November’2005. In Handitola- a remote village in central India, people were faced with a horrific situation: a young Dalit (a marginalized community) man had hung himself and the body was on the verge of decomposing. But nobody dared go near him. They all had their reasons: for some, the boy was an ‘untouchable’, while others were plain scared. Then, a woman of 50 came up, with a sickle in her hand. She stood upon a stool, and, as the whole village stared in fear and awe, cut the rope and lowered the body. Next week, in a meeting in which they had to decide who would be their ‘Sarpanch’ - the head of the village council, everyone voted for this woman – the most courageous one among them. And that is how Sukhantibai - a Gond (a primitive tribe) woman, became the ‘Sarpanch’.
In the line of fire
7 years later, I am meeting Sukhantibai today. I have traveled for 3 days to reach her village in Rajnandgan – one of the 78 districts identified by the government of India as ‘Maoist affected,’ meaning places that have borne maximum brunt of the Government vs Maoists (communists) armed conflict.
On my way, I have been feeling the suspicious glare of several people, and, since I reached the district, my mobile phone has gone off the network. Now, sitting in an old, rickety bus, I feel like walking on the fire: this is a land where people, suspected as police informers or Maoist sympathizers, often vanish without a trace. Sometimes they end up in a jail, other times only bullet-ridden bodies are found. Today, I could be one of them.
However, coming from the North east India, another conflict zone, I know how to ignore those glaring eyes and shrug off these thoughts. So, instead, I focus on what I have come to do: find out how a woman – especially a marginalized one like Sukhantibai - manages to live in this war zone and head an entire village.
A ‘Sarpanch’ without a toilet
However, once I reach her village, I am told that the ‘sarpanch’ has gone to supervise the work being carried out under the government's rural employment scheme. In the two hours that I wait, I look around her house (a mud hut with uneven walls and a tiny courtyard): there is a wood stove, a couple of earthen pots and a few small tins containing tea leaf and spices. This is her kitchen. A few feet away, on a line, dry a few pieces of clothes. I look around and see no toilets. As I begin to wonder if she lives without a toilette, a woman with dusty feet and dreadlocks enters the home, with folded hands and a wide smile. Now, finally I have met the ‘sarpanch’ of Handitola.
I ask her straightaway: 'Why can't I see any toilet in your house?'
Her smile fades immediately. She replies, 'the government has a plan to provide toilet for all. It's called 'Nirmal gaon yojana’ (clean village scheme). My village has received money to implement this scheme. But there is a huge scarcity of water in the village. Without enough water, what is the point of building a toilet?'
‘So, how long will you live without a toilet?’ I want to know.
'I have applied for running water supply to the village. The money is coming in small amounts. There are 450 families here. So far, 170 of them have received water and toilets. I am trying to ensure that the rest of the families get them before my term ends.’
Her answer is candid, but there is something she is withholding: since her house is at the end of the village, she will be among the last to receive the benefits of any scheme. Because, normally, the supply starts at the beginning of the village.
This is an important fact about the kind of sarpanch she is: if she wanted, she could have got the water straight to her house, like most others do. But she has instead let herself be among the "rest" who will have to wait for their turn to come. This is a sign of her honesty.
From village laborer to the village head
‘It is this honesty that probably has helped her enabled her win everyone’s trust, including the Maoists who are known for opposing any government development project,’ I think. Presently, I want to know what inspired her to enter politics - a profession not known for too many marginalized leaders, let alone women.
Her story is as captivating as her smile and as I listen, my fatigue and the previous discomfort of being ‘watched’ vanishes fast:
As a poor landless tribal woman, she worked as a laborer in the house of the 'Patel' - the richest man in her village. Life was difficult and after 5th grade she could not study further. At 15 years of age, she was married, to a marginal farmer of the same village. In next few years, she became the mother to four children - two boys and two girls. Her village then had no electricity, no roads and no drinking water save a single pond that was full only during the monsoon.
Then one day, in 1992, she met someone from the government health department who told her about Leprosy - a disease dreaded by her entire village. 'Contrary to what people think, Leprosy is curable and the treatment is totally free', he told her 'if you find anyone who doesn't know this, share this information with them.'
After he left, Sukhantibai thought, ‘I must share this information with as many people as possible’. So, she organized a health awareness camp in her village and the response was tremendous: people came from faraway villages. 'They had advanced state of leprosy; some had lost fingers, others had no toes. Though I had only planned to tell them about the availability of medicine, I ended up cleaning their wounds, bandaging, taking their contact details and then informing the district health center to distribute medicine to these people. It made me very happy to see these people, who had given up all hopes on life, now getting hopes again,' she recalls. And that is how she came to discover the joy of serving people.
That this 'joy' is not a cliche, becomes evident when I go out with her on a tour of her village. The village school, previously offering only elementary level education, has been upgraded to secondary level. There are separate toilets for boys and girls. Also, the village boasts of a primary health center, a large playground, a community hall, a community temple, electricity poles and drinking water taps. As she shows me these like a champion shows off his trophies I catch the pride of a rural woman who has been successful in doing something for her community - usually a deprived lot.
We meet several villagers during the tour. Sukhantibai pauses for a while to meet each and everyone. She scolds a woman for cleaning her plates in front of the house ('you have to stop being so irresponsible. Days are changing. Use the backyard for all your cleaning jobs’), massages the feet of an elderly woman ('are you feeling any better, Amma?') who has been suffering from joint pain and asks a group of children why they were not playing (‘children must play to stay fit’, she tells me later). Unlike most politicians, her camaraderie with the villagers is genuine because, she is the daughter of this village who, from the level of a domestic help, has risen to the rank of the village head. To inspire them to join school, she herself took up books at the age of 53 and passed 8th grade under the Open school system. And she is sharing the problems of the entire village, especially when it comes to land and water.
‘My family bought this house from the Patel, who I worked for’, she explains, sadness welling in her voice, ‘it has been 15 years since then, but he still has not transferred the ownership of the land in our name. I keep requesting him, but he ignores me, as though he still is my employer.'
‘So, are you not considering approaching the court?’ I can’t resist asking.
She replies, 'I do (consider filing a case) that every now and then. But then I think of the problems of others in my village that I must solve: lack of safe drinking water, lack of water to irrigate their fields and no toilets. I, then, forget my own grief. Court cases are lengthy affairs and I have no time to get involved into that right now.'
Give the best you have, and the best will come back to you
Her reply takes me by surprise: in India, one of the most corrupt countries in the world, where finding an honest politician is like finding water in the desert, I have a woman who has no time to think of her own needs! As though she can read my thoughts, Sukhantibai says, 'I know the land ownership is my right, but I at least have enough to eat a square meal and wear a coarse sari. My people here don't even have that. If I, the sarpanch, start feeling sorry for myself, who will feel for my people?' she asks.
‘But, what about the day when you are no longer the sarpanch? Will these people help you then?’ I want to know. Confidence oozes out of her voice: ‘My people have selected me for a second term and I know that as long as I put them before me, they will put me ahead of them. They will never let me down’.
And then she breaks into a wide smile. 'We have ‘Mandai’ (a fair) in the village today? Come, let’s go there and have some fun', she says with the enthusiasm of a teenager.
As we walk to the Mandai venue, Sukhantibai tells me that alcoholism is a growing problem among the village youth and during festivals like Mandai it just grows out of proportion. ‘Earlier, our people (tribal) consumed only organic drinks, made out of Mahua (a local flower) flower. But now, people from outside come here and sell adulterated alcohol which is killing our young people,’ she says.
So what is she doing to stop this? ‘I deal with them like I would deal with my own grandsons: tell them that I will break their legs if I catch them drunk,’ she says with a smile, yet sounding serious.
Inspiration, in the land of despair
The ‘Mandai’ has several makeshift food kiosks. Sukhantibai enters one that is run by two young women and orders two plates of samosas and tea. Looking fondly at the women, she tells me ’10 years ago, none of our girls would step outside their homes. Today, they are running shops and businesses. It makes me very happy. But, I want them to enter politics also. Women must have a say in the affairs of the village.’
It’s getting dark and time for me to leave. Tomorrow, I will travel to another village, to meet more women who live in this conflict zone, but are trying to do something constructive. Tomorrow, I will court the danger yet again. Will I fare well? I don't know. But right now, under the setting winter sun, with the dusty road under my feet, and the invisible guns somewhere behind the border of the village, I hug Sukhantibai - a barefoot soldier who is fighting a war against discrimination, injustice and poverty with the only weapons she has: strong will and honesty.
And now I am inspired enough to walk another hundred mile.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2012: Frontline Journals