In the last panchayat polls held in 2015 across Uttar Pradesh, women won nearly 44% of the gram pradhan seats. The Rural Connection team set out to meet one such head of the village. However, we were in for a surprise …
“The gram pradhans (village heads) are the most accessible of all government representatives. If a person living in a village is facing an issue of any sort, he would not go to an MP or an MLA, he will approach his gram pradhan,” said Nakibul Khan, 49, the de-facto gram pradhan of Gaura Tala village, which is in Barabanki district, about 60 kms from Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow.
The Rural Connection team spotted him in Bilhara village where he was riding his bike which had ‘Pradhan’ written just below the number plate. When we told him, we would like to know how a gram pradhan spends his day, he readily agreed and asked us to wait at his place as he had to complete some important paperwork.
Behind every successful gram pradhan, there’s a …
To be fair, five minutes into the conversation he made an honest confession. “On paper, my wife is the gram pradhan, but it’s me who is the in-charge,” he said as he fanned away the flies from the assorted food items that were kept in front of us.
In 1993, a constitutional amendment was passed that called for one-third of gram pradhan or sarpanch positions in gram panchayat to be reserved for women. However, in the last panchayat polls across Uttar Pradesh held in 2015, women won nearly 44% of the pradhan seats — 11% of the total elected candidates were women who won the seats in the general category, over and above the 33% seats reserved for them. The de-facto pradhan’s assistants informed us that it’s quite common for women to fight the elections, but it’s the husbands who are de-facto gram pradhans. “My wife (Rakibul Khan) is away for a wedding, but you can interview me,” said the ‘pradhan’.
“Most of my day goes in settling disputes. When someone approaches me with an issue, I call both the parties and help them resolve their fight. In most of the cases, they listen to me. My aim is to resolve these personal or professional fights at my end, so that they don’t have to approach the police. Very rarely do cases end up in the courts,” he said when asked about his daily routine and role in a village’s life.
“Other than this, people approach me with their grievances. Say, if the government-provided handpump is not functioning then they call me up. I get it repaired. I try to get things done the same day, so that people don’t suffer,” he added.
What does the ‘wife’ – the elected gram pradhan, do?
When asked who resolves issues related to women, he said: “If she is available, she looks into them, but mostly it’s me.”
Recently, in a huge push for women hygiene, the government slashed the price of sanitary napkins sold from Jan Aushadhi Kendras to just Re 1 per piece from Rs 2.5 earlier. When asked when any such scheme is announced, how is it communicated to the entire village comprising about 1,800 people, there was silence. No one, neither the pradhan nor his assistants, had heard about any such scheme.
“We don’t know about any such scheme. It hasn’t reached our village yet. We know about only those schemes, that are communicated to us and our job then is to implement them. These schemes include ones like the vidhva pension (widow pension), Pradhan Mantri Aawas Yojna (housing scheme), Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna (crop loss compensation scheme) etc.”
This means most of the women living just 60 kms from the state capital use a piece of a fabric fashioned as a pad during menstruation as they don’t even know about the government’s one-rupee sanitary pad scheme or that facilities like Jan Aushadhi Kendras — government-sponsored centers where quality medicines are provided at affordable prices to the masses even exist.
Is India really defecation free?
What about the government’s other ambitious project – making rural India open defecation free? Recently, On October 2, the government declared that rural India is 100% open defecation free – which means no one in our villages defecates in the open. When the Rural Connection team took a tour around this particular village to see the condition of toilets, almost all were found to be in deplorable condition – some didn’t have a seat, some didn’t have a tank, and yet others didn’t have doors or roofs.
When asked about these unfinished toilets, the pradhan said: “They were built by the previous pradhan. These are old structures and need repair work. I am in the process of getting it done. In these past four years, I have built 210 toilets. They are in good condition. The previous pradhan build 279 toilets, but most of them are not worth using.”
He confessed that about 30% villagers still defecate in the open. “This is a village. People have been defecating in the open for so many decades. They find it odd to use a toilet. They say they feel suffocated. Also, men find it awkward to use toilets that are also used by their daughters or daughters-in-law. They prefer going out. My daily job also involves counseling these villagers and urging them to start using toilets. Earlier they would go in the fields or near the pond. But that has stopped now.”
Open meetings – do these really happen?
As per the rules, the gram sabha is supposed to conduct two open meetings in a year. Every adult, that is anyone aged 18 and above, can attend these meetings. “Yes, we do conduct these meetings. They are held at Panchayat Bhavans. We fix the date when our panchayat secretary is free. The aim of these open meetings is to discuss issues candidly. People attend these meetings in large numbers.”
He, however, could not recall when such a meeting was last held here.
And how aware are these villagers about the existing government schemes?
“The villagers are very aware thanks to their mobile phones. They already know about various government schemes and they share the information among themselves. I help them out only when they get stuck with the paperwork that’s involved in availing the benefits of the schemes. It’s like when you want to buy something, I will direct you to the shop. But if you can’t go to the shop, I will buy the things for you. Similarly, I help them fill up forms, documents and notary-related work.”
Most of the villagers in the Bilhara village are into farming and grow wheat, maize, paddy, rice and mentha. Most of them head to the cities in search of jobs for a couple of months when they aren’t sowing. “Women, however, don’t work. They mostly take care of the home. Only those whose husbands are away or have passed away, step out of the house. Otherwise, women here, be it Hindu or Muslim, don’t work.”
It was time for the azaan (call to prayer). “There are 50% Hindus and 50% Muslims in this village. They co-exist peacefully. There are no issues. We celebrate each other’s festivals.”
A few villagers had gathered outside the pradhan’s home, waiting for us to finish. “It’s probably some land-related dispute,” said the pradhan, which was a polite way to ask us to wind up.