Having heard testimonies from various women panchayat functionaries, and having watched them interact with some bigwigs of democracy, here are the lessons -
One woman 'panch' (one who is elected to the panchayat) actually faced the threat of a 'No-confidence Motion', from her other male colleagues.
She 'tavelled to Dehradun too often'.
She 'took too much interest in the panchayat meetings'.
If you're going 'huh?' right now, remember that this is the country where we actually deal with a socio-political situation called 'Pradhan-Pati'.
Pradhan-pati is also a pratha, now: The system of the pradhan-husband.
In other words, the system of the husband's constant interference, arm-twisting, taking-over-of-power/responsibility/rights-as-functionary when a woman is elected as head of the village panchayat.
The woman may have gotten elected on a reserved seat. In which case, the man would have allowed her to contest on the assumtion that he would be the real power-centre and wifey-dear would be his rubber-stamp, his ticket to building a local fiefdom, his new minting machinery for sarkaari largesse.
In any case, this particular pradhan wasn't leting her man take over and the rest of the men were, clearly, not letting her get away with it. The local NGOs had to step in. They explained that a 'no-confidence motions' would not help. Even if this woman lost her position, the seat was reserved for women, and it would be another woman replacing her, not a man.
The panch-log backed off for a while. But resentment continued to simmer.
Until, one day, there was a forest fire. 8 women died. But this pradhan, almost single-handedly, managed to save 12 women's lives, by getting them to the hospital in time, and making sure they got treated.
That day, she won respect. She won admiration. She won the right to stay pradhan.
So, I learnt that elections are not won at the polling booth. The real test is the winning of hearts.
And I learnt that though most of them didn't read and write, they knew what they were talking about.
They didn't know that we now had a 'right to information' law. But they are already discussing the Uttarnchal Panchayati Raj Act of 2002, and why it was almost of a xerox copy of the UP act. "Where was the grand idea of fighting for a separate hill state, if all you do is bring back old laws in new packaging?"
And they talked 'delimitation', something I quickly needed a crash course in, to follow what was being debated.
They talked of all the cops being male. They talked of how these cops wouldn't come to save them, if their husbands turned violent. They talked of threats of being kidnapped and killed, when they succeeded in getting some work done. They talked of reserved seats for women in parliament. They talked of an emergency relief fund, to be made available directly to panchayats, without intermindable red-tape chasing.
They talked health, auxillary nurses, roads, hospitals, punitive action for 'inspection tems' who 'inspect' records and find nothing wrong with the financial transactions.
And I learnt that talking does help. That talking is about spreading the word. That when you can't read and write, talking is your only source of information.
Some of the women brought up the issue of pensions. Old-age pensions and widow pensions.
And I learnt that we have really crazy rules. I can't vouch for this, but from what I understood of the discussions, apparently, there's a cap on the number of pensions issued.
So that, A old woman has to wait for B old woman to die, before she is entitled to pension.
also, a widow is no longer entitled to pension when her son turns 18. This is the most ridiculously short-sighted bit of policy I've ever heard of.
First, 18 is when the son is just finishing school. 18 is when he could do with financial help, to get into college, and maybe get a slightly better chance at tackling life. By stripping his widowed mother of pension at that point, you effectively ensure that the boy is forced to take up whatever job he's offered, and the family stays trapped in the poverty cycle.
Secondly, it assumes that the son WILL take case of the widowed mother. Which we all know is NOT a given. Besides which, with unemployment and poverty being what it is, there is no guarantee that a son could provide for his parents, even if he wants to.
But I learnt that there's a whole lot of stuff about policy and laws that the illiterate women of this land know, and I don't.
I also learnt that the "roots of corruption not only are deep, but also high".
They talked of 20% commission for the BDO and and 20% for the ward members, and so much for the pradhan and the panchayat... and about nothing left for 'development work' work.
One woman had the whole gathering in splits, when she recounted how the Lok Pal would run away and hide, every time she tried to visit him and demand that a meeting be held, to discuss accounts. "We haven't had a meeting for years now."
One pradhan actually went to a certain state minister and complained about the BDO and the local administration's demands for 'commission'. She said that the minister told her, "I can't stop them. Nobody can."
The corruption tree has roots growing from the top. A sprawling luxuriant banyan, it is.
Most of all, I learnt from these women to not be cowed, or intimidated, by bigwigs. Whether it was Mani Shankar Aiyar, or Brinda Karat or whoever you like. They spoke up.
Nityanand Swami, former Chief Mininster of Uttaranchal, claimed that he had done a whole lot to improve the position of women in the villages. That he refused to attend meetings where women did not sit in the front row.
One woman stood up and said - "You promised the women of the hills that you'd make Uttaranchal a dry state. Whatever happened to prohibition?"
Nityanand Swami cleared his throat, laughed uneasily and admitted - "I tried, but they wouldn't let me."
But he learnt, as I did, that trying isn't good enough. Not in politics.
He is the ex-CM, isn't he?
I'd say, N.D. Tiwari had best watch out for his kursi.