With Haryana panchayat elections around the corner, I decided to reach out to a few women sarpanches to know their experiences. I was curious to know how much they got to contribute in their respective villages? What was their experience like? What kind of response did they get from men and women? Was there a difference? How cooperative were government officials? What about resources? Were they reasonable? How did they meet their day-to-day expenses? Were there budget provisions to do so? Did the new elected women get any training? How did they manage as families in rural areas are mostly male-driven? Who was the real sarpanch in such cases?
The interaction brought me a lot of insights into things. I was amazed to see women so perceptive. They knew what was needed and what was wrong. They were the perfect faculty for rural management institutes. But did any institute ever think of co-opting them as faculty to share what worked and what did not and how they dealt with others to get results? Unfortunately, no one as they are not formal MBAs.
I found them the real practical managers who knew life through the challenges they survive through. I am saying challenges, because without water and electricity and with minimum resources keeping the family going is not easy; on top of it, with husbands controlling them and government officials almost ignoring them. My heart cries out for them. They are the real teachers who know what needs to be learnt and changed in rural India, which comprises two thirds of the population.
Here are some of their statements which will stay with me. "Ensure we have a cocktail dinner," said a rural official to a woman sarpanch, who had invited him for dinner as she wanted a road in her village to be widened. When I asked her from where did she get the money to serve the cocktail dinner, she said she got it from her husband, that is why he dictated the terms.
Every time one of them called up the local MLA or the minister concerned for the development work in their village, he would say, "Route your request via the CM". "But why should I, you are our representative," she would respond, and he would disconnect the phone.
There is a short induction programme for them, they said, but nothing about the likely challenges at work and how to cope with them. Also, no introduction to the officials they would be working with and no sharing of experience with past sarpanches.
On dealing with men and women of the village, they said, they delivered to the extent possible. Men, of course, did not accept them, while many women were jealous and did not cooperate. Most women said they would not like to contest the elections again, terming it as a horrid experience.
When asked if they thought men and women differed in their work as sarpanches, they said, "Women unite the village whereas men divide it." On how they met their travel and other expenses, they replied that they did it from their own pockets, which meant they tokk the money from their husbands. There is hardly a provision that recognises this need. Men completely control women's mobility in rural areas. They decide for them and even perform the duties in their name most of the time.
What needs to be done
Having heard them, I deduce this: Women sarpanches need to be better empowered by resources and training. They must be introduced to key officials in the induction stage itself so that they are in the know and the need for cocktail dinners is eliminated.
An environment of handover and takeover must be held between the new incumbent and the past sarpanch. Government officials should play the connecting role. Perhaps a practice should be started and experimented with.
Also, the first-rank local officials in rural areas need to be overseen better by the district administration and the head offices, which appear to be rather weak or distant. My enquiries revealed absence of field visits and any worthwhile interactions with locals through rural tours and community interactions and dialogues with panchayats.
Unless the senior officials regularly visit villages, the situation would not change. Corruption and delays and cocktail dinners would prevail and women would remain an undermined potential in rural development.
During my interaction, there were two very telling statements. "Are villagers so worthless that they do not need electricity during the day? and "who could be a better manager than a woman, who manages her large family despite different constraints, yet becomes a sarpanch and struggles her way through again?
My key learning from this interaction is: unless the male-dominating mindset changes, women would not be able to contribute their full potential to society. And unless senior officials regularly visit villagers and connect with their residents, rural India would not change. And unless both these changes happen, India's development will remain urban-centric and migration from rural areas will continue to the detriment of overcrowded cities.
Solutions lie in the hands of self-driven field-oriented civil servants, better-quality politicians and progressive teachers sending out educated boys with inclusive mindsets and confident and informed girls.
The writer is former IPS officer and runs NGO Navjyoti India Foundation