It was a very simple exercise theoretically.

The task was to empower the elected women representatives (EWRs) who have been given 33 per cent representation in most States about their rights. In states like Uttarakhand they are 50 per cent, much to the annoyance of their men counter parts.

Teams from Prayas an NGO working for child rights, anti-trafficking and gender issues for 30 years had been sent by the National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development (NIPCCD) under the Ministry of Women and Child Development to Rajasthan, Bihar and Jharkhand to train the women about gender sensitisation, women safety laws, Panchayati Raj but basically about telling them to keep the men off their backs, in their official duties.

Being a part of the team that went to Hanumangarh District in Rajasthan for three days I came back confused, slightly scared but much wiser.

Calling up the elected sarpanches for the training was itself a revealing exercise. Not a single of the 45 women leaders we were supposed to call up picked up the phone- it was always the husband, more commonly the Jeth ( elder brother of the husband ) who attended the phone.

Their response was slightly polite on the phone because they knew someone from the government was calling up. But as they started assembling in the seminar room of the Zila Parishad the next day their hostility was soon evident.

As both the trainers in my team were men (sheer chance) when we asked the men to wait outside the Hall as we had been instructed by the NIPCCD officials, they stared back hard as if we were going to lure them or kidnap them. It is also true that these women could not reach the venue alone because they were coming from far off places. But that does give the males the license to usurp all the decision making power from their wives who have been representing the District for the last three years.

The tension in the air was so palpable that there was no option but to compromise with Rule Number one. It was a question of coming back safe and also to proceed to Step No. 2 of the training. So we politely asked the men to sit in the back row so that the elected women representatives could fill up the mandatory registration forms about problems they were facing in discharge of their duties and decide their own priorities.

A little too soon for an outsider on Day One of my 3 day training schedule I made the cardinal sin of asking the women to start taking their own decisions because they were the real Mukhiyas of the home, not the men folk.

I explained to them that they were the Head of the house because the entire activities of the house revolved around them while the men were just incidental who stayed outside the house while they were struggling with day to day problems of the family.

This so-called ‘Gyan’ from a city-dweller on the very first day of arrival itself was so unexpected that while the women giggled with their duppatas in their mouth, the men got up, almost threatening to leave, "Ab ye na sikhao babuji" ( now don't teach them this, Sir). They could feel the power literally slipping out of their hands, cursing themselves silently why they fell in the trap of attending a meeting just because they were offered free lunch.

But the exercise had to go on. I reminded the gathering that ' Balika Vadhu' the best known serial about Rajasthan had shown the grandma (Dadisa), the senior most member of the family as the Mukhiya - the decision maker.

The women looked incredulously at me as if trying to understand if I came from an alien planet. Ultimately a senior bespectacled Sarpanch looked me straight in the eyes and said simply, "These things happen only on TV. Not in our homes."

This was a comedown but women empowerment never comes naturally to a city which does not have a single female reporter. I was told by a senior correspondent of Bhaskar that educated youths did not want to join journalism and girls who did join as trainees left for cities like Chandigarh or Delhi. Not surprising actually.

We had to ask them about their best and worst experience in life. The best of course was easy- the day they were elected as Sarpanches , which made their families proud. But talking of their worst experience was not easy. Some did speak out formally but some said they would write out their experience in a note-book provided by us. And when they finally did write it down it was too personal because it related to their marital issues. And they begged us not to share their secret with anyone. Of course they were barred from attending the program on the second day. Obviously, calling them on the second day turned out more difficult after what we had done on the first day.

The representatives of the (EWRs) came up with all kind of excuses that it was harvesting season and they could not attend the training because commuting for 20 to 70 kilometres was a very taxing exercise and people sitting in Delhi did not understand this. Incidentally, almost every official we spoke to dittoed this concern and blamed the timing of this training for the poor response.

But when I spoke to other people the picture appeared not as depressing as it might appear. There are exceptions. For instance, I spoke to Ram Niwas Jat a former CEO of the Zila Parishad who had literally turned out the men folk from the hall who had come with the elected women representatives to attend official meetings.

"I was even threatened by some people who were close to a Minister because I had turned them out of the meeting. But I did not care and even suspended some women Sarpanches because they were not sitting in their offices during the time they were supposed to which was a violation of Section 38 of the Panchayati Raj Act.

Similarly, there is a well-known activist Shabnam Godara , a former Sarpanch who has filed a case against Punjab government for polluting the water of Hanumangarh by the chemicals that flow from Punjab. The issue is with the National Green Tribunal.

Shabnam told me that she got the support of all Sarpanches during her time and she is continuing the fight to its logical conclusion expecting a favourable verdict soon. She has set up her own NGO Jal Jan Jagriti Avhiyan to involve as many people as possible for issues relating to environment and health.

"The situation is so critical that a train that coming from Bhatinda to Bikaner is unofficially called the cancer train because it is full of cancer patients who go to Bikaner to get treatment" she says.

However she and many other wonder why the present administration is not taking action against Sarpanches who are allowing their men folk to not only inaugurate projects but in one case also putting their names on the inaugural name-plates.