On Tuesday, when 94-year-old Gangubai Nivrutti Bhambure was elected unopposed as sarpanch of Bhamburwadi village in Pune district’s Khed taluka, she seemed bored with the felicitation and the praises gram panchayat members showered on her. So much so that she left the event early to mingle with villagers instead.
“I will not disappoint them… I can walk like a youngster and talk like a teacher,” said Gangubai, who made another round of the village on a hot Wednesday afternoon. “Nothing affects me, rain or sun,” she said.
Fondly called aaji or aayee by villagers, Gangubai holds the distinction of becoming the oldest sarpanch in Pune district, Saurabh Rao, the district collector, said.
“Now it’s time to work. I have to do something for my people, otherwise it’s no use becoming a sarpanch just for the sake of it,” she said.
As activists, government officials, students and the media crowded her home, Gangubai seemed at ease with all the attention. “I love talking to people… I am not hard of hearing; I understand each and every word,” she said.
Gangubai said her first task would be to help around 250 farmers from seven villages. The farmers own a total of 1,000 hectares of land, but lack of water for around eight months each year means they can’t grow anything on it.
“There’s a canal less than 2 km from these farms, but they don’t get a drop of water,” said Gangubai’s grandson Rahul Bhambure.
Another grandson, Navnath Bhambure, said the government had failed the people.
Gangubai said she would approach the Prime Minister to set up a closed pipeline from the canal or from Chaskaman dam to irrigate the farms. “I will send a letter on behalf of the villagers to Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” she said.
She said she is optimistic the PM will respond to her request: “Why not? PM Modi is like my son. My oldest son is 66 years old and I am told the PM is around the same age… I am sure he will pay heed to the voices of farmers.” Then, on a lighter note, she added that she would not mind if Modi paid her and her village a visit.
Gangubai said the seven villages are home to 15,000 people. The farmers primarily grow onions.
Other priorities include a proper drainage system, sufficient toilets, homes for the poor and good roads.
Asked whether she was urged by her family to contest the gram panchayat elections in October last year and polls for the sarpanch post now, she said, “I take my own decisions; I even have disagreements with my children.” Gangubai, who has four sons and a daughter, lost her husband 10 years ago.
Gangubai was elected by a margin of 50 votes in October after defeating another woman candidate, a graduate from a political family. Though she never attended school, Gangubai said she can read. “I can recite kirtans and bhajans,” she added. On Tuesday, when she was declared the victor, Gangubai put a thumb impression on the official documents.
Asked whether she is fit enough for the job, she said, “I get up as 5 am and do household chores. I never fall ill and never take medicines.” She added that she eats two meals a day: “Eat less and live longer — that’s my secret of life.”
Shirur MP Shivajirao Adhalrao-Patil said that while Pune district has had other woman sarpanches, they have all been under 60 years of age.