Earnest endeavours

West Bengal's women panchayat members have become the torchbearers of rural development programmes in the state

Published: Sunday 31 August 1997

Earnest endeavours

Power shift: grassroots women< the women members of gram panchayats ( gps) (village councils) in West Bengal ( wb ) have been involved in a determined and successful campaign to improve the economic, ecological and social conditions of their villages - a development that has taken place after the Constitution's 73rd Amendment Act, 1992, ( csta ), came into effect on April 24, 1993. The success achieved by the state government in terms of promoting literacy, expanding primary level education, fostering public health consciousness, building awareness against social evils and generating employment for rural women, has been largely due to the hard work of women gp members, who in most cases have proved to be more honest, sincere and devoted than their male counterparts.

The csta is regarded as a landmark in the history of the panchayati raj (grassroots governance) and women's movement in India. It has reserved one-third of the total seats in panchayati raj institutions for women and has also deemed that one-third of the total number of chairpersons be women. Follow-ing the csta , women gp members in wb have become increasingly conscious about their environment. Even though most are novices in the field of politics and are also not highly educated, they show great sincerity in their work and seem more sensitive to the needs of the environment than the menfolk.

Model of success Midnapore is quite a model panchayat district from the point of view of the bold initiatives taken by these women in the field of rural development. Throughout Narayangarh block, consisting of 16 gps, women members have started a special drive to encourage among other things, the use of smokeless ovens by the poorer sections of the community. Though the results so far have been mixed - with many scheduled caste and scheduled tribe families still using traditional chullis (earthen ovens) - the women remain undeterred.

Kultikri in Jhargram sub-division of the district, is wb 's only all-women gp . Social forestry has picked up a great deal in the state since 1993, particularly in Kultikri. The women planted a number of trees in the local higher secondary school and encouraged tribal women to participate in social forestry projects along roads, canals and embankments and make kitchen gardens. The all-women gp has also helped the school to set up an eco-science club to make students aware of the necessity of tackling the problem of environmental pollution. They have initiated pisciculture in 13 big and small ponds. A basket-manufacturing centre has been set up at Phulbani village. Encouraged by its success, the zila parishad (district council) has decided to open four more centres.

The other achievements of the Kultikri gp include the drilling of tubewells, the opening of about 25 post-literacy centres, undertaking road repair, construction of small bridges and culverts and renovation of primary schools. The Kultikri panchayat has also benefited about 465 people through soil conservation work and the excavation of two big tanks. In addition, the gp has inaugurated a training-cum-production centre for readymade garments, which aims at the economic empowerment of local women. It has distributed a large number of books free of cost among students of primary, middle and higher secondary schools and has provided financial assistance worth Rs 30,516 to the local girl's high school.

Women members of the Kushbasan and Hemchandra gp s in Narayangarh have also been organising local women against their husbands' addiction to cholai , a rather unhygienically prepared country liquor. In spite of a noticeable rise in daily wages, many peasant households in the district still remain poor because of alcohol abuse. The women of Radhanagar and Kushbasan in particular have achieved success in forcing their husbands to give up drinking.

Consciousness about personal and public health has risen in the district due to the ceaseless efforts of women gp members. Pulse polio programmes have attracted the attention of many and achieved great success. On one occasion, the dose was administered to 43,655 children as against the official target of 39,400.The district administration admitted that the programme would not have been such a grand success had there been a dearth of initiative among the women gp members, who undertook door to door canvassing and explained the benefits of the programme as well as the harmful effects of polio.

Nothing succeeds like success
Apart from Midnapore there are other districts in the state that have benefited from the exceptional services rendered by these women. The pulse polio programme has been quite successful in 24 Parganas (North) and (South), Howrah, Hooghly and Nadia districts. At Machkanda, situated along the Damodar river in Howrah district, people were in dire need of a bridge over the river. The money available from the local member of Parliament's quota was far from adequate. It was the undaunted spirit of the women members of the local gp which solved the problem. They went from house to house and urged all adults to volunteer their labour. The response was tremendous. Men, women and children above 10, came forward and worked hard for days together without any wage. Today, the bridge stands as a monu-ment to the initiative and hard work put in by the villagers, especially the women.

Vast tracts of land at Rangabelia, Jatirampur and Baghbagan along the Matla river in the Sunderbans in 24 Parganas (South) district, have been transformed from what had been mainly a monocrop area 15 years ago, into farms wherein the people now harvest wheat, potato and a wide array of winter vegetables. Joint efforts of the Tagore Research Society and the Rangabelia gp , particularly its women members, have changed the picture.

The csta, however, does not provide solutions to all the problems faced by the women since they have started parti-cipating actively in the activities of the panchayats in larger numbers. In fact the panchayati raj machinery itself has not always been able to come to their aid. The women have had to put up with pressures from various quarters. Their actions and movements are still restricted by the norms set by a strong patriarchal society plagued with prejudice, superstition, caste and political rivalries. In the face of these hurdles, the performance of women members of gp s has been all the more commendable and courageous.

Ashim Mukhopadhyay is a Calcutta-based freelance journalist.

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