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(INDIA 33)






head of regional panchayat


Chamiyala village, Balganga valley, Tehri Garhwal


January 1999


This testimony and India 32 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. Beena attributes her current position in regional politics and development to the “social environment” she has absorbed since childhood; her well-known mother, Sudesha Devi (India 1), was active in various movements including Chipko. Like Maheshwari (India 32) Beena also acknowledges the role of her husband who is “also very socially aware. It is because of him that today I have been elected as the block head, since he has inspired me.”

She fought the elections as an independent candidate and despite her lack of financial resources she was successful. Initially she faced some problems in her region; she felt that “had there been a man at that position, he would have been given more importance.” She faced a similar response from the senior officials she had to deal with and explains how she has worked hard to prove herself. Attitudes to women in such positions are changing, she says, but prejudice remains: “Some people think that men and women are two limbs of the society, and as long as they both are not active, the society cannot work. And some people see woman only in the form of a housewife.”

She feels experience is as valuable as education for such work: “Gradually as I gained knowledge, I understood what role I had to play… I [also] felt that a person must have experience, being educated alone is not enough.” Clearly, carrying out her role involves considerable struggle. Decisions about village projects seem hard for the local panchayat to control, and tend rather to be dictated by higher authorities and administrative systems. Throughout the interview she expresses her views on development, emphasising that health and education are priorities over large-scale industry or dams. She believes there is a greater need to create self-sufficiency through developing a variety of small industries and returning to traditional farming methods. Creating economic opportunities at the local level would curb migration of the young and educated.

The interview ends with her message to the young generation: “they should progress under the guidance of their elders…do good work for their village… teach the illiterate in the village. Tell them about the dangers of communalism and casteism for the whole of mankind and protect themselves from it. And keep their education level high from the very beginning.”

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Section 1  Family details, background and importance of key members: “I have lived in a social environment since my childhood. My mother's name is Sudesha Devi and she has participated in various movements.” Initially her husband encouraged her to contest elections and assured her that their limited funds would not limit her potential. She also received support from her in-laws and other “women, intellectuals and people from various movements”.
Section 2-3  Attributes winning the election to the involvement of others, including the media: “The district level journalists helped in creating awareness regarding my background amongst the people… Women said that we will promote this woman only because she will be able to listen to our problems easily; those women have also contributed a great deal.” Admits there is a division about how men feel towards women leaders but that she has had widespread support. Contested the elections as an independent candidate. Once elected, she felt that she wasn’t taken as seriously as a male leader might have been and says “initially there were a lot of problems, but gradually they are reducing.”
Section 3  Feels that the “panchayats should be given a chance of working independently. There should be no pressures from the administration above.” The attitude of senior officials towards her was not good but gradually as she gained knowledge and understood her rights, she was able to tell officials “how the things should be done and they also agreed to it”. Feels that changes have taken place in terms of an increase in people’s awareness about development: “Initially people never came to know about the development plans which came to the village. But today, be it at the village level or the development level, whenever I go, I tell the people how much of their money is being utilised… Earlier work was done only on paper, but today it is done on the ground, even though its quality may be a little less. I do feel that there has been considerable change in the present as compared to the past. A lot of information is now available.” She identifies two problems for women: alcoholism and childbirth facilities. She then says, “We could not incorporate all these because the structure of the administration is such that we cannot do as much as we want. That is because we only have to implement the programmes which are imposed upon us.”
Section 4  Highlights education and health as development priorities: “There are hospitals but no doctors, schools have been opened but there are no teachers. I do not consider this as development, unless there is an overall development of all the people.” Points to cottage industries as a way of dealing with unemployment in her area. Asked about Gandhi’s principle of the gram swarajya she doesn’t think the panchayat raj is as Gandhi imagined or dreamed: “today the panchayats are unable to do anything on their own. The plans/projects are passed down to us and we are unable to make any programmes according to our requirements.” Details on the institutional make-up of the regional panchayat she is head of.
Section 5  How they prioritise and select applications for development activities from 127 gram sabhas. Importance of awareness: “I myself told all the women representatives that, ‘as long as you are unaware of your rights, you shall be under the pressure of others’. The person who is ignorant remains a slave. When he is able to understand, whether it’s a man or a woman, he will not remain a slave...”
Section 6-7  Example of a village head who used development funds for his own purposes and how she dealt with this. How village works are completed: “According to the rules, villagers, women, SC/STs (scheduled castes/tribes) should be employed for this work. But generally, in order to complete the work quickly, people employ Gurkhas (Nepalis) or get the work done through contractors.” “Social evils” affecting women include alcohol and the cutting of green wood. She adds “People think that when others will come from outside, then we will progress, like tourism, etc. The attraction of people towards foreign seeds is another evil. People must…feel confident about their own seeds…” She wants to raise people’s awareness and enlist their support to fight these problems. Plan to raise fodder trees nearby so women won’t have to carry loads such long distances. But, she again complains, “We cannot do what we want to do. The administration comes in our way….” She feels the only way to curb migration is to teach boys and girls to be self-sufficient and develop local cottage industries.
Section 7-8  Belonging to a political party is important: “Initially, when I stood for the elections, I said that I do not belong to any party. But, seeing the current state of affairs in politics, one has to take the support of some party if one wants to progress in the political field.” She is against the development of big dams: “it is destroying the traditional relations among the people as well as our customs. People are being displaced, and their basic requirements are not being fulfilled.” Concerned about deforestation, she suggests that “Instead of plantation, attention should be paid on protection, so that our forests do not deplete.” She has also protested against the development of large hotels. More on modern versus traditional agriculture and large versus small dams. She claims: “our small water mills grind wheat and give us flour which keeps us healthy…Why don't we pick up such an industry that gives us facilities, employment as well as health? Large dams will only give us employment.” Collecting and processing local wild fruits and vegetables could be profitable.
Section 8-9  Her thoughts on the separate state of Uttarkhand. She believes what is really needed is a change in values and in attitudes towards development. “As long as we are not self-sufficient, changing the name will not help whether it is Uttarakhand or Uttaranchal. People's thoughts, their mentality should develop. Until we are self-sufficient, people will keep migrating for earning money. Money is not food; it cannot be eaten. Grains are food. But no one seems to have paid attention to agriculture and food here.” Achieving self-sufficiency: “The small industries here should be developed, traditional things should be promoted. People should concentrate on traditional farming so that their basic needs can be fulfilled here itself.” Message to the young generation.