Sanitation, adult education top priority: Woman Sarpanch

Sanitation, adult education top priority: Woman Sarpanch - Sakshi Post

Parvathgiri, Warangal: She has never been in politics. For that matter, she isn’t even aware of how many political parties exist in her district or her state. What she knows is that there are burning issues that remain unsolved over the decades in her village and she is determined to take them on , with her all-women army of 12 ward members. Meet Sandhya Rani, 40, sarpanch of Chowtapalli – one of southern India’s largest villages - located in the impoverished mandal of Parvathgiri in Warangal district, Andhra Pradesh.

Chowtapalli made history in July this year when it elected Sandhya and all the sixteen warm members unanimously. Prior to the election, the government of Andhra Pradesh had declared that panchayat seat would now be reserved for women from Dalit, tribal and other backward communities.  However, the decision of the village to elect all the members uncontested was triggered by the fact that they were tired of petty politics and instead wanted a fresh team, focused on nothing else but development, say villagers.

“We have had 8 sarpanches until now, but the state of development in the village has not changed much. This time, when we learned that we would have a woman sarpanch, we thought, why not have an entire team of women? They run homes and know how to solve every day problems better than we do,” says Illaiah Gaurapu, a village elder.

Sandhya Rani assumed office on 2nd of August. However, she is yet to sit in her office. One of the reasons is that the panchayat office in her village is a tiny, dilapidated building that's on the verge of collapsing any day. This, she says, is a symbol of the state of development in the entire village. “There are no paved roads in the village and one has to walk nearly two kms to board a bus. There are 5,000 people in our village, but there are no health centers,” she points out.

But, despite the missing roads and lack of healthcare, sanitation and adult education top Sandhya Rani’s list of goals as a sarpanch. The reasons are rather emotive as five of her own panchayat members can’t read or write and several do not have a toilet at home – something they feel strongly about.

27-year old Swaroopa Chamatla and Manturi Ketamma are two of them. Swaroopa is a landless domestic worker while Ketamma is a marginal farmer. Both the women are illiterate as their parents could not afford to get them educated. With no toilets at home, open defecation is a compulsion for them both. The government of India has a scheme called ‘Total Sanitation program” that provides cash to poor citizens to build a toilet. But Ketamma says that the money provided by the government is too low to build one. “The government gives INR 10,000, but it takes 16-20,000 to build a toilet. This means, we have to manage about 5-10 thousand rupees. We can’t afford that.”

According to Swaroopa, going behind the bush is embarrassing and sometimes, also very difficult. “When it rains, the fields are filled with water. Finding dry space behind the bush is very difficult. We are always scared that someone will see us…it’s very embarrassing,” she says, eyes downcast.

Sandhya Rani explains that with the Right to Education coming in force, all children in the village are now able to go to school as education in junior school is free. But, the older villagers who couldn’t get education, must also learn to read and write. “As citizens, they have a right to literacy, so my first priority is to start an adult education center in the village. This will help my own ward members also to learn to read and write, so they can contribute well to the panchayat development. I will also lobby with the government to give us monetary grants, so we can build toilets for every house. It is a shame for us all when women have to go behind the bush and nobody must do it anymore,” she says, with determination.

This is indeed an impressive list of promises, but the fact remains that neither Sandhya Rani, nor her colleagues have any prior experience of public service. Yet the mother of two is confident of meeting her goals. “Lack of funds will be our only problem. Other than that, we have everything: our passion and the support of villagers who have put their hopes and trust in us. We just can’t let them down,” she states.

Her confidence is also boosted by the fact that the district of Warangal, which was once a hotbed of the Maoist insurgency, is now quite peaceful. So, there is no fear of the Maoists to stalk her or her colleagues here, unlike the villages in neighboring district of Khammam where the insurgents often call the shots.

The author Stella Paul, is a journalist and a media fellow of the National Foundation of India

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