Uday Gouda, a septuagenarian in Dhunkapada, a small village in Ganjam’s Polasara block, remembers the ordeal he would face every monsoon. The 200-metre stretch between the main road in the village and his house was “a nightmare”. Often, he would have to raise his dhoti above his knee and wade through slush. Now a concrete path marks that stretch. “I had given up the hope of seeing any change, but for the sarpanch who raised funds for its construction,” says Gouda.
It is for bringing about such changes that Dhunkapada’s Arati Devi — a 28-year-old MBA and former investment banker who became the country’s youngest sarpanch less than two years ago — has won an invitation from the US State Department for the International Visitors Leadership Programme on state and local governments. During her three-week visit beginning February 18, she will meet President Barack Obama and attend the US Congress in session. The only Indian among the 21 foreign invitees, Devi joins the ranks of former prime ministers Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and former presidents K R Narayanan and Pratibha Patil — all previous participants on the programme.
“In the relatively short time that she has headed the village council, she has earned admiration from villagers not only for her new approach to gender issues but also the public distribution system,” says Padmaja K, Information Assistant, Public Affairs Section, US Consulate, Hyderabad.
A much larger number of women now attend the palli sabha meetings at the Dhunkapada panchayat, which comprises three villages. Earlier, they would keep away as in the patriarchal and feudal hamlets, men would shout them down. “More than 1,000 people attend the palli sabha now. Earlier, palli sabhas would be rare and held without notice, so few people would come,” says Gitanjali Bhuyan, a villager. Routine domestic conflicts get sorted in panchayat meetings now. “We approach the local police station as a last resort,” says Bipracharan Padhi.
Devi’s first achievement was overhauling of the PDS, particularly helping APL families get wheat. When she found that APL families were being denied wheat by the PDS shops, she calculated that the families numbered around 800 and made sure each got its 5 kg of wheat a month share. Also, under her, the panchayat took over the public distribution of kerosene, that was pilfered by the previous sarpanch.
Among the things the villagers are particularly grateful for are the roads. Two months ago, she got a 12-km road project worth Rs 1.25 crore sanctioned. The last time the roads in the panchayat were repaired was more than a decade ago. Another gap she’s tried to fill is that of schoolteachers. In one village high school, the physical education teacher and the Hindi teacher would take all the classes. She hired three more teachers on contract without waiting for help from the Orissa School and Mass Education Department. “The revenue we generated from village ponds was used to pay salaries,” she says. The department has agreed to pay the salaries of the teachers from this year.
Devi is now working on supplying electricity to Khadala Nuagaon, a Dalit-dominated locality of the panchayat, in the next two-three months. “We hope to watch TV at home,” laughs Sadana Sethi, a Dalit.
Devi’s open-door policy has gone a long way in helping her meet villagers’ expectations. Every day villagers converge at her home with their grievances — some with a demand for a house under the Indira Awas Yojana, some with a widow or old-age pension issue, and others about non-availability of PDS items. “By 9 am, I am out of my home travelling around the villages and following up with officials,” she says.
Her tenure has not been without bureaucratic challenges though. Dhunkapada, for example, is yet to be reimbursed for the money it spent on relief after cyclone Phailin hit Orissa last year. “To provide food, we spent Rs 30,000 from our meagre funds without waiting for help from the administration,” she says. Villagers still remember the efforts she put in following the cyclone. “She convinced over 1,200 villagers to move to the panchayat office. She brought sackfuls of rice and jaggery on a bicycle for the villagers even as winds howled outside,” says Trinath Nayak.
However, Devi has her share of critics. Bipracharan Padhi, an elderly farmer, wants BPL families to be given power connection. Champa Behera, whose house was damaged by Phailin, complains it has still not been rebuilt. A few months ago, some Dalits lodged a police complaint accusing Devi of using casteist language against them. “I was surprised. When I met the Dalits, they said they had no idea what was written in the FIR. They were tutored by a few opponents of mine, who offered them BPL rice. They withdrew the FIR,” she says.
The incident led her to start an adult literacy programme called ‘Tipa nuhen dastakhat (No thumb impression, but signature)’ for villagers above 40. “None of the villagers should be taken for a ride,” she says. On Devi’s list of agendas still is saving peacocks that get run over by vehicles and promoting the folk art of Ganjam. Few doubt she will be able to meet these.