photo of Indian woman Garwhal and Kumaon
India glossary


(INDIA 33)






head of regional panchayat


Chamiyala village, Balganga valley, Tehri Garhwal


January 1999



Section 1
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Beena Sajwan from village Bhilangana, age 25 years.

Who all are there in your family?
My family is very large. My father-in-law has five brothers. My father-in-law also has five sons. The eldest is my jeth (brother-in-law), then we (me and my husband) and then three devars (younger brothers-in-law), sister-in-law, mother-in-law; it’s a joint family.

You have been elected as the head of this block, as the member of the regional panchayat. Did you do social work before? Did any member of your family have a social or political background or you are the only person?
I have lived in a social environment since my childhood. My mother's name is Sudesha Devi and she has participated in various movements. She played an active role in the Chipko movement (forest-protection movement) and stayed in jail for 15 days. Since childhood we have interacted with people from here as well as outside, such as Bahugunaji (well-known activist), and many important people, who came to meet us. This had a great impact on me and I was also influenced by the people at my in-laws’ house. My husband 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. This has been a big contribution.

How did you get inspired to contest elections, and come into this field?
The inspiration to contest elections comes when a feeling arises, when you realise something. But initially I was inspired by my husband to contest for the seat reserved for the block head. First I contested the elections for regional panchayat from the general region (category). My husband helped me a lot in this. In the family my jeth provided financial help, also my father-in-law, but the main support was from my husband. I was not keen to fight this election because people said that a lot of money would have to be spent on it, around two lakhs (two hundred thousand) [rupees]. But my husband reassured me that money alone does not matter, the area is also to be considered, so I was not to worry. Other people such as women, intellectuals and people from various movements also encouraged me.
Section 2
As you said, the financial condition of your family was not very good, which at present should be sound for such elections. Even then you won the election. What was the reason behind this?
The reason behind it was that the family had been working in the social field. Then my husband used to work in the social field. I am known less by my name and more by my husband’s and father-in-law’s name. They have done good work for the society. The media has also made a major contribution in this region. The district level journalists helped in creating awareness regarding my background amongst the people. Young men and women also made a big contribution. 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.

At present there is special reservation for women leaders or heads. What is the role of men in it?
There are some men who genuinely want women to progress. 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. The women who have come forward in panchayati raj (panchayat administration) have had to face certain problems. As far as I am concerned, whether it was the family or voluntary organisations or political parties, I have had their support since the beginning.

You contested the election under some political party or as an independent candidate?
I fought the elections as an independent candidate. At that time everyone pointed out to me that I was fighting the elections without the support of any political party. But I believed that if a person had a good character or good background in social work, then he could win even without any party. I contested the elections as an independent candidate.

How many people were contesting with you?
There were five women contenders against me. Each one of us was active. All were better than me in financial condition, I was least of all.

How much money did you have to spend approximately?
In the elections I had to spend only on myself for my to and fro expenses for travelling by vehicle. As people say one has to offer money to others, I did not even offer tea. But for my travelling to the villages, meeting the representatives, I had to spend around Rs. 30,000.

When you returned to your region for the first time since election, how did the people look upon you? Women were never before seen on such high positions. What was your experience at that time?
Definitely people found it a bit awkward initially because it was for the first time that a woman had become a head. So whether it was in the block or people's representatives, everyone found it a bit strange. Even I felt, that had there been a man at that position, he would have been given more importance. And even if a woman speaks beautifully, says the same thing tactfully, people don't listen to her attentively. Initially there were a lot of problems, but gradually they are reducing.
Section 3
What do you understand by the panchayati raj law? What do you think should be done to promote development?
In panchayati raj, I mainly feel that the plans and programmes should not be imposed by seniors. Panchayats should be given a chance of working independently. There should be no pressures from the administration above. They should make the plans themselves, only then can the panchayats progress.

What was the attitude of the block or district officials towards you?
Initially it was the same as that of the people's representatives. But a few people of my village head staff were reasonably good. But the attitude of high-level officials was not encouraging. They misled me thinking me to be a woman. Or did not give me the correct information thinking it was not important. They used to defer whatever I said. In this way I was not given complete information about the block. Overall their attitude was not very positive.

Then what did you do to make them understand or to change their attitude?
Initially, I did not have much experience about the panchayati raj arrangement, though I had been active in the field of social work, but I had entered the political field for the first time. Hence I did not have much knowledge about administrative rules and law. Gradually as I gained knowledge, I understood what role I had to play, what role the block head had to play. Once I had the knowledge of my rights, then I told the divisional development officials and the officials of the entire block, precisely how the things should be done and they also agreed to it. I then felt that a person must have experience, being educated alone is not enough.

You have been active in the social field earlier. You must have seen development work also. Your own two-year development work is also complete. What changes do you find in it as compared to before?
The people would be able to tell better about the changes. Every person thinks that he is doing good work. 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. Prior to this people did not have any information. 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.

What schemes have you started regarding women and what interest have you shown towards them?
In our region, women face the worst situation, because of liquor. I went to various villages to create awareness among the people, and have provided them assistance through administration also. But, because of additional pressures upon us, we cannot do various things even if we want to. My intense desire was to open delivery homes in all the villages. I made various efforts, kept this point in the development programmes for women also, as well as anti-alcohol campaigns, etc. 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
What programmes/schemes do you think are important for the development of your division? The plans of the government or something else? Which plans do you consider important? There are other ideas, what do you find more important?
For development I regard our primary/basic concepts. Education is in a bad state today. First of all improvements at the educational level are necessary. We can progress only when the level of education is good. After that comes health. 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. And you do not progress by building a large dam or opening a big factory. Our ancient tradition such as agriculture, small [cottage] industries. We have amla (fruit tree) and malta (tree with orange-like fruit) here, the unemployed can make its jam, start a small industry and thus progress. We do not want the dangers of using chemical fertilisers in our traditional farming. We want that there should be development, people's needs should also be fulfilled and there should be no danger to the mankind.

Both your families are followers of Gandhism. And Gandhi ji's one important principle was that of gram swarajya (village self-reliance). Is the new arrangement of panchayati raja able to give a definite form to this?
It does not seem like Gandhiji's dream about gram swarajya, it is nothing like his imagination. It has been given the name of panchayati raj, but it does not contain what it should have. And panchayati raj means swarajya. But 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. There was flood in the village once, we needed to build roads. Some village panchayat were in need of a linking road, but they said that we do not give money for linking road, we give money for building schools. But when a village does not have any road, it needs to build one. In this way it was the work of panchayati raj to solve disputes. Today brothers fight among themselves and they go to the court. Neither the people’s representatives nor the officials are able to understand the meaning of panchayati raj. The officials may be aware, but they do not want that the power be given to the panchayat. They want that people should go to them so that they can have their hold on people. It should have been the panchayat’s work of resolving small disputes, formulation of self programmes, protection of environment, to fight against the ill-customs of the village. All the work of the panchayat has now come down to the basis of money, this amount of money is needed, this amount of money is to be earned. Any representative of the people is restricted to the extent of money.
Section 5
How many gram sabhas (village assemblies) and villages come under your block?
Under my development division there are 90 village panchayats and 55 regional panchayat members. But at present three areas of Jakholi block of District Rudraprayag have been included here. Adding these, there are 127-gram sabhas in the block and 83 regional panchayat members. I think it is the largest block not only in district Tehri, but in the entire Uttarakhand. Its (surface) area is quite large. It has many women members. People’s representatives are also 250-300 in number.

In your regional committee meeting, you come across the problems of 127 villages and various applications regarding development programmes. How do you give priority to them?
Like we receive applications from 127 gram sabhas. We have to see according to the plan and the kind of administrative arrangement required, on what basis preference has to be given. Then we see according to ourselves also, which village requires what exactly. There are 127 gram sabhas and money has to be given to that village which has never before received any financial aid. What does the village require, then preference is given on the basis of proposals submitted by the gram sabha. We work according to it.

In case some problems arise, or there are disputes between the gram sabhas, how do you resolve them?
There are such problems. Some are of my level which I myself resolve. More than half the problems arise due to ignorance of people which are resolved by convincing them. The problems of gram panchayat are resolved at the village level by communicating with the village head regarding what should be done. If the controversy rises then we go to the village BDO and resolve it. And if the level rises further, then our block staff, the divisional development officer, people’s representatives, sit together and find a common solution.

It is generally seen with the women leaders, that since they are less educated, they have more pressure of their husbands on them. What have you done so that they are able to work more independently and their husbands do not influence the development programmes?
For this it is necessary for the woman to be alert herself. The family members would want that she should not go out and instead cook food so that she stays under control. 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 if he has educational qualifications. All the educated women, though they may take assistance, but in gram panchayats they do their work themselves, whereas, the uneducated women have to face certain problems. I went to the village and enquired, they said, “we want to work but we have to do what our husbands or father-in-laws want us to do.” They said this with frustration. They cannot progress until their husbands or father-in-laws interfere in their work or till they gain knowledge.
Section 6
When you accept a particular plan and collect the money from the village, how do you assess that plan?
Whether it is the budget of the block or of the district level, under jawahar rojgar yojna (government employment scheme) the money directly goes to the gram panchayats. We do not play any role in it. Even then there are around 127 gram sabhas in the village. We cannot go to every village, but like JE (junior engineer) a technical person, or officials of our block level, go to some villages, somewhere the divisional development officials and in some places the BDO goes. A village panchayat consists of regional panchayat members as well as district panchayat members. It is through them that we tell people the plans for which we sanction money. And this money should be used in a judicious manner, if it is misused we tell the villagers about it. As people say that the pradhan (head of panchayat) has embezzled money. We even look after those village heads who complete a work worth Rs.50 000 in just Rs.25 000. If some head does not admit, we first give in writing and then do the necessary formalities.

Can you give any example when a village head did some expensive work in less money, committed a scam and you took action against it?
There is a gram panchayat in Siludi Gadara. We gave Rs.50,000 i.e. 20% of the money. In one month the work order was passed, but till one year the work did not start. People started sending complaints, we sent in writing to the BDO (Block Development Office) requesting him to ask the village head why he did not get the work done. The BDOs also kept changing one after the other. He also sent in writing but the head did not pay attention. Then we all, BDO, JE and gram panchayat officials went together. When the people found out that the chief BDO had come, all the villagers gathered together. Then the village head said that, “I spent the money here and there, but I did not use it for the work for which it was sanctioned. Whatever money was used; was for my own self”. I said to the village head that, “You have misused the money. I won't leave you no matter wherever I go. If you give in writing that you will complete this work, only then this matter will remain restricted”. He gave in writing, and is now completing the work. We worked out this matter at our level, we even gave his name in the newspaper. In this way various such problems arise and we have to solve them.

Where does the labour come for the development work in the village? They are from the village or they come from outside?
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. Though, through such work labour should be benefited, but there are very few villages who give work to the native villagers and provide them the benefit.

What is the reason for this? The villagers do not want to work or the habit of giving the work on contract is becoming more prominent?
The habit of giving contract is becoming more prominent because villagers prefer it. But some gram panchayats do not like this. They say that villagers do not like to work, although this is also wrong. Some people say, “It is the government’s money. It has to come whether we work or not.” Some people have such mentality also. Some contractors feel that, “I should get the entire benefit. I shall put labour and complete this work quickly and get all the profit.”
Section 7
What steps have you taken to eradicate the social evils against women in the society?
The major social evil in our society is alcohol. When I met the women, their main problem was of liquor. I feel sad that liquor prevails even in Uttarakhand, which is considered as heaven. I told them that, “until you yourself are not alert and protest against this evil, administrative assistance will be of no help. Even though we have raised this issue at the administrative level. But they said that “the village head is against this. The liquor mafia also looks at us angrily.”
Another social evil in our village is that people cut raw wood. Whenever I go to the village I ask the people, “Why do you cut the poor trees for your good work. You can use its small branches.” People cut them during bhagwat (religious meeting). 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 understand this themselves, like cow-dung manure and feel confident about their own seeds. Dowry is not much prevalent, but even then people expect that their daughter-in-law should bring something or the other. As long as the youth is not aware about it, this will not end. And to abolish various other social evils, it is necessary to get the support of all the women. As long as we do not get the support of the masses, the village head or block head alone cannot do anything. Our endeavour is to eradicate all social evils.

In the hills, milk is a good source of employment. Milk is sold to the dairies. But in the daytime, women walk 10-15 kms per day to get fodder, and the money goes to the men. So what programmes have you made regarding this, in the development division, so that there is abundant fodder?
There was a plan regarding this. The women development programme was going on. We said that women will make nurseries and also plant broad-leafed species for fodder, as long as the work goes on. Perhaps the money was misused at the district level. Our women raised this issue and the money was frozen. Even then we want that 15% of the money which comes under jawahar rojgar yojna should be spent on raising fodder and afforestation. The environment is all right. But they say “go for afforestation, there should be more broad-leafed and fruit or wild trees”. More should be done for their conservation so that our women do not have to walk far for fodder, they should get it nearby. The aid from the government is thus, not utilised in a proper way. We cannot formulate any plans on our own. We cannot do what we want to do. The administration comes in our way and it is according to, this administrative system, that we have to work.

Seeing the hardships of the life in the mountains, the boys migrate from here, and now even the educated girls go for it. They may not be doing any jobs but they want to stay outside with their husbands. They do not want to work in the fields. What do you think about such attitude?
First of all, the boys and girls who go to school should be taught to become self-sufficient since they think that everything is available in a foreign land. People outside take away garbage and make money out of it. Our people feel ashamed doing this work. They are also educated. I think migration can stop only when small cottage industries are set up here. Such a plan should be made so that they get the necessary materials and other facilities here itself. Cottage industries which should benefit people and they should not even suffer any loss. In this way migration can be checked.
Section 8
You said that you are not associated with any political party. Evidently for five years you will be under training. Then how will you progress? What have you thought about getting leadership again?
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. As people think that without the support of a political party one cannot progress. We are against the assimilation of B.J.P. and other communal forces in the hilly region, who create vote banks in the name of religion. And I believe, that in order to expand my leadership, I would prefer Congress because they have worked for women, raised the issue of women's reservation. We do not say that they have had a good past record. But when Sonia Gandhi came I preferred joining Congress. In future one can become a legislator or even a minister, but it should be according to one's wishes, whereas our desires are unlimited. Even then, I have decided that I can contest elections for the post of the district panchayat head or for the district panchayat seat, if it is reserved. Even if it is not, I can still contest.

Large dams are being built and forests are being cut down in this region. Do you think these are good steps towards development?
I am against the large dams since the beginning. We have been associated with this movement since the early days and we stayed with Bahuguna. Regarding the large dams I would say that 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. We are against the danger being posed by the large dams on the entire society. The forests have already been cut down, and instead of banning cutting of trees, there should be conservation of the trees. Government aid should be put to the best possible use. Instead of plantation, attention should be paid on protection, so that our forests do not deplete. As you spoke about hotels, they are causing danger. Business tendencies are emerging and bringing immorality. We don't want five star hotels to develop here. There are many protesters here. We firmly protest against the false pretence being imposed upon us, be it regarding modern agriculture or environment. We shall keep protesting against it.

People's conception is that large dams, method of chemical (fertiliser) farming, cutting of forests provides employment. You are protesting against that. Then what is the source of employment or electricity for you?
I do not agree with it for employment. The day before I had gone to Dehra Dun for training. There was a discussion on agricultural occupation and resources of Uttarakhand. There the minister had called a meeting of the people's representatives at official level. And I alone protested against it. They said, “You should cultivate soyabean, it is a keskro (cash crop).” I said millet also has keskro, its flour is sold in Delhi for Rs.100 per kg. When there is famine we have enough millet with us. Livelihood can be of chulu (apricot), both its oil as well as fruit is sold. We can do business of milk or fruits, as well as wild fruits, if one wants to. People think that only this can benefit them. I do not think so. Like large dams will give us electricity. But our small water mills grind wheat and give us flour which keeps us healthy. And the people's movement has shown how much electricity can be produced by them. 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. I feel that in Uttarakhand region there are so many wild vegetables and fruits, that a person can do good business out of it.
Section 9
Tell me the names of some wild vegetables and fruits?
One is mushroom, lengada, emblic myrobalan, juice of burans can be extracted pickle and jam can be made of emblic myrobalan. There are other wild vegetables like tail, vaiver, karaunda, kingod. If these are conserved properly, they can even be used for making medicines.

These days there are talks of forming Uttarakhand State. All political parties say that it will be formed. What do you think what will happen in future? In what condition will we live?
If it merely changes from Uttar Pradesh to Uttarakhand there will be no difference in its form. In fact when someone is elected as the Chief Minister and goes to Uttar Pradesh, he has a lot of status in the whole nation. When Uttarakhand State will be formed, we will be left in one corner. Those who are leaders will gain benefit, legislative assembly and blocks will be formed. We who are leaders may also be benefited. But how much will the public benefit. We do not have enough resources. 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 not 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. As the communal forces are coming up, people will fight among themselves and die here as well. This danger will remain as long as there is no change in the thoughts of people.

What should be the sources of income of Uttarakhand? If Uttarakhand is formed how can we become self-sufficient?
We can be self-sufficient only when small industries are set up - are developed such as agriculture. These should be developed. The resources here are water, land, trees and animals. We have to depend upon them. People think that they can utilise them outside, but it will lead to exploitation and in turn affect the entire Uttarakhand. 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.

In such a young age you have managed a large block. What message would you like to give to the young women?
My message to the young men and women is that they should progress under the guidance of their elders. They should do good work for their village. They should 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.

Thank you very much didi ji