The gram panchayat elections are underway in Uttar Pradesh, and three women from the Tharu tribal community are contesting on unreserved seats. They tell Gaon Connection how they will bring about change in their community if they are voted as gram pradhans.
Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh
Sahvaniya Rana, Anita Rana and Nivada Rana are causing a buzz in 46 villages in the terai region bordering Nepal. The three women are from the local Tharu community and are standing for the upcoming panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh.
These panchayati raj elections are being held in four phases between April 15 and April 29. The results will be announced on May 2.
But what is unusual about these three Tharu tribe women contesting the panchayat elections for the post of gram pradhan is that they are not standing from the seats reserved for women. They are contesting from the open quota seat. They promise to bring about a new era of development in their panchayats if they win. Sahvaniya, Nivada and Anita are hoping to become the gram pradhans of Surma, Suda and Bhuda villages in Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh respectively.
It is clear the women have the trust of their fellow villagers. They are, all three, members of the All India Union of Forest Working People and the Tharu Adivasi Mahila MazdoorKisan Manch.
They have worked tirelessly to inform their respective panchayats about several issues, especially those related to water, forest and land.
Twenty-four-year-old Sahvaniya, is a graduate and the gram pradhan candidate from Surma village. She is looked on as a confident, smart and the most educated girl in the panchayat. For five years now, she has worked amongst her community to sensitise them about their rights.
“If I win and become the pradhan, it will be you people who will decide what needs to be done for the village,” Sahvaniya told the gathering at the chaupal (village meeting place) in Surma.
Surma panchayat is situated in Paliya block, about 100 kilometres from Lakhimpur Kheri district, the largest district in Uttar Pradesh. It is surrounded by forests on all sides.
The people of Surma panchayat not only motivated Sahvaniya to contest the elections but also pooled in money to bear election expenses. “This is for the necessary paperwork and my commute; at the most around about twenty five thousand rupees,” Sahvaniya informed Gaon Connection.
“The villagers will not vote for me out of greed. These are the people who are harassed by the forest department and the police and who need a solution to their problems,” she stated.
“We are all confident that she will win. It is also important for us because our panchayat needs an educated gram pradhan,” Ramchandra, the 55-year-old former panchayat pradhan for three terms, told Gaon Connection. “She has been working amongst us for a considerable time. Everyone knows her well. She understands our pain and so we are rooting for her,” he added.
About 10 kilometres away from Surma is village Suda where Nivada is a candidate for the gram pradhan post. Suda gram panchayat has about 900 voters.
Clad in her community’s traditional attire of a colourful ghaghra and choli (a long skirt and a blouse), 40-year-old Nivada said it was the support from her mother-in-law and her sisters-in-law that encouraged her to stand for elections. “When the pradhan is a man, women’s issues can get overlooked. I am a woman so as the pradhan I will leave no stone unturned in fulfilling their expectations,” she declared.
Nivada pointed to a scar on her forehead saying it would always remind of her duty to ensure justice and a fair life for her people. In 2012, when she had gone into the forest to gather firewood, a police officer had hit her. “This scar nudges me to act for the betterment of my people. That was the first time ever I visited the district hospital. I realised then that there are scores of women like me who would not have stepped into the world outside of this forest,” she said.
Not just in Suda, but Nivada has supporters outside her panchayat too. “Although I am from another village and do not have a vote here, I am attending the gathering in her support,” said 50-year-old Baburam, from Biria, “I am telling the locals about her merits as an informed person. If she wins the election, many problems in the village will be solved,” he said.
The people here want women to come forward in the panchayat elections, Anita from Bhuda village told Gaon Connection. “A drawback with our Tharu community is that if someone is raped or molested, people are hesitant to seek police help. I don’t like it at all,” she said. They contact the gram pradhan and usually the matter is hastily settled with just a small fine, the 45-year-old gram pradhan candidate said.
“One of the reasons is that when the men of our house go to the forest to collect wood or graze animals, sometimes, the forest department officials rough them up and put them in jail, and impose fines. They are less rough with the women,” she pointed out.
As the Lakhimpuri Kheri awaits the outcome of the panchayat raj elections, the Tharu community is pinning its hopes on Sahvaniya, Nivada and Anita Rana who have worked with the community, are familiar with the issues that plague it, and profess their desire to serve their people. The community believes they will walk the talk.
With inputs from Mohit Shukla, Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh.