Thalaiyuthu panchayat, Tirunelveli district (Tamil Nadu): P. Krishnaveni remembers the night of 13 June, 2011, clear as day. Barely 200 m from her home of 15 years, in front of a local temple, she lay in a pool of her blood….writes Bhanupriya Rao
It was 10 pm, when her husband and two teenage daughters found her and screamed for help. No one came. When they finally lifted her into an auto-rickshaw, two fingers — one each hacked from her left and right hands — dropped to the floor. Her right ear was also severed.
The trauma of that day lives with Krishnaveni, but it made her more determined than ever.
“I don’t know how I am alive after that attack,” Krishnaveni, 42, told IndiaSpend. “It is a miracle. Maybe because I am a very adamant and courageous person.”
Thin and ramrod-erect, Krishnaveni, a Dalit, is known for her steeliness and confidence in her home village here at India’s southern end.
As president of Thalaiyuthiu panchayat between 2006 and 2011, Krishnaveni — once called “troublesome” — challenged and overcame caste prejudice, and fought a culture of patriarchy and a cement company that wanted village land. She confiscated commons that had been encroached by higher castes and tried to build toilets for village women on that land (the cause of the attack); she sat on the president’s chair in the panchayat office when her colleagues expected her — as a Dalit — not to; and to protest the discrimination she faced, unfurled a black flag instead of the tricolour on Independence Day, 2007.
Krishnaveni’s story is particularly striking, but there are many women who have emerged from the shadow of men and are carving a singular path as local leaders.
60% of women panchayat leaders now work independently, the study reveals
Krishnaveni is one of 40 past and current women panchayat, or village council, leaders who are the focus of an ongoing IndiaSpend study in six Tamil Nadu districts — Sivagangai and Tirunelveli in the south, Dindigul in the centre, Nagapattinam in the east, and Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri in the northwest of the state-analysing how the decisions made by female village leaders might be different from men.
After personal interviews over 1.5 months, and an analysis of the accounts of 43 panchayats of Devakottai block on Sivagangai district, this is what we found:
* Nearly 60 per cent of women panchayat leaders (19 of 32) functioned independently, without male interference or support. These women had at their fingertips knowledge of panchayat accounts and government programmes executed through panchayats. Two were not allowed to function independently, but they were familiar with the accounts and programmes
* Women panchayat leaders in Tamil Nadu invest 48 per cent more money than male counterparts in building roads and improving access.
* In water-scarce Sivagangai, although male and female leaders spend equal amounts on water infrastructure, such as borewells and pipelines, women leaders invested more money in sophisticated water systems to ensure pure water for their constituents.
* While women tend to spend more on improving infrastructure, men tend to invest more (1.5 times) in regular maintenance, such as repair of water and street lights (men spent up to six times more on installing lights).
Tamil Nadu now has India’s lowest fertility rate-lower than Australia, Finland and Belgium-second best infant mortality and maternal mortality rate, and records among the lowest crime rates against women and children, as IndiaSpend reported in December 2016, but caste discrimination is entrenched and women in rural public office still face resistance from men. But the rise of women panchayat leaders indicates the benefits that reservation for women bring.
Dalit women, the power of the collector and the powerlessness of panchayats
Dalit women presidents face particular difficulties. One of the tools for harassment is Section 205 of the Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act, which allows the district collector to dismiss elected panchayat presidents.
Women appear to be disproportionately affected. In the five years to 2016, 42.5 per cent of panchayat presidents dismissed were women, according to data we obtained from the directorate of panchayat and rural development; 30 per cent of these were Dalit women.
There are other problems: Limited powers and money given to panchayats.
Tamil Nadu devolves 10 per cent of state revenue as State Finance Commission Grants to panchayats.
But there are no devolved powers governing village-level institutions, such as health centres and schools, which are controlled by the respective state-government departments.
Most state grants are enough for only routine maintenance. An RO water system, for instance, costs upwards of Rs 600,000, or 60 per cent of the annual budget for a panchayat with a population of 2,000 in remote, interior regions. Panchayats raise money through professional and house taxes, which are a fraction of those paid to urban local bodies.
The biggest disadvantage for a woman panchayat leader is the absence of a regular salary. Panchayat presidents only get a travel allowance of Rs 1,500 a month, most of which is used to reach regular meetings at the block and district level. Many spend their own money, but this is particularly difficult for women, since they do not, usually, control family finances.
Yet, the women do not back off.
A growing political consciousness: 30 per cent will stand for re-election in 2017
Women panchayat leaders in Tamil Nadu, over the last 25 years, exhibit a growing political consciousness.
Even though the panchayat president is a non-party position, 43 per cent women in the study belonged to a political party, mainly the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). In 1996, Tamil Nadu was the first state to reserve a panchayat seat for women for 10 years instead of five, as other states do.
As many as 30 per cent of the women we interviewed said they would stand for re-election in the upcoming panchayat elections in April 2017, even if they did not represent a seat reserved for women.
Back in Thalaiyuthu, Krishnaveni appeared to have gained acceptance across castes and communities.
When she lay in the hospital in Tirunelveli, Konar youth donated blood. The village folk said they appreciated her work and acknowledged the harassment she faced. Her greatest support comes from women ward members.
“Earlier, I used to give her a tough time too, after listening to the Muslim men,” confessed Mohammeda, a Muslim ward member. “But when I realised that she was being harassed unnecessarily by the men, I started to support her.”
It’s been six years since her attack, many of her wounds have physically healed, although there are deep scars on her neck and hands. Her hair has grown back. But she still finds it difficult to sit for long periods with her legs folded.
Today, Krishnaveni lives among her very attackers, a couple of houses away. “I feel enraged everytime I see them,” she said. “Sometimes, I just want to go out and kill them all. I have gone through so much because of them.”
Krishnaveni stood for re-election in 2011 and lost. What, we asked her, really hinders women in politics?
“Anatthikam,” she said. Patriarchy.