Thursday, June 30, 2005

of awesome women

Stepping into that hall at Doon School was a bit of a shock.

Sure, I knew hill-women are known to be part of political history, to be less repressed, socially. That they were at the roots of the Chipko movement. That they were at the forefront of the demand to carve an Uttarakhand out of the sprawling, plains-dominated Uttar Pradesh.
And sure, I know Panchayats have a reserved quota for women.

But nothing quite prepared me for the sight of that hall, spilling over with women, each of them being a panchayat functionary of some kind. Some were pradhans, some were ward members, some were on the executive committee at the block level.

All were elected representatives of the people of Uttaranchal. All were 'functionaries'. More than 650 of them, attending this meeting of local women-functionaries, in Dehradun (organised by Avdhesh Kaushal).

Uttaranchal has a good record, in terms of numbers. The requirement is only 33%, but about 45% of the local functionaries are women. Women are contesting on male (general: same thing) seats, and winning.

And when I walked into that hall, sitting on the floor because there was no space left, I found myself a little awed.

Awed by the volumes.
Awed by these simple, illiterate women who stood for elections. Who stood up and talked. Who had nothing to gain, but who cared about their villages and the rampant corruption ruining their tenure.
Awed because they brought their babies along, and that their squalling didn't seem to affect the proceedings much.
Awed by the black-yellow embroidered head-scarves, their silken shirts and their special silver and gold jewels, brought out on display.
Awed, because they were not.

Also awed because these women gave Panchayati Raj Minister Mani Shakar Aiyar a sound yelling. They'd been waiting for him to address the meet all day. (The press had also been waiting. But the press is used to waiting. The press is paid to wait, wherever there's news happening.)

The women waited from 9 am until 6.30 am. When Mr Aiyar finally did arrive, and began to address the gathering, the women told him (not in these exact words) to shut up. More or less.

They hadn't been waiting all day to listen to pretty speeches. They wanted to talk about their problems. And they wanted to know what Mr Minister could do, to help.

Would he arrange extra-subsidized LPG for hill districts, to prevent tree-logging? Would he organise transport benefits for local functionaries? Would pradhans get pension benefits, like ex-MLAs and MPs do? Would he dismantle van-panchayats? Would he stem corruption? Would he? Could he?

They spoke, and the honourable minister listened, and answered.
And I was suitably awed.

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