The Hunger Project's Work in Tamil Nadu: Icons of Change
Tamil Nadu held panchayat (village council) elections in two phases starting on the 13th and 15th October in 2006 in all 12,618 gram panchayats. All districts went to the polls and 1,16,488 representatives were elected in all three tiers of the Panchayati Raj Institutions. Among them are 39,364 women representatives. They are the new panchayat leaders – the icons of change in rural Tamil Nadu.
Following the elections, the newly elected women representatives (EWRs) are strong, enthusiastic, vocal and most likely more literate than their counterparts in the rest of India. The state boasts a very active federation of elected women representatives, which provides a platform through which the members lobby and undertake advocacy of policy issues that hinder their leadership.
Through their strong leadership, the EWRs of Tamil Nadu were able to change the existing law relating to the Rotation of Reservation. Unique in the whole country, Tamil Nadu now has a rotation of positions especially for women and Dalits once in ten years.
Women's Leadership Workshop
In 2007, being that it was the first year after local body elections, the partners focused on holding Women’s Leadership Workshops (WLWs). Many of the newly EWRs who are entering the public arena for the first time lack confidence, information, and knowledge of roles and responsibilities. They feel isolated in their new role. Therefore, Women’s Leadership Workshops have been created keeping the needs of the newly elected women leaders in mind. The purpose of these workshops is to build their self-confidence and help them in preparing themselves for their new role. The participatory style of the workshop provides for sharing and learning from each other’s experiences and discovering their own strength. The workshop seeks to instill and facilitate:
- Creation of a sense of self-esteem and dignity;
- A shift from a mindset of "I cannot" to "I can;"
- Understanding of the self as a woman, caste, class, religion, and leader;
- Understanding political citizenship;
- Articulation of a vision for their communities;
- Skills to be effective panchayat leaders;
- Understanding society as a system and understanding how power imbalances operate;
- Creation of a sense of solidarity with others committed to this cause; and
- Emphasis on the importance of the participation of women in regular panchayat meetings and Gram Sabhas (general body meetings).
As of October 2007, ten WLWs had been completed in seven districts with a goal of holding 31 WLWs by year's end.
My Panchayat is rich in silicon and it is mined illegally. When I mobilized people in my panchayat and organized protests, I got arrested. Only after the village people demanded my release was I freed. Since then I have approached the court for a stay on silicon mining in our area. I am actively involved in the promotion of village development. I urge all my sisters to actively participate in their posts so that we can end corruption in the state.
M. Rani,President, Vanduvancheri Panchayat, Nagapattinam District, Tamil Nadu
I am a Dalit and my panchayat is located in a deep forest in the Nilgiris. 85 percent of the population is from tribal communities and the rest belong to the Scheduled Castes. This is the smallest panchayat in the Nilgiris District.
In the year 2000, the women of my village started a Self-Help Group (SHG) with the guidance of Island Trust, an NGO working in Kotagiri. When the panchayat elections were announced in 2001, I was asked to contest for the post of Panchayat President by our group. Seven others (four men and three women) from the Scheduled Caste community contested the elections. The contest was close, but I won by a margin of ten votes. I brought a water connection to my village and also got approval for electric lights for my village. All my efforts were for the development of my village. The people supported and cooperated with me in all the five years of my tenure.
During the recent local body elections in October 2006, the status of my constituency was de-reserved for Dalits and became a General Seat. Many felt I wouldn’t contest elections and some of the contestants backed by political parties approached me and threatened me to withdraw from the contest. But I still filed my nominations.
The Hunger Project had invited me to Delhi in October 2006 to take part in the Sarojini Naidu Prize Award Ceremony (SNP). The function was held in Mr. Mani Shanker Aiyar’s house, where I could meet EWRs from all over India and share our experiences. Their experiences and our interaction with the Minister motivated me to face the challenges in the panchayat elections.
Close on the event's heels, elections were held and this time, four men and three women were also in the fray. When I went to Delhi, my rivals started a rumor that I was absconding from the village, fearing that I may lose elections. Candidates fielded by the party were trying to woo the voters with tall promises and gifts, liquor and food. I had lost my hope of winning the elections.
At this critical situation, the Sakthi Cultural Team comprising young Dalit women drummers deputed by The Hunger Project for the pre-election campaign came to Kadinamala Panchayat to campaign for a fair and clean election process. Through dance and drama they projected the need to choose a leader who would work for their development. Despite all these impediments created by power politics, and the might of money, liquor and violence, I won the elections by a margin of 86 votes. I deem this as recognition for my good work and feel happy. I am going ahead with the task of developing my panchayat further.
Mrs. Lakshmi, Kadinamala Panchayat, Kotagriri Taluk, Nilgiris District
In the last half of 2006, The Hunger Project decided to implement SWEEP – Strengthening Women’s Empowerment through Electoral Processes – to encourage more women to contest in the panchayat elections. The objective was also to avoid election of proxy candidates and to appeal to the voters to elect genuine and capable candidates interested in bringing positive change in the village panchayats. Twenty-three field-level partner organizations collaborated with The Hunger Project to implement SWEEP in 1,892 panchayats in 22 districts of Tamil Nadu.
The results of the SWEEP campaign are listed below:
- Women trained to contest in elections: 21,134
- Women trained to work as booth agents: 6,709
- Women trained to work as counting agents: 3,348
- Women filed their nominations for ward members: 2,772 (13%)
- Women filed for the post of Presidents: 768 (3.60%)
- Women won as Ward Members: 1,281 (6.06%)
- Women won as Presidents: 257 (33.46%)
Two "Training of Trainers" workshops were held to train field-level staff to implement SWEEP in 16 districts. An all-women Dalit drummers troupe called "Shakti" was commissioned to spread the message of a clean and representative election through dance and drama.
The Hunger Project continues to work with ten partner organizations and is now focusing more on building the capacities of tribal and Dalit women in Tamil Nadu.
Shakti troupe spreading the message through dance and song
State-Level Convention of Elected Women Representatives
In a recent move to welcome the newly elected women representatives, The Hunger Project, in collaboration with other partners, organized a state-level convention of elected women representatives of Panchayati Raj Institutions to celebrate International Women’s Day at Trichy on March 10, 2007. One thousand and four hundred newly elected women representatives participated in the convention, entitled "We Govern," and shared their experiences of the election process and their hopes and aspirations for the coming five years. The convention was held to focus on the role of women representatives and help the participants understand the powers vested in them for ensuring a more efficient and independent governance of local bodies. "Democracy would prosper in those local bodies which are bestowed with women representatives," observed former Chairperson of the State Women’s Commission, Dr. Vasanthi Devi, exhorting them to imbibe the qualities of a leader and serve the people. Emphasizing the need for quality education to rural children, she urged the representatives to monitor the strength of teachers in rural schools and their attendance.
Women Leaders Presenting their Charter of Demands to the Government.
Following the Convention, the 1,400 Dalit panchayat representatives present across party lines were of the view that Tamil Nadu has a long way to go in implementing the 73rd Constitutional Amendment in letter and spirit. Because (a) the culture of local self-governance as envisaged in Part IX of the Constitution is uneven in the State; and (b) the Panchayat Raj reforms are not institutionalized -- the worst victims are the women and Dalits who contest the constitutionally mandated panchayat elections, the Dalits who get elected as members, as well as those occupying the offices of Vice-President or President. Tamil Nadu, which has achieved remarkable success in political process and economic development, is far behind in the area of social development because of the caste system. This is reflected in all walks of life. Today it is even more acutely felt as the new generations of panchayats have come into existence.
Therefore the Elected Women Representatives of Local Government of Tamil Nadu placed before the Government of Tamil Nadu 17 demands.
- Though five months have passed since the PRI elections and the elected women representatives have been sworn into power, the roles and responsibilities are not yet handed over to the newly elected representatives of the panchayats. This results in non-functioning of the panchayats. Hence we urge the Government of Tamil Nadu to intervene in this issue and to ensure the handover of responsibilities to the respective Panchayat Presidents.
- All arrangements must be made for imparting special training to the women and Dalit elected panchayat members enabling them to understand their rights and responsibilities in the third tier of Government, i.e. the panchayats.
- We demand that Section 205 of Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act 1994 which has given powers to the District Collector to remove the Panchayat Presidents from Office without enquiry should be repealed by making an amendment to the Act. Because of the prevalence of Section 205, the SC/ST members are the worst affected.
- We demand the Tamil Nadu Government to stop indiscriminate sand mining in river basins. This has resulted in the depletion of drinking water and irrigation water resources. Despite court orders and The Tamil Nadu Minor Mineral Concession Rules, 1959 and Mines and Minerals (Regulations and Development) Act 1957, regular illegal sand mining and discharge of effluents from dying factory are taking place. This is resulting in contamination of water resources and depleting of water tables. We urge the Government of Tamil Nadu to take reparatory measures to safeguard the livelihood resources of the panchayats where sand has been over quarried.
- We also demand that all the rights over the common property resources shall be vested to the panchayats so as to protect the livelihood resources of the panchayats.
- The livelihood resources of panchayats such as land, water, minerals etc. are going to be depleted by the implementation of Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and hence we demand that the Government of Tamil Nadu should frame guidelines that before implementing SEZ, the concerned District Administration should get a mandated NOC from the respective Panchayats.
Partnership with the Media
While the political circles were seething with anger on the Supreme Courts ban on quota for Other Backward Classes in educational institutions, the media was invited to take a look at the reservations of a different kind – the ones which have benefited the marginalized in a different sphere. At a media conference organized on March 30, 2007 at Hotel Palm Grove, Chennai, The Hunger Project team shared the various criteria for the Sarojini Naidu Prize (SNP) 2007. While Ms. Sriparna G Chaudhuri presented the salient features of the award, Mr. Maalan briefed the press about The Hunger Project’s activities and objectives. Mr. Arun Ram, Chief of bureau of the newspaper DNA and a past winner of Sarojini Naidu Prize 2004, narrated his experiences with grassroots women’s leadership and the insight it gave him on local governance. The media conference was attended by the reporters of the mainstream media. The Hindu carried a news item on the Sarojini Naidu Prize the next day and Doordarshan highlighted the criteria of the prize in its prime time Tamil News at 10 p.m.
Another media conference was held at Coimbatore, the second largest town of Tamil Nadu on May 17, 2007 in collaboration with partner organization, CSED. Most mainstream newspapers have established an office there to cater to the need of the readership in western Tamil Nadu. Maalan participated in the conference and presented the various features of SNP. Ms. Sukanya, President of the Vellimalai Patinam Panchayat in the Tondamuthur Block of Coimbatore District, who has been elected for a third successive term shared her success story and also the challenges she faced during elections. The conference was marked by a vibrant discussion between the journalists and the EWRs and helped to evince the interest of the media in women’s leadership. Thirty-eight media persons attended the conference.
Rebuilding Lives after the Tsunami
The Hunger Project in Tamil Nadu continues to work in Nagapattinam District to support the tsunami-affected communities in 17 panchayats. Since 2005, The Hunger Project, along with two partner organizations has been working towards meeting the following objectives:
- Strengthening the statutory functioning of the panchayats as institutions for local governance in the 17 tsunami-affected panchayats.
- Strengthening women’s participation and leadership in panchayats.
- Synergy building between elected and traditional panchayats towards implementation of the microplans.
- Developing capacity of the community for managing disasters.
Recognizing the need to route rehabilitation efforts initiated in the aftermath of the tsunami through the panchayats, The Hunger Project has been working towards bringing panchayats back into focus for all developmental activities initiated post tsunami. To this end, the first step undertaken was a microplanning exercise in all 17 panchayats.
The Hunger Project has carried out baseline surveys and developed microplans with all 17 panchayats. These documents, created by the community, are critical to the development of the villages.
Phase I: Micro-level planning and identification of needs. The final plan was placed before and approved by the Gram Sabha on January 26, 2006.
Phase II: Addressing the needs arising out of the plan through linkages with:
- District Administration;
- NGO Coordination; and
- Community Mobilization.
Having successfully completed the microplanning process, The Hunger Project has been working to strengthen the capacity of the panchayats by working with different stakeholders of the panchayats and providing the following inputs:
- Facilitating panchayats to create linkages with stakeholders and other agencies;
- Motivating the panchayats to address development issues of people and communities. On the spot training to all the stakeholders of the panchayats through the field trainers;
- Community resource team to undertake the role of motivating and facilitating the panchayats; and
- Panchayats as a coordinating body for ownership and utilization of the infrastructure and common resource.
Working closely towards strengthening the role of panchayats in rehabilitation efforts, the panchayats have succeeded in achieving 60-70 percent of the infrastructural needs identified in the micro plan documents.
The district administration has accepted these microplans for their reference for future development planning undertaken by them. Other large donors, including bilateral and multilateral agencies, as well as panchayat representatives are also referring to them before embarking on any activity or intervention.
- Participation in Gram Sabha in all panchayats has increased, including Dalits and specially-abled people expressing their needs and presenting their demands.
- Panchayats are accessing a major proportion of schemes and funds from block and District Administrations.
- Our villages are the highest beneficiaries of the government schemes in the district.
- Panchayats are identifying unfinished relief activities committed by different agencies.
- Joint action is taking place between two panchayats on sharing employment opportunities in local industry.
Building Synergy between Traditional and Elected Panchayats
Traditional panchayats of fishing communities in coastal areas are a powerful institution and their presence is felt in most village activities. Most decisions regarding internal disputes, fishing rights and all other important aspects of daily life are resolved internally by the panchayats.
The Hunger Project has been striving to build a synergy between the three major stakeholders namely traditional panchayats, elected panchayats and community-based organizations.
- Traditional leaders’ participation in Gram Sabha and submission of appeals and petitions on behalf of their community;
- In cases of dual membership (e.g. Fishing community and Dalits), the location for the Grama Sabha meeting is conducted on habitation-wise rotation basis;
- In the case of permanent housing, elected panchayats are coordinating with traditional panchayats on decision-making of house allotment and other issues; and
- Resolving fishing rights for the sea between fishing communities and Dalits through mediation of the elected and traditional panchayats.
Farmers' Information Centre
While the focus of a large proportion of the relief activities in the tsunami-affected areas by civil society organizations and the government has been on the fishing community, families practicing agriculture have also been affected adversely in the aftermath of the tsunami.
The Farmers’ Information Centre (FIC), identified a need in the microplans to reclaim the agricultural land that had become salinated due to the tsunami. Through the FIC, the process of reclaiming all the land (approximately 900 hectares) is underway.
FIC is also involved in a number of other activities based on the needs of the farmers in the area. Having compiled a database of all the farmers in the area, the FIC now also plays the following roles:
- Acts as a facilitator for the farmers, helping them create linkages with Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Tamilnadu Agricultural University;
- Helping farmers to obtain loans through government departments and subsidies on tools and seeds;
- Established demonstration farms for farmers to spread awareness about the latest and best agricultural practices;
- Organizing exposure trips for farmers;
- Update on market prices;
- Resource centre for farmers;
- Establish farmers groups; and
- Initiating kitchen gardening.
The FIC has gained a lot of popularity among agricultural communities. Its membership has grown steadily since its inception and the Panchayat President and members have also taken a keen interest in the activities of the FIC.
Counseling Centre for the Specially-abled
The counseling centre for the specially-abled was set up due to a concentration of a large number of cases of different forms of disability found in our working area. The centre initiated the following activities, and also works towards linking the members to the panchayats:
- Identification of 378 specially-abled persons through a participatory survey with a categorization of disability;
- Setting up of the counseling centre and appointment of counselor;
- All members of field team trained in counseling;
- Counseling for specially-abled persons and the members of their families;
- Counseling for participation in panchayats;
- Counseling on ‘right of education’ for specially-abled children and admission in regular schools;
- Coordination of the counseling centre with panchayats, self-help groups and other stakeholders including specially-abled persons; and
- Coordination with PHC on disability prevention: Pulse polio, immunization.
Photo: Physio-therapy session at a medical camp held at the counseling centre
Through the various initiatives, the counseling centre has been able to make steady progress and have yielded the following results:
- 100 percent coverage of identify cards to the 362 specially-abled persons;
- A specially-abled person contesting in the local body election and winning as a ward member;
- Livelihood promotion for specially-abled people: accessing the program provision of Asian Development Bank through District Disable Rehabilitation office;
- Accessing welfare schemes and pension for specially-abled people from the government through the panchayats; and
- Participation of specially-abled people in Gram Sabha.
Strengthening Women's Participation in Governance
The process of engaging with elected women representatives to strengthen women’s participation in governance was initiated with the SWEEP process before the panchayat elections in 2006.
Thereafter, Women’s Leadership Workshops (WLWs) have been held for all the elected women in the area. Follow-up workshops to the WLWs have also been planned for the women Presidents and Ward members.
- Women worked as booth agents and counting agentsl
- Women contested for general seats for the first time.
- Women contested elections for second and third terms.
- Women outnumber men in Gram Sabhas significantly.
- Women Presidents have initiated work on various critical issues affecting the vulnerable in their respective panchayats, such as alcoholism, encroachment on common property resources, and education for the girl child.
- Women’s issues are being brought to the Gram Sabha by elected women representatives
The Hunger Project, in collaboration with the community, is now focusing on preparing these coastal villages to face disasters that may strike in future. Some of the measures taken so include the below.
Radio program on Disaster Awareness
A radio program called "Acchamalai" ("No need to get scared"), highlighting various aspects of community-based disaster preparedness, was aired for 13 weeks, by three stations of All India Radio on disaster preparedness. The contents were developed with the help of professionals in an infotainment mode, using skits, songs and mimicry.
Photo: Village community listening to the radio program
Listeners’ clubs were formed in the communities to ensure maximum listening of the program "Acchamalai."
- Through extensive use of songs, role-plays, group discussions and interviews with experts, the show covered several aspects related to disasters.
- The program was devised in a manner in which experts and the community participated.
- In another segment, an imaginary coastal village, Neythal Padi, headed by an imaginary woman president, Sivakami, was created to address solutions.
A vulnerability mapping has been prepared for each of the 102 hamlets, whereby a feasible contingency plan could be prepared for each panchayat. The contingency plan will carry out a social mapping exercise that will highlight the demographic profile and prioritize the needs of the vulnerable and the marginalized.
It has been planned to digitize the maps so that the plan could not only be preserved in the event of floods or rains but also be used by other institutions such as local civil society organizations and the District Administration.
Mock drill for disaster preparedness
Training for Community based Disaster Preparedness
As a part of the effort to bring about awareness regarding disaster management at the community level, community-based disaster preparedness camps have been organized. The sessions aim at familiarizing the participants with mitigation efforts that can be taken at the community level, and also provide specific information on the roles that can be played by the panchayat through the Panchayat Disaster Management Committee before, during and after the occurrence of a disaster.
Special focus is laid on vulnerable groups such as women, children and the elderly during these trainings. Mock drills have been conducted in each panchayat to practically demonstrate aspects of rescue, first aid, etc. Training sessions have also been held for members of the Disaster Management Committee to ensure that they play an active role in the eventuality of a disaster.
Partners in Tamil Nadu
The partners are covering ten districts, 23 blocks and 465 panchayats in Tamil Nadu.
- ARCOD, Krishnagiri District
- Sevalaya, Nagapattinam District
- SCORD, Nagapattinam District
- Island Trust, Nilgiris District
- CEDA, Dindigul District
- Association of Rural Education and Development Service, Karur District
- Centre for Social Education and Development, Coimbatore District
- Arumbugal Trust, Tirunveli District
- WWSS, Perambalur and Virudhunagar District
- NNEE Network, Erode and Salem District
Criteria for Field Partner Selection
- Women-headed organizations
- Having large networks
- Commitment to women's leadership
- Transparent and accountable
Left to right: Vinayaka, Lalitha, Kanika and Kannan
Kanika Kaul joined The Hunger Project as an intern in June 2006. On joining, Kanika volunteered to work in Bihar State Office and later worked in the Rajasthan State Office. She is presently working as a Program Associate on the Tsunami Project. Kanika finished her Masters in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) in May 2006. Her areas of interest include research and training.
Kamala Kannan joined The Hunger Project in August 2006. He is new to this area of work and has previously worked for six years in the field financial management. He looks after Accounts and Administration of the State Office and also those of the partners. His area of interest includes learning whenever the opportunity arises of the state offices’ work.
N. Lalitha joined The Hunger Project as a consultant in June 2006. She was appointed as the State Coordinator of The Hunger Project in Tamil Nadu in April 2007. Prior to joining The Hunger Project, Lalitha a qualified lawyer had worked for nine years on the issue of Human Rights of Women and children. Her area of interest is Human Rights and the Law with specific emphasis on women and children.
Vinayaka Moorthy joined The Hunger Project in Tamil Nadu as an Office Assistant in March 2007. Having completed his higher secondary schooling certificate and a course in Typing, he assists the entire team in general administrative functions. He also assists Kannan in maintaining various registers pertaining to all programs. His future plan is to pursue graduation and help the needy.
Tamil Nadu State Office
The Hunger Project
No. 1, 2nd Main Road, Nehru Nagar, Adayar, Chennai 600020, Tamil Nadu
Phone: 91 44 24452520