More than a year after the Haryana government legislated that candidates for panchayat and local bodies elections must meet minimum educational qualifications, the educated women who were elected as sarpanch have made little difference to the entrenched patriarchal power structure in the villages. Many of the women were pitchforked into contesting the election because no male family member met the eligibility conditions on education. But even the hope that once elected, the women would assert themselves politically has proved misplaced as The Indian Express found in a number of villages. The silver lining is that women in the village feel freer to discuss their problems with a woman sarpanch, than with a man.
Ask for the sarpanch of this village, and people point to a chemist shop in the area. This is where anyone who wants an issue resolved by the panchayat pays a visit. Holding court there is Naseeb Singh, the brother-in-law of the village sarpanch Munni.
He is openly dismissive of her. “Use kuch nahi pata. Jo bhi gaon ke baare mein poochna hai mujhe poocho.” (She does not know anything. Whatever that you want to ask about the village…ask me.)
When The Indian Express insists on meeting Munni, Naseeb first says she is not at home, then says she is busy in the fields where the wheat is being cut. Pressed further, Naseeb Singh reluctantly leads the way home.
Jassia village was the centre of this year’s Jat quota stir. Jats dominate the village, but it is home to 13 different communities. The village has 5,000 voters.
Protesters camped outside Jassia village for more than 50 days. A large number of women participated in the protests, including from Jassia, but Munni was not among them. She never visited the site.
Naseeb, who went to the protest venue a couple of times, says the village panchayat did not have a role to play in the protests. “To ensure protesters were provided for was everybody’s responsibility and not just that of the panchayat. People of all castes extended support,” he says.
Sitting on a cot in the courtyard of her house along with her mother-in-law, Munni’s face is covered by a veil, a tradition followed by most rural women in the state, especially in the presence of elder male members in the family. She lifts the veil a little when she speaks, but ensures she never faces Naseeb without the veil.
Munni has studied up to Class 12. After the Haryana government introduced the condition of minimum educational qualification for candidates for post of sarpanches and panches, Munni was the most qualified in her family. Plus Jassia was reserved for a woman sarpanch this time.
“I did not go out to campaign. That work was done by the men of the house. I was told I would be contesting the election and I agreed to the decision of the family,” she says.
Among the duties of the sarpanch is to hold meetings of the panchayat. Munni plays no part in holding the meeting, nor has she attended any.
“Main panchayat mein nahi jaati… ladies nahi jaati na wahan. Ismein itraz karte hain. Yahi chal jaate hain (I don’t go to the panchayat... ladies don’t go there. People oppose it. He [Naseeb] goes),” says Munni.
What duties does she fulfill then? Naseeb says she goes for the gram sabhas where other women come. Also, her signature is required on cheques and other official documents. Officers have become strict and demand that sarpanch be present for official meetings or for raising issues pertaining to the village. Munni is required to be present then.
Naseeb offers an explanation, “Dehat sab grehnia parivar se judi hui hai. Woh parivar dekhti hain, pashu bhi hote hain, kheti bari bhi hoti hai, bachhe bi hote hai. Ghar ka saara kaam hota hai jaise kapde dhona, khana banana… sab kuch ladies karti hain. Yeh sab chhod ke woh panchayat ka kaam nahi dekh sakti. Shehar mein kya hota hai… bachhe school gaye aur poora din free. Yahan pressure bahut hota hai.”
(In rural areas, the women are attached to their families. They look after their families, cattle, agriculture and children. There is work at home like washing clothes, cooking food… everything is looked after by women. Leaving all this, they cannot attend panchayats. In cities, children go to school and then women are free for the entire day. In villages, there is more pressure.)
Naseeb also feels that women will not be taken seriously in the panchayat. “Farak toh hai. Main kisi ko unchi baat kar sakta… ladies aise baat nahi kar sakti. Ladies bolegi… ek baar bolegi, do baar bolegi aur chup ho javegi. Nahi toh dus aadmi kahenge sharam lihaj koi ni. (There is a difference. I can speak loudly to someone, but the ladies cannot. They will say something once or twice and then go silent. Otherwise 10 people will question if she has no shame or respect),” he says.
Haryana Panchayati Raj Institutions held in January last year, of 6,186 sarpanches elected, 3,621 were men and 2,565 women. Further, 1,436 sarpanches are from the Schedule Castes category. A total of 1,021 are such who have passed Class VIII, 3,639 have passed Class X, 823 Class XII and 647 are graduates or above.
The criteria for educational qualification might have made Munni a sarpanch, but it has brought no change in the attitude of the men that women should have no role in public life. In fact, in most villages where educated women have been elected sarpanches, there is little role they play in the panchayats.
A resident of Jassia village Prakash, who is in his late sixties, says “women should do their work and let men do theirs”.
“Kaam toh mard ne karna hai… samjho is baat ko. Sarpanch ki zaroorat padti hai toh bula lete hain. Dehat mein kheton ka kaam hote hain. Woh toh apne ghar ka kaam karegi. Afsar aate hain tab aayegi. (Work has to be done by men… understand this. When there is need for the sarpanch, we call her. In villages, the household work has to be done. She will work in her house. When officers come, she can be present),” says Prakash.
Not just the elderly, but a much younger Sunil, who is in his thirties, also holds the same opinion. He says, “Panchayat mein toh purush jayenge ladies thodi na jayengi. Uski kaun sunvayinahi karega? Woh kya bolegi?” (Men will go to the panchayat and not women. Who will listen to her? What will she speak?)
Young girls studying at the government college in the village feel it’s easier for them to open up to a woman sarpanch.
Rajni, who is pursuing BA at the college, says Munni listens to them when they go to her. “In the village, people would not even educate their daughters if there was no college here. Seeing Munni as the sarpanch gives us hope. Over time, the situation might just change for the better,” she says.
Her namesake, who is studying in the same college, says men do not understand their problems or their aspirations. Rajni says, “The women in the village do go to Munni if there is a problem, the men do not. Here, the traditions are such women are only expected to get married and work in the house.”