Sankheda gram panchayat in Chhota Udepur district has a woman sarpanch. Half of its members are women. But ironically, the gram panchayat office has no toilet for women. The single storey panchayat office building, built about forty years ago, is in a dilapidated condition. The common washroom, neglected for years, stinks. Nearby, a new toilet for women is being built, but is lying incomplete.
The idea for building a new toilet for women began soon after Sankheda elected its first woman sarpanch in Shivangi Patel in December 2016. Her election was the result of the Gujarat government’s decision to raise the quota of women in panchayats from 33 per cent to 50 per cent. However, nearly a year and half after she took oath as the sarpanch and ordered the construction of women’s toilet, it has not been completed. At the root of the delay is a non-functional panchayat which has been witnessing a prolonged legal battle over whether Shivangi is independent enough to carry out her responsibility.
“I am not being allowed to work. It’s been more than one-and-a-half years since I was elected, yet not a single development work has been taken up,” says Shivangi as she blames the “politics” and people who have been ruling the panchayat for years behind her lame duck rule. Her detractors, however, claim that Shivangi has not been functioning independently, and instead her father, Chetan Patel, a district panchayat member, has been running the show for her.
The controversy erupted soon after the panchayat election results were announced on December 29, 2016. A day after the panchayat met for the second time with an agenda for forming several committees, 11 of the 14 gram panchayat members moved a no-confidence motion against her on January 25, 2017, saying that “her absence will impede the development work”.
The very next day, the gram sabha rejected the move, but the 11 panchayat members moved gram sabha which ordered the sarpanch to hold a meeting on February 17 to discuss the no-trust motion against her. Shivangi, instead, took a legal recourse and filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court, which gave her interim relief by staying the no-confidence motion.
After a year-long hearing, the single judge bench dismissed her petition. Shivangi then filed an appeal in the Division Bench of the court, which, in May this year, dismissed the no-confidence motion against her, saying that a person should be given enough time to perform. The bench, led by Chief Justice R Subhash Reddy, also held that although there was no provision that restricts moving of a no-confidence motion within a specific period under section 56 of the Gujarat Panchayat Act of 1993, it directed that in case of sarpanch, he or she should be given one year’s time before any no-trust motion is tabled.
All this while, the gram panchayat did not meet for a single time. Now, after the High Court’s Panchayat with woman sarpanch can’t get toilet for women built decision, some of the panchayat members are planning to move the Supreme Court against the dismissal of the no-trust motion against the sarpanch.
“First and foremost, we want to inform everyone that we didn’t pass the motion just because the sarpanch happens to be a woman. We did this because she is not functioning independently. It is her father who wants to run the show. It is her father who has been interfering in the gram panchayat’s work. We will not tolerate this at any cost. We will be moving the Supreme Court soon,” says Hitesh Vasava, one of the 11 gram panchayat members who supported the no-trust motion against Shivangi.
The panchayat members object to Shivangi using her father’s name as her middle name instead of her husband, Divyesh Patel, who hails from Hadad village, two km from Sankheda. Though she got married four years ago, Shivangi continues to be a voter from Sankheda, they say.
But Shivangi dismisses all the allegations and brackets them as “charges emanating from political rivalry”. “I chose to stay at my father’s home because I am the only child and I love politics. People know me in Sankheda as I was born here, and that’s why I chose to contest the polls from here. Why would anyone have a problem if I chose my birthplace to work rather than my husband’s? There is no bar on this,” she says seated on a sofa with her two-year-old daughter in her home decked up with artificial bright flowers.
“I always wanted to do this job, and therefore, I chose not to include my husband’s name,” the 25-year-old environmental science graduate adds. Behind her a photograph of her wedding day hangs on a yellow-painted wall.
As she takes out a diary in which she has listed a few things she wants to do as a sarpanch, her father comes with a thick file. “I have to interfere else they won’t let my daughter work. She may not understand a lot of things,” he chips in. Shivangi quickly adds, “I only seek his guidance, and what is wrong with it?”
“The panchayat members don’t want us to work because of over Rs 1 crore funds lying with panchayat… Some of them have been directly or indirectly ruling for the past 25 years. But with the election of my daughter they are feeling threatened,” the father adds.
Shivangi says he wants to construct a crematorium, a garden for public among other facilities for the 14,000 residents of Sankheda. “They have not done any development work in all these years. There are no industries, no employment, nor even civic amenities,” she adds.
Just opposite her house, across the bylane in the Chhipad locality, lives 25-year-old Aarti Tadvi, one of the women panchayat members. “We are not opposing her (Shivangi) for being a woman. On the contrary, despite being a woman she is destroying women,” Tadvi says, and blames the sarpanch for her divorce. Tadvi had married a man outside her caste. Shivangi, however, brushes aside the allegation. “Why would I interfere in anyone’s personal life,” she says.
Deputy Sarpanch Raziyabano Sheikh also complains against Shivangi. “She doesn’t take all the members into confidence before taking a decision. She comes with a diary that has written instructions from her father. Why not work independently instead of involving fathers and brothers,” Raziya says over phone. Ironically, when called again, her husband picks up the phone. “I can answer all your queries,” says her husband Kamruddin Sheikh, a local journalist.
While the men do the backseat driving for these women leaders, the village of 1,400 people continues to suffer. The amenities like crematorium and garden are a long pending demands of the locals. “Both the sides are at fault. When they hold meetings, women and men fight over seating arrangements… on trivial issues like where their chairs should be placed. They all want to take things under their control and don’t listen to anyone,” a panchayat officer says on condition of anonymity.