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India: Kerala's power women swear by their ward

By Shwetha E. George, Fri, 16 Jan 2009 WFS

Suja Jojan, 38, lives by the clock. At six in the morning, she is already in the kitchen - first making lunch and then breakfast for three. By nine, she starts walking to the government school, about half a kilometre away, where she has been teaching higher secondary students for the last 10 years.

But she can keep to her schedule only if she doesn't have visitors or phone calls in those three hours: a rarity, considering that Jojan is an elected representative of the Nattakom Gram Panchayat (village council) in Kottayam district, Kerala, with 500 households in her ward. “There is no way I can dodge these early morning callers,” she says, “I have known them all my life.”

Back home at four in the evening, she makes house calls in her Ward 20 - to offer condolences over a death or to counsel a couple rumoured to be going through a tense phase in their relationship, for instance. “I spend not less than six hours a day for my public service and this includes the one free hour allotted to me at school,” she explains.

Ninety per cent of the needs in a panchayat ward deal with issues of road, water and electricity. The Gram Panchayat (GP) is the last and closest link to the individual in the hierarchy of government administration in the state. Above it is the block panchayat and then the zilla or district panchayat. A GP is divided into wards and each ward has an elected member in the panchayat. There is a maximum of 22 members of which 33 per cent have to be women as per the reservation laws. The members are elected through a general pachayat election. In Nattakom, of the 21 members, seven are women. The GP supervises the functions of the veterinary centres, hospitals/dispensaries under the Public Health Department, government schools up to the upper primary level, anganwadi's and co-operative banks.

With most houses in Nattakom located near paddy fields or the backwaters, potable drinking water is scarce. However, with Jojan's intervention, one public tap for three houses each was allotted throughout the ward. Courtesy the MLA fund, she was able to erect 10 new electric lampposts in areas bordering water bodies. Tarring was done in multiple phases both on panchayat and PWD-controlled roads, the latter proving to be a bureaucratic nightmare.

So how does she fit in these duties between teaching and running a home? “With the full-co-operation from my male-only household,” she quips. Her sons are both college students and her husband, Jojan Chacko, is an employee in a leading tyre manufacturing company.

Leelamma Mathew, 53, contested only at the insistence of her son's best friend, an avid Congress worker. “But from the very first day of canvassing, I worked alone,” she says. Having known the households in her Ward 18 for umpteen years, she did not need the help of panchayat volunteers to garner votes. “When the ward member is a woman,” she says, “the expectations are really high.” For instance, the pension fund for widows stipulates that those with sons aged above 18 are not eligible to apply. But Leelamma finds it tough to convince a rejected applicant that the decision was not 'personal'. “They think we can twist the law around,” she sighs.

Also, the public expects to see her at the site of a road-tarring project because they feel “in the presence of a woman member, there can be no foul-play.” But what they don't realise is that she is clueless about this sphere. “I somehow manage to be assertive with the labourers and the middle-men.”

Says Susan Kunjumon, 38, who hails from a family with a strong political background, “A panchayat member has a one-on-one relationship with each ward member. Her work is very transparent, meaning, unlike an MP or an MLA, she has to take even the criticism thrown at her.”

It is the GP representative who is in charge of the direct needs of a citizen, be it the distribution of birth and death certificates, of documents to prove residency and ownership or of employment schemes and any civic necessity that is the privilege of every voter.

“But women representatives have a lot of limitations,” explains Ancy Antony, 47, representative of the Nedunkandom Gram Panchayat in Idukki District. “Most times, I cannot discharge my duties to my heart's content.” Two months before contesting on a Marxist party ticket in 2004, Antony quit her job of 22 years at a private school to make herself more available to the public. Now, she gets only two days in a week to spend at home. The rest of her time is divided between visiting households in her Ward 21, implementing various projects and attending meetings both in and around the district.

“I have three children and in-laws both aged over 90 living with me,” she says. “My husband is not able to accompany me even when I have to set out in an unearthly hour,” she adds.

Brijith Thomas, 36, also from the same panchayat contested because she had a strong affinity towards public service. “I was always socially active as a committee member of the church and the president of my Self-Help Group (SHG).” In fact, her experiences in the Kudumbasree SHG honed her public-speaking skills and boosted her confidence in dealing with all sorts of people. “What I aspired most to do during my tenure was to give financial help to as many families as possible.” While Thomas would have liked to achieve much more, she is happy to know that she did save a life: Idukki is home to Kerala's high ranges where the primary occupation is to work in the plantations as labour. With most tea estates coming under lock-outs, the rise of farmer suicides was appalling in the last decade.

The panchayat representatives and the Kudumbasree members were asked to visit all houses in Nedunkandom to check on how each family was faring during the crisis. “One woman I spoke to was deep in sorrow, with an alcoholic husband and mounting debts,” she recalls.

Thomas says she doesn't remember what she told her but later, the same woman who had moved with her family to another place returned once to confess to her that she had been contemplating suicide and that Brijith's words had prevented her from doing so.

Many women panchayat representatives have such stories to narrate. Although most like Jojan, Mathew and Antony were already into social work before becoming full-fledged members of the panchayat, every one of them feels that as elected representatives, they have been able to do much more. “This is a public platform and as members, our work gets the right recognition,” says Mathew.

But Jojan's husband has decided not to let his wife run for another term. “Since a person cannot be at two places at one time, I have represented Suja at many fora. I keep asking her to resign.” Mathew will not be contesting even if she wants to because her daughter, a 28-year-old with special needs, is deeply unhappy when her mother is not at home.

Antony, too, has chosen not to run again because her family of six might not provide her with the same support for one more term. Only those women representatives who are married to full-time party workers say they might contest again - although invariably they function as mouthpieces for their spouses’ political views.

Typically, most of these strong, self-affirming women are not really worried about their own future in public service. Says Jojan, “I hope to be an example for the one taking over from me.” Considering the list of her accomplishments, the new candidate will certainly find that she has an enormous pair of shoes to fill.

(Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)

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