May 2008: Hunger Project Trained Women Bring Leadership to Gram Sabha in Bihar (India)

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Field report filed by Ruchi Yadav

State: Bihar | District: Muzzaffarpur | Hunger Project partner organization: NIRDESH

Field visit dates: 1-3 May 2008

Bimal, Usha Sinha and Usha Singh (fieldworkers from NIRDESH) and I attended four gram sabha’s presided over by three Hunger Project trained mukhyia’s (panchayat president) and one non-Hunger Project trained mukhyia, over a period of two days. Following is a brief narrative report:

Gram Sabha under Pushpa Devi (venue: community hall, panchayat: sadatpur, block: kanti): We reached the venue at 10 am where the GS was scheduled. The community hall was locked and there was no one. Both the Usha’s wondered whether the GS had been cancelled. We rushed to the house of Pushpa Devi. She was waiting to leave her house. The secretary was also present there and was taking some instructions from the MP (mukhyia pati). We again went back to the community hall. It was opened and swept in front of us. By this time it was 11 am and around four people were there. Pushpa Devi said that she had informed people by word of mouth that the GS will take place at 9 am! The people who came in said that they were informed that the GS will take place at 10 am! Anyhow, by 11 am the GS was in swing, with participation of around 50 people. The secretary took the minutes. Everyone sat on the floor, while the MP sat on a chair. He did try and take control of the GS, however, Pushpa Devi chaired the meeting fairly well. The ward members in the panchayat were also trained by Hunger Project. The agenda was read out. Discussions took place on BPL, widow pension, housing allocations etc. The register was rotated for signatures

Key insights: Pushpa Devi is from the upper caste community and her husband was the former president. She has undergone both Hunger Project + Aagaaz trainings. Her performance in the GS can be termed as fair. She was substantially dominated by her husband and the secretary in the GS, though I am told that she has done some excellent work in the panchayat. She had good support from the ward members, however, her approachability amidst other people from the panchayat seemed low. What seemed to me was that she as an individual has come a long way, but as an inclusive leader there is still a long way to go. The usual allegations of the mukhiya not working were placed, but not openly.

I was also informed that the GS was only for the village and not the entire panchayat! Not an acceptable practice though, but one that was accepted by the secretary and mukhiya and the Hunger Project + Aagaaz trained ward members!

Off course I left this GS with a heavy heart, but nothing prepared me for what I was to witness in a couple of minutes!

Gram Sabha under Amita (venue: primary school premises in the open under 3-4 huge trees, panchayat: dadar kolhua, block: kanti): After a precarious ride over a narrow “bandh” and walk through fields we approached a setting that was stunning! There were around 400 men and women, women mostly seated and men on the fringes facing a lead table where Amita, the secretary and ward members were sitting. There was mike arrangement and a videographer documenting the proceedings. People from four villages in the panchayat had been mobilized notice in front of the mukhyia’s office, and loudspeaker announcements on rickshaw. The main agenda was regarding the chief minister’s housing plan that had recently been announced.

Key insights: Amita is an OBC, from a BPL family and is an intermediate graduate. (which may mean anything, since I was told that in the previous regime degrees/certificates were delivered at home to complete quota). She has undergone both Hunger Project + Aagaaz trainings. Her transition, through the two years from a nervous newly elected women representative to a confident leader has been amazing. From not stepping out of the house and a very long “ghoonghat” to conducting a meeting amidst 400 people, most of whom had various grievances against the administration is indeed very brave. To top it, though she had documented 500 cases of potential BPL families and submitted to the administration, only 100 had been approved by them. The rest 400 were obviously livid! Yet she called the GS and was facing quizzed incessantly about something that was beyond her control! Yet she handled everything with great aplomb. All (and there were many) requests were heard and she insured that the secretary took a note of every query. At one point she even thrust the mike onto the secretary’s face and asked him to reply to a woman whose family had not been awarded benefits of a particular scheme, though they were rightfully due since the last couple of months. The usual issues on NREGA, issues of land less people, road repair, electricity, ration card, BPL, widow pension and old age pension were raised. The atmosphere overall was very tense.

Throughout the proceedings, Amita encouraged women and men to speak and even addressed some of the issues. Notably, her husband was not at all an active member of the proceedings.

We left the meeting after some time, since our presence was a distraction. We were told that the GS continued for some time after we left. The lesson learned was that the same GS should definitely be observed again in August to observe the progress.

Gram Sabha under Lakhi Devi (venue: shiv mandir premises in the open under one large pipal tree, panchayat: mursandi, block: motipur): Preparations for the GS were underway when we reached around 10 am. Within half an hour there was a strong 200 person crowd, with equal numbers of men and women. There was video recording. GS mobilation had taken place via loud speakers on a rickshaw. The secretary was also present and was very uncooperative. He directed all queries to the mukhyia and took no responsibility regarding any lapses in timely implementation of schemes. Overall the environment was very hostile and aggressive.

Key insights: Lakhi Devi is a Dalit, from a BPL family and is an intermediate graduate. She has undergone Hunger Project trainings, and most recently has been enrolled for the current Aagaaz batch. Her husband works in Delhi. Her panchayat constitutes 5 villages. Her particular village is 85% Bhumiyar (landed Brahmins) and other upper caste dominated. SC community is only 15%. The previous mukhyia was from the Bhumiyar community. A large number of queries during the GS were directed at proving that she is an incapable dalit women mukhyia! However, she answered and faced all the allegations and tried to convince the community about their misunderstanding. Despite a tirade of allegations, she continued to encourage the people to speak and patiently dealt with the issues.

Given thousands of years of discrimination and marginalization, it was truly a courageous women leader out there, taking a keen interest in her community’s needs and sharing with them PRI related and government schemes related information. She rose above the dominant caste politics and proved that given relevant inputs and support, women out there are ready to take governance in their hands and become effective and inspiring leaders. Amidst a crowd of 200 men and women, Lakhi Devi was the only visible voice of reason!

Gram Sabha under Mukhyiya Pati (MP) of EWR Kaushalya Devi (venue: bhavan, panchayat: jabalpur, block: lalganj): This was an eye-opener. Kaushalya Devi was from the politically powerful OBC community. Kaushalya was not trained by Hunger Project. However, we went to see how the GS was conducted in this particular panchayat. It was presided over by the MP, who openly said that it was not his (meaning mukhiyi’s) responsibility to conduct GS in May. That he was aware of only two GS- in January and August, when the flag is hoisted! After protesting by the fieldworkers on the absence of the actual Mukhiya all this while – did the MP go and fetch his wife, the real Mukhiya. She sat demurely in a corner on a chair while the MP and a member of the panchayat samiti gave wrong answers to queries and had a very threatening gaze! Some 40 women had come for the meeting. They did not say much because they feared they will be beaten up later!!!

Key insights: Obviously we were not expecting much, but we were not prepared for what we witnessed. There is huge cynicism out there regarding the real impact of the trainings beyond the training spaces, but here that particular mindset was completely exposed. Under no circumstances can a woman who has undergone the initial WLWs sit demurely or feign ignorance about the responsibility of both holding a GS and its importance. Moreover the trainings show women the mirror of the society she lives in and the structures that bind her. Most importantly the trainings show women the pathway to challenge and overcome repressive structures and give her a voice.

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