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(INDIA 32)






Panchayat member


Netala village, Bhagirathi valley, Uttarkashi


January 1999


This testimony and India 33 are with women who have become community leaders at regional level. The importance of their achievement should not be underestimated; they sit on committees and groups otherwise made up entirely of men.

This is a good interview with an interesting and articulate narrator. Maheshwari was one of the first women to be elected as a village head and she served as an elected member of the district panchayat. She credits her success to the support of others, especially her husband, although her history of social work and activism for the village was clearly a key factor. It is interesting while she believes very fiercely in women’s ability, she still acknowledges a great debt to her husband for her position. She was elected to these positions before the system of reserving seats for women and lower castes and doesn’t believe in the current reservation system. Her desire to be taken as seriously as men and to work alongside them as an equal is a constant theme in the interview. When asked for her thoughts on the role of women in the new state of Uttarkhand she replies, “The role of women cannot be decided separately. Women will work the same way as men work in the society. The work which is allocated to men will be done by women also. But I believe that if women come ahead, they will work with faith, dedication, and devotion because they do not have vices. Like they do not drink or gamble. They do not waste their time. They understand the value of time. Hence, I believe that they will do good work.”

She was village head for nine years. When asked if she felt like being head again she replies: “No, I did not…because it is not a royal status. It is democracy. There should definitely be change and others should get an opportunity too, so that they can in practice see how many problems arise and learn how the work is done.” Getting things done through the panchayat system seems to be a struggle and she criticises the current system for not adhering to the Gandhian principles on which it was based. Her vision of development is one of self-sufficiency. She believes in sustaining traditional methods of farming and taking care of the surrounding forests, but she isn’t directly opposed to large-scale development projects as long as local people benefit.

Before the end of the interview she speaks briefly of the earthquake that occurred during her tenure as head. Fifty-one people died, including nine members of her own family and initially she felt too depressed to continue with her work. However, she goes on, “I got them aid from the government and other organisations, such as food for the people, small huts for their living, provided them tarpaulin, went to the DM, spoke to the administration. I did all the work to help the people.”

detailed breakdown

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Section 1  Reasons she was elected as a village head and on to the district panchayat before the reservation system. Had already demonstrated her commitment to village development and was local director of adult education. “Thus, people had faith in me that I can work, and that is how they elected me to the post of the village head even though there was no reservation.”
Section 2  Grateful for the support of her husband: “he made me complete my high school and intermediate and for a couple of years I tried doing BA also. After that the public elected me as the village head, and my husband gave me the permission to go ahead. He inspired me for doing various things. He taught me how to sit, how to talk, how to behave in front of others…” Attitude of villagers: “When I was elected, people wondered whether a woman can become a head? Can a woman do social work? They used to put a question mark. Can a woman go in a marriage procession or to cremate the dead?… Perhaps being elected as a woman, I had to do all this work and show them. When I was elected as the head, I did all the work and tried to reassure people. And I hope I am not boasting, but I feel proud to say that I have done my level best for the development of the village. None of the men, prior to me, were able to do as much.” When elected she had two opponents; she won by 85 seats.
Section 3  Learnt the details of the panchayat administration act through meetings and books. Despite being the only woman head in the district she says, “I did not face any difficulty. I had faith, I attended all the meetings, I used to sit with 59 other heads. I was the only woman but I never felt that I was different because I used to discuss with them continuously… I used to get the problems solved there. The officials knew me, and I knew them as well. And I never even once thought that I was a woman. I used to sit with the men, like a man, and worked with them.” Her first priority was “education in the village. We had a junior high school here. I made all efforts to upgrade it.” She also got a community hall constructed in the village and implemented the jawahar rojgar yojna (government employment scheme).
Section 4  Village problems and decisions: “The head cannot decide this all alone. There is an open meeting.” What others think of the position of village head: “People think that becoming the head is very easy, roaming in the market, going here and there…But they did not think deep, how many problems arise, how much one has to struggle. How many people you have to clash with and how many hardships one has to suffer.” Her nine-year tenure is enough; she believes democracy requires change. Critical of those who have become heads as part of the reservation system: “[They]…have a shortcoming. They have been elected due to reservation, but they do not know what they are supposed to do. Some have the pressure of their husband, some of their son or brother. In this way they are like a deformed unit of this democracy.”
Section 5  Believes self-sufficiency is an essential ingredient for development: “We must not cripple ourselves by depending for everything on the market. How long can we live depending upon others?” And that crucial to this is to maintain traditional farming systems: “…our crops have declined. A new type of manure is being used which has reduced the production of our pulses… [It] has turned our soil acidic. We should keep alive our old patterns of agriculture so that our farming is not affected significantly.” Feels that “gradually…love and unity among people has decreased” since those with jobs, who can afford more consumer goods, regard themselves as superior to farmers.
Section 6  Questions the government’s move to reduce caste distinctions, claiming that it has caused some to leave their traditional occupations. “There were Aujis in the village who played instruments, they have taken to some other work and left their traditional work. Now people…prefer to pick up new work in order to feel more advanced. Will this lead us to development?” Education provision for all girls has increased but job opportunities are restricted to those from upper castes. Others with BAs or MAs “still they are not getting jobs. They are carrying wood and fodder in the village. It makes them feel frustrated as well.” There is also vocational training for women in knitting, sewing and embroidery. She believes if organised properly the marketing and sale of knitted sweaters, for example, could bring income to local women.
Section 7  Attempts to ban alcohol. She describes why not all women took part: “Women are the backbone of agriculture. Men sit on the roads in the hills, play cards, gamble and drink. Women do everything. They take part in movements also. They work, look after the household, everything is done by women. And the women who did not come to our organisation were busy in their own household matters.”
Section 8  Prefers progress on merit rather than reservation: “There should be no reservation [system], because under its pretext, bad people come up who pollute the whole society. Ability should be given preference. The person can be of any caste, but he should be able to work for the society, he should have the right thoughts, intellect and capability to do the desired work.” Hints at corruption in current planning and approval process for village projects. Totally supports movement for formation of Uttarkhand. Role of women in the state should not differ to men’s, and believes they have great potential. Large-scale development projects: “It is all right if big hotels or large dams are made as long as we also get some benefit. They could provide us sources of income.”
Section 9  There will be more development for the region if Uttarkhand is formed. Causes and results of deforestation and attempts to curb it. Local attitudes towards farming methods: “In agriculture, people are getting productive seeds, but our traditional crops have completely vanished… We should not let our old crops become extinct. We have told people many times, but they have more faith in the officials who come from outside. They feel why should they continue with the old pattern when people are taking to the new methods? Agricultural produce is declining. People think it is more important to use chemical fertilisers than local manure.”
Section 10-11  Struggles to get plans for the village passed by the district administration, for example, they failed to implement plans for a local hospital. Local people are starting to sell their land. She abhors this: “In my view it is not correct to sell our land to others. We are killing the future of our children. Our village elders could have also sold it, but they kept it for us, and now, we are selling it. It is our misfortune, and the land mafia are growing. I hope that day does not come when people leave this place and go away.” She advises the youth to “be united for the development of their village. We should not keep differences among us, like distinction of men and women.” The earthquake. Her support for the government’s employment scheme at the village level.