Women are driving the vote in Uttarakhand, home to 10 million people, and have made development issues central to the elections on May 13.
Much more than caste and community concerns, issues relating to water, firewood, employment, healthcare and education — in that order — are dominating the debate around elections in the state that sends 5 MPs to Parliament.
Suchita Chauhan, 40, the block pramukh (head) in Joshimath, lists water crisis, cooking fuel and employment as the biggest election issues this year.
“Of course religion matters to us, these mountains have some of the holiest of shrines in the country. But we all need to survive first, and for that we need water, fuel and jobs for our people locally,” she says.
With the enforcement of 50 per cent reservations for women at the panchayat level, women like her have become the agents for development in their respective villages.
“We are the only state in India that has strictly enforced 50 per cent reservation for women. Of the 7,239 gram panchayats in Uttarakhand, over 50 per cent — 3,743 — have women pradhans,” CM Bhuwan Chandra Khanduri AVSM (Retd), told the Hindustan Times.
Reservation in governance has given women political power and helped in the efficient implementation of development schemes at the panchayat level. “Over 30 per cent of Uttrakhand’s population are in the Indian armed forces and many others went out of the state for work, making the state dependent on ‘money-order economy’. Historically, women have been responsible for running the household and taking decisions, which is why water, fuel, fodder, farming and education are big election issues here,” said Khanduri.
What also makes development a bigger electoral issue is the comparatively higher literacy rate, 71.8 per cent compared to the national average of 61 per cent. In Uttrakhand, 83.3 per cent men and 59.6 per cent women are literate (national average, 73.4 per cent men, 47.8 per cent women). The sex ratio — number of girls to 1,000 boys is 964, much higher than the national average of 927.
The increased presence in governance has indeed made women vocal in their demands. Paini village in Chamoli district, is located over 6,000 feet and home to 600 people. The village is situated 1 km above a motorable road and can be accessed only by a steep path.
Lakshmi Devi, 50, says, the women have decided they will be heard. “All the women in my village will vote this year. The government is accountable to us, and election time is the best time to drive home the point.”