucidates Sav. “My husband was even attacked by goons.”

When Sav complained to the district collector, it didn’t have much effect. Unfortunately, each time she was able to strike a rapport with the collector, it was time for him/her to move to a new posting. However, rather than buckle under pressure, the sarpanch has built a strong community base and doggedly continued to script an exemplary story of courage and hard work.

Where does she derive her strength? Sav admits that she finds herself strengthened by challenges and her family’s support. A supportive husband, she says, has helped her realise her potential of initiating meaningful social change. “Plus, I also work with NGOs, who enrich my knowledge about schemes like MGNREGA, and how to use of the RTI. That keeps me well-informed and motivated,” says the resilient woman.

Does she think it has all been worth it? “Of course,” says Sav, unflinchingly. Despite the threats and the attacks? “If they manage to break me with these tactics, it’ll set a very bad precedent for other women. I’m their first representative in politics,” she reiterates.

How does she handle corruption, which often is an overarching problem in village panchayats? Does she believe in research findings that claim that women representatives function in an independent way and that possibilities for corruption plummet under their watch? Sav has a unique perspective to offer in response. “A woman’s focus is not on embezzlement but on using money judiciously. We are used to doing so at home and manage well with limited resources. We employ the same skill while managing the village funds by avoiding wasteful expenditure on functions like inaugurations and entertainment,” she says.

Call this native wisdom or feminism but it has certainly helped this sarpanch reach where she is today. No wonder Sav repeated her winning streak yet again in 2009 on the development plank – this time as an independent candidate. And despite her own schooling getting aborted, Sav has ensured that her four children don’t miss out on an education. Her eldest son is studying engineering in a college in Raigarh, while the other three sons attend a local school. Yes, the same one which their mother has fortified with strong boundary walls and a fresh lick of paint!

(c) Women’s Feature Service