The shift beginshttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/print/the-shift-begins/

The shift begins

How a household in Kerala has learnt to move beyond traditional roles.

It’s 9.45 a.m.,time for office. Just as Pulparambil Girija prepares to leave for work,her husband Kelu says he will accompany her till the town square. “You should stay back. The rice will start boiling soon. Who will take care of the rice if you come with me,” she asks.

It’s a role Kelu,a farmer,hasn’t got used to yet. At the Pulparambil house in North Kerala’s Malappuram district,established roles have changed ever since Girija was elected vice-president of the Vazhayoor village panchayat in October last year.

After 50 per cent of the 21,162 seats in three-tier bodies and half of the governing positions were set aside for women in the polls in Kerala,hundreds of women like 46-year-old homemaker Girija saw themselves in elected positions for the first time. And almost immediately,found themselves juggling home and office.

“I now wake up at 5 a.m. to prepare breakfast and lunch for the family before I leave. There is more work if there are people working on our farm. I have to cook for them too. Sometimes I don’t find time to eat breakfast,” says Girija.

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There are days,Kelu adds,when Girija is so busy that she doesn’t find time to cook. And then,he and his son Girish have to eat at a restaurant nearby—“I have learnt to cook rice but can’t manage the rest,” he says.

Though the family owns a mere 20 cents,Kelu is an enterprising farmer who takes land on lease and grows paddy and plantains. The couple have four children—while two of their sons have jobs outside Kerala,the third son,Girish,is an engineering graduate waiting for a job in one of the Gulf countries and the youngest,Ajesh,is a student of computer science.

By 8.30 a.m.,Kelu returns from his farm. “I had gone there to check if any of the workers had turned up today,” he says,before turning to Girija: “Have you given the cows fodder yet?” She hadn’t but he thought it wise not to argue.

“We had three cows before the elections. After Girija was elected vice-president,we sold the other two. Rearing three animals is a full day’s work,” says Kelu.

On her way to the Vazhayoor panchayat office,Girija treks up a slope from where she will hail an autorickshaw. She is carrying a new handbag. “I bought this after being elected panchayat vice-president,” she says.

Girija has to go to the panchayat office everyday—while panchayat members need not go to office regularly,the president and vice-president have to turn up every day. She has to attend to the scores of people who queue up outside the office,clutching applications for various certificates and sanctions to construct houses or buildings.

“People come to us if the applications aren’t cleared on time. The most sensitive business of the Vazhayoor panchayat is the issuance of permit for collecting sand. Like elsewhere in the state,the sand quarrying lobby is very strong here. I have to learn to take them on,” says Girija.

Girija,who had studied up to class X,says she never thought of becoming a people’s representative. Though her husband Kelu is president of the local unit of the Congress,she had never given politics much thought or time.

But after her electoral victory,Girija had more responsibilities coming her way—she was also made chairman of the panchayat standing committee for finance. “I have to draw up a plan for the next financial year,” she says.

At 10.30 am,after rushing through the daily routine at the panchayat office,Girija is ready to leave for inspecting a road work. She has a meeting planned with an assistant executive engineer from the district panchyat. On her way to the site,Girija stops by at home for breakfast. She looks confident about the meeting with the engineer.

“That’s because I gave her crash course last night on some of the technical words that might come up when they discuss roads,” says Girish,Girija’s engineer son. “Every night after mother returns from office,we discuss her work. I help clear some of her doubts,” says Girish.

At 4.30 p.m.,Girija has to take part in a march organised by the Congress in protest against the recent “racket” in government appointments. “I am not sure if I’ll have to address the gathering. It’s usually my husband who helps me prepare the speech,” says Girija.

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On most days,Girija leaves office by 6 p.m. but there are days when she has programmes to attend at night. “When she gets late,I go to the bus stop or to the panchayat office on my bike to pick her up,” says Girish.