You cannot miss the dark arresting face of the woman wearing a bright red saree, a big round red bindi on her forehead and lots of gold in her ears, nose, and around her neck. Yet, Rukmanibai Waghara Koli from Rajouri village in Maharashtra's Osmanabad district is not a rich woman. She and her husband own four acres of land, sufficient for subsistence agriculture but not much else. Both have to work as agricultural labourers on other people's fields. For her labours, Rukmanibai gets paid barely Rs. 25 per day.
Rukmanibai was the sarpanch of her village for five years. She has just given up her post to a man. She has no desire to continue in the post. "I did my bit. Now another woman has been elected from our group (referring to her savings group). So it is as good to have someone else as myself. I still continue to help the new sarpanch with whatever work needs to be done for the village."
But five years ago, Rukmanibai had no clue what being a sarpanch was all about. "I don't know who decided I should stand. Someone filled out the form for me and took my signature. Before I knew it, I had been elected to the panchayat! That year the post of sarpanch was reserved for a woman. And everyone in the panchayat was unanimous that I should get the post even though I told them I knew nothing."
She learned fast. Within a short time, she began going to the office everyday. She learned what questions to ask. She discovered that there were many different qualities of bricks. When money was sanctioned to build toilets in the village, she took it upon herself to supervise their construction personally. "Every day, I sat there all day and supervised the construction," she said. She also figured out how to use the system for the maximum benefit of the village. For instance, she explained, the government had sanctioned 100 metres of open drains for the village. "We decided to spread that amount around the village so that each area had some drains. Some areas had to add just a small amount more to complete the lane. People did that without waiting for government help."
On the other hand, much has changed, almost imperceptibly. And the stimulus for that change has undoubtedly come from women.
Bhogji village in Osmanabad district could be detected by the smells that emanated from it. Open defecation was the norm. The village of 1,350 inhabitants is linked to Osmanabad town by a dirt road. The area next to the road was an open toilet where the weed parthenium grew in abundance. "We got rid of Congress," Mangala told me triumphantly, referring to the weed, not the political party. As we sat under a low tent, a hurricane lamp being the only light to dispel the darkness. Mangala and the women of the village spoke out even as the men watched in silence. The darkness was the result of one of those choices imposed on supposedly electrified villages that have no control over when the "current" will come each day. Thus Bhogji has a rotating power cut, either from 5 in the evening to 10 at night, or from 5 in the morning until 10 in the morning. "When we need light, we don't have it. And when there's daylight, there's plenty of electricity!" a villager commented with just a trace of irony.
"So, how come the village does not stink any more and we could sit in the semi-darkness without being chewed by mosquitoes?", I asked. "We will tell you," said the women. "We wake up at 4.30 a.m., clean our homes, cook the food, and then come to the village by 8 to begin sweeping and cleaning it," explained Mangala. After that they go to the fields to work for the rest of the day until sunset. "Only the women?", I ask. Yes, mostly the women, she confirmed. The men listened but did not contradict her. One man spoke up: "If the women had not come forward, we men would not have done this work. Women have taken the lead and we men have been left behind."
The women have come together as part of savings groups or self-help groups. The term SHG has almost become a cliche in development terminology. Yet, when you speak to women like Mangala, you appreciate the determination that goes behind these groups. "We hide one or two rupees every day. If I were to ask my husband for money, he would say, what is this bachhat (savings) group and refuse. So we find a way of saving up to Rs. 50 every month." As a result, Mangala explains, they do not have to go to the moneylender for their emergency needs, such as illness. But more than that the SHGs have knit them together, overcoming caste and other differences.
It is this sense of community, of being a group that gave these women the courage to tackle the filth in the village and organise to get it cleaned. They cleared the parthenium growing by the roadside, instituted a system of fines if someone is caught defecating near the road, and are negotiating with the government for funds to build toilets. They are determined that their village should win an award as the cleanest in the district.
You come across dozens of such encouraging stories, tales that indicate that something is changing. Take Darfal village in the same district. We sit in the colourfully decorated Balwaadi with the women of the savings group. I ask them about caste differences. We have none, says one woman. Then another quietly interjects. "I have to admit that initially I didn't like the women from the lower castes who were a part of my savings group coming to my house. I would serve them tea in a separate set of cups. Then my son noticed this and he got very angry. `Are they not human beings?' he asked me. `How can you treat people like this?' He insisted that I should not differentiate in this way. He has been taught these things in school. So now we don't have a separate set of utensils for the lower castes," she said.
It is slow, this change that is taking place. Perhaps it is not enough given the extent of the problem. But it is there. And we should notice it, record it and support it.