Radha Devi, the sarpanch of Bhadsiya, Nagaur tehsil, Rajasthan dissuaded the principal of the government school from forcing girl students to fetch water for mid-day meal preparation during school hours and sent these girls back to their classrooms. Radha is a 5th class drop-out, who now takes an active role in her panchayat to reduce dropout rates and increase the enrollment of girl students.
Gram panchayats (village councils) in India today have approximately 13.45 lakhs of female elected representatives. A majority of them serve as token-only leaders due to their lack of knowledge, expertise, and experience to perform the administrative duties. Their limitations are intensified by illiteracy, gender discrimination, and related restrictions on mobility that lead to proxy representation by their male relatives in matters of planning, decision-making and implementation, and non-conducive work environments.
Despite these challenges, women sarpanches and panches in India constitute the largest body of democratically elected women in the world. Their ability to connect with the vulnerable masses through strong community mobilization, with a focus on awareness generation about health, hygiene and nutrition, and benefits of various government programs, among others, makes them effective leaders who can play constructive roles in containing the Covid-19 spread.
Women leaders of gram panchayats in action
Stories of women gram panchayat leaders like Radha Devi taking up pivotal roles to protect rural India from succumbing to the Covid-19 crisis have started pouring in sporadically since the beginning of the nationwide lockdown in March 2020. Guided by block and district administrative bodies, these women leaders, with support from the panchayat secretaries and key persons of their respective villages, are designing and implementing local solutions that are compatible with their socio-cultural contexts.
From generating awareness on government guidelines for Covid-19 prevention in the community, to linking health workers with the households, from enrolling for livelihood opportunities, to activating food security programs and active role in surveillance, the role of women elected representatives has been extremely critical.
Without any proper orientation in disaster management, these women leaders of gram panchayats have ideated and executed solutions innovatively and instinctively, being sensitive to the local communitarian milieu and requirements.
Linking health workers with community
Manglesh, a panchayat member of Kalsara village, Alwar, Rajasthan was taken aback when sarpanch and panchayat secretary in their monthly panchayat meeting confirmed the onset of Covid-19 in March 2020 and asked them to gear up. Overcoming her initial dismay, as she did not have much knowledge about the pandemic at that time, she followed the instructions given to her by the sarpanch and actively participated in protecting the families residing in her ward.
She served as a connecting link between the community members and healthcare professionals including Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers and team of doctors from the health department, and also accompanied them in door-to-door household surveys and check-ups. She took this opportunity to interact with women who are still the primary caregivers of rural households and guided them on matters like maintenance of good personal hygiene, special care for children, among others.
Enrolling for livelihood opportunities
Contemplating the pressure reverse migration could impose on employment opportunities and the looming danger of unemployment on the rural workforce, Sumota Devi and Maya Devi, panchayat members of Donkhera village, Mahendergarh, Haryana suggested that the sarpanch broaden the scope of MGNREGA work. As a result, almost 200 new MGNREGA job cards were issued and people employed in construction work such as digging ponds, renovation of roads, etc.
The female panches of Donkhera also engaged themselves, along with the concerned government functionaries, in door-to-door ration distribution to the beneficiaries under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and mid-day meal programs.
Awareness generation in the community
Sita Devi, panchayat member of Ladaura village, Kalyanpur, Bihar, made house-to-house visits in her ward to make people, especially women, aware about the government guidelines pertaining to Covid-19 prevention. She took charge of informing the families residing in her ward about do’s and don’ts, including following of social-distancing norms, hand-washing and use of soaps, maintaining daily hygiene at personal and household levels, keeping surroundings clean, keeping a watch on outsiders, not allowing outsiders inside homes, avoiding crowded places, and many more.
In Hajpurwa village, Samastipur, Bihar the blueprint of activities to control the spread of Covid-19 was created by Munni Devi, the mukhiya along with the panchayat secretary, and other panchayat members with support from key people of the village in a meeting in April 2020.
Munni Devi thought that it was important for the poorest of the poor to access benefits of existing government programs. She personally visited households to disseminate information about revised provisions of selected social welfare programs such as Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, targeted public distribution system, pensions, etc.
Active role in surveillance
Chandrakala Devi, sarpanch of Panchnota village, Mahendergarh, Haryana, organized and monitored the process of sanitization of the entire village. She maintained strict vigilance on labourers returning back to the village and sent them to Narnaul tehsil for check-up as per guidelines issued by the block authorities. For imposing strict surveillance, she gave responsibilities to panchayat members and key people of the village to safeguard the entry and exit points by forming check posts. She involved women in this activity during the day time and men during night hours.
Activating food security programs: ICDS and MDM
Santosh, panchayat member of Raniaki village, Taoru, Haryana was particularly concerned about the high incidence of malnutrition among women and children, resulting from non-functioning of food security programs due to prolonged periods of lockdown. Implementation of ICDS almost stopped in her village, till the anganwadi worker visited her one day seeking suggestions for how to continue providing ration to her beneficiaries.
Santosh suggested door-to-door distribution of ICDS ration for small children and pregnant women. She also visited the government school campus in her village and guided the cooks to wear masks and maintain social-distancing norms while distributing food under mid-day meal to the students.
Stories like these undoubtedly showcase the agency and engagement of women leaders of gram panchayats in Covid-19 prevention and protection, but these are meagre in number compared to the vast number of elected women representatives in India.
A huge mass of women leaders still remains disengaged and silent, leaving major portions of their responsibilities to male relatives or fellow male gram panchayat leaders. Those who are willing to perform their leadership duties are restrained from doing so due to limited support and connection with the panchayat samitis and zilla parishads, in addition to the lack of holistic backing and encouragement from families and society.
Bottom’s up: Engaging the disengaged
The role of women gram panchayat leaders in containing the spread of Covid-19 will continue to be very critical even in the post-lockdown phase of stringent mitigation efforts. The pandemic has opened up a plethora of opportunities for the women gram panchayat leaders to engage with the vulnerable sections of population. What they probably need at this hour is more direct handholding support from block and district administrative bodies.
- First, a detailed orientation on the basics of disaster management including prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery phases should be given to women leaders of gram panchayats so that they can formulate community-based disaster management plans per the local needs.
- Second, to ensure hurdle-free functioning of the women gram panchayat leaders, measures like construction of gender-friendly panchayat ghar or bhawan with facilities including functional toilets should be immediately taken.
- Third, social-distancing norms in the coming months may hamper regular meetings and trainings of gram panchayats, but maintaining connections in between the three tiers of the panchayati raj institution through the use of apps like WhatsApp for sharing information within fraction of seconds can be very effective during the pandemic and even in post-pandemic. Nirmala, sarpanch of Sonkh village, Nuh, Haryana, says regular updates from block level authorities through the WhatsApp group involving the sarpanches of the block helped her to gain relevant information and implement steps to contain Covid-19 properly.
- Finally, emphasis on creation of social capital through holistic support and cooperation of family members and the wider social environment in rural areas has the highest potential of enabling the women gram panchayat leaders to function effectively.
Numerous examples from the grassroots have shown that women leaders of gram panchayats have taken up responsibilities during the pandemic with sheer passion and commitment. Lack of proper training and expertise did not curb their intention to protect their villages and vulnerable masses during the outbreak. Their strategy to use the strong community bonding in mobilizing rural masses on issues of improved hygiene and sanitation and their rapport with anganwadi and health workers—all have proved tremendously useful in times of unprecedented crisis.
Structured capacity-building sessions designed exclusively for the women gram panchayat leaders can be organized by the government with focus on confidence building, public speaking, leadership qualities to adapt during emergencies, among others. This will help prepare women leaders to be frontline warriors by raising their awareness, capability and skills.
Coupled with this, holistic societal and family support can be instrumental in making women leaders harbingers of change. Successful anecdotes of women sarpanches like Vaishali Chopade from Vanegaon, Aurangabad, Maharashtra, who have predominantly led processes of Covid-19 prevention in their villages, demonstrate that a combination of capacity development and societal support can be the game-changer for women leaders of gram panchayats in India.
Debika Goswami is associated with S M Sehgal Foundation as Program Leader, Good Rural Governance, since the last seven years. Prior to this, she has experience of working with organisations like PRIA, Digital Green and Udyogini. A post graduate from University of Calcutta and University of Roma, La Sapienza, Debika is passionately involved in designing and implementing programs for improving governance in Indian villages, with specific focus on the rights of underprivileged sections of the rural population.