By Ritika Chauhan
This year’s Haryana Budget coinciding with International Women’s Day on March 8 saw a slew of measures aimed at empowering women. The most notable among the announcements made by Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar was the proposal to allocate 50% of seats to women in panchayat bodies, instead of 33%.
Political representation and empowerment are not limited to holding a position of power. Take the case of Thana Chappar gram panchayat under Mustafabad block in Yamuna Nagar district, which has had a woman sarpanch for the past seven years. Not only was she missing in action, but even the women voters and their needs were sidelined.
Being able to actively participate in the voting process is near impossible for most women in Thana Chappar, which went to polls on November 2. “Here, a woman’s vote is her husband’s vote. The candidates think they can get the entire family’s votes cast in their favour if they have good connections with the male member of that household. This is true, this happens every time,” said a villager on condition of anonymity.
Niraj Giri, a former sarpanch of the neighbouring Ghari Gosain village panchayat, who is contesting for block samiti this time, described how he was turned away by women while canvassing for votes simply because their husbands were not at home. When he replied that he was there to speak to them, most women said they did not know much about the panchayat system.
Sarpanch elections in Thana Chappar also see conventional strategies to tempt male voters. Reena Devi (35) noted that most men were not loyal to the candidates, but to alcohol. Describing the struggles of her co-workers at a cookware factory, the sole place of employment near her home, Reena said, “Those who stand for sarpanch and panch positions lure men with alcohol. Drunk men abuse their spouses, and coerce them into casting votes in favour of the candidate they seek to.”
Even those not coerced by their husbands, typically lacked the data and resources to evaluate a candidate. The majority relied on information provided by their male relatives to make their choices.
The caste conundrum
Kusum Lata was engaged in regular chores at her house when her husband and sons were holding an upper-caste baithak (meeting) a few meters away to decide on the candidate to be backed in sarpanch polls, a seat reserved for Other Backward Castes. Asked if she knew the contestants, she vaguely identified them by their caste names as told by her husband.
Recognising candidates by caste is a usual practice in villages. “This helps to consolidate votes to keep caste ego and pride intact. Another reason that promotes such identification is the apprehension that candidates may not be willing to work for a different caste or community other than the one they belong to,” said Rajnish Kumar (40).
Reena Devi lent credence to that fact, when she said, “Others benefited through several schemes, but we did not get information of any kind. Maybe, Scheduled Caste voters like us are considered bahar wale because we live on the village outskirts. In other villages, people received money to build cattle sheds. Here, some have not got BPL (Below Poverty Line) ration cards, while a few others have not even received a ration card yet,” she complained.
When this reporter asked whom they favoured for the sarpanch post, Sumanlata (32) and her sister-in-law, both Class 8 pass, replied confusedly. “Our elders will guide us. We will vote for the one they favour. How can we defy them? We do not go out much, but our husbands and fathers-in-law do. So they know better.”
Rajni Devi (24) came to Thana Chappar village three years ago after marriage and was voting for the first time. “I have no idea what this voting is for. My husband told me to press the button that shows a particular sign, and I did. That is it.”
Sarla Devi, whose husband passed away a few years ago, is one such person. She was clueless about the Ayushman card as well. Her neighbour Usha Rani (35) said, “Nobody ever informed us about anything.”
Reena Devi also cited the case of a percolation pond in front of her house, into which toxic chemical waste from the cookware factory has been discharged for the past nine years. “No sarpanch [the last two were from the upper caste Rajput community] did a thing to help us,” she claimed.
The poor condition of her kutcha house and lack of a cattle shed worry Bimla Devi (42). “We have to sit and eat around the same place where our cattle do. You come to my mohalla and see for yourself how people are struggling.”
“There is nothing for us poor; nobody wants to work for us. I only survive on my pension. They will talk to us today, but will not be seen until the next elections,” lamented Krishna Devi (50).
With around 2,400 voters, the majority of them belonging to Scheduled Castes, winners are usually decided by three factors — money, connections, and how much they favour the upper-caste males. In Thana Chappar, there are about 330 upper-caste voters, 185 of whom are Rajputs. If a seat is reserved, their vote typically goes to the candidate whose agendas most favour the upper-caste point of view. Meanwhile, it is easier for candidates to consolidate most of the votes from their own caste because people usually do not vote outside of their castes unless influenced to do so. Similarly, the female voters who are not at the disposal of their male relatives are at the disposal of their castes.
At 21, Shalini is yet to register for her voter ID. “I did not get it done. Who will bring me here to vote once I am married?” Other young women told on condition of anonymity that they wanted to vote, but their parents told them to wait until marriage.
Anshika Kumari (22), a graduate and panch candidate from Thana Chappar’s ward number 6, blamed it on the unequal treatment meted out to girls. “It is easier for boys to get anything done. They even go to nearby cities, but girls are not allowed to do so,” said Anshika, the youngest candidate in the fray in her village.
In a deeply patriarchal and conservative society, there are several impediments to ensuring political awareness and agency to choose a candidate. As Sudha Devi put it, “I want to fight for the right to choose independently, but it is difficult to bring all the women belonging to different castes on one platform. The present situation should change. I do not know how, but it should.”
Ritika Chauhan is an Ambala Cantonment-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.