Ganjam: Arati Devi, 29, one of the youngest sarpanchs (village council head) in India, recently travelled from her village Dhunkapa in Odisha’s Ganjam district, all the way to the United States of America to represent India at the International Leadership Programme on State and Local Governments, where she got the opportunity to meet US president Barack Obama and other world dignitaries.

Among the 21 participants in the programme, many of whom were mayors and senior political representatives, Arati, the only grassroots politician, held her own. “Going to the US and meeting President Barak Obama has been one of the major highlights of my life and political career. It felt great to be the only one in the programme to bring the perspective from the rural heartland,” she states. Among the illustrious Indians who have previously represented the country at this programme are former Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai and Atal Behari Vajpayee, as well as former Presidents K.R. Narayanan and Pratibha Patil.

Arati, an accomplished young woman, has worked very hard to make her people proud. “I was the first girl in Dhunkapa Panchayat to get a first division in the Class 10 board examination. Later on, I enrolled in Sikkim Manipal University for a Masters in Business Administration. From there I got a job as an investment officer in IDBI Bank and was posted at Berhampur in Ganjam. All this while I was connected with my people and they were keenly watching my progress. In those days, Dhunkap, a politically sensitive seat, was not a good place to live in. The panchayat leadership was insensitive to the needs of the people and the previous sarpanch had, in fact, deprived them of the benefit of the various social welfare schemes introduced by the government. In 2012, when Dhunkap became a reserved seat for women everyone was wondering who would be capable of taking up this key post. That’s when some senior community members suggested my name,” she recalls.

There were only 12 days left for filing nomination papers when a small group of village elders approached Arati with the proposal to contest for the seat of the Sarpanch. “Initially I was shocked but later as I decided to give it a go as I wanted to do something for my people. I have not looked back ever since,” she shares.

While gaining victory in the polls was not difficult, Arati faced serious challenges once she assumed power. For starters, she realised that none of the villagers – women in particular – were coming to the panchayat office to talk about their problems. That was because no one was really aware of the work done by a panchayat. So one of the first things that Arati did was to write to the District Magistrate and organise an awareness camp. “After a few weeks of that camp, I noticed a perceptible change in the way people were interacting with us. They were no longer fearful of coming to the office to demand their rights and entitlements. Most importantly, participation in the Palli Sabha (a meeting of all the electorates of a revenue village) went up significantly. Today, more than 1,000 people participate in this meeting,” she points out.

Apart from motivating villagers to be more interactive, Arati was interested in reaching out to the women to educate and empower them to take their own decisions. “When I found out that most of the women in the area are illiterate I decided to bring education to their doorstep so that they had some practical knowledge to work with,” she says. Arati put together a group of 16 educated girls to teach every woman in the 16 wards of the panchayat to read basic Odiya, write their name, and do simple calculations.

As someone who believes that “the growth of a village depends on the education and awareness levels of its people” Arati took this adult literacy programme seriously, personally monitoring its implementation and impact. Even as this initiative was going on, she figured out that the status of formal school education, too, had not really improved since the time she had passed out. When the matter of shortage of teachers in the local high school came to light she approached the Education Department to fill the vacant positions. When they did not comply, she became proactive and hired three teachers paying them their salary from the panchayat fund. “There was only one Hindi teacher catering to three classes. So we hired new teachers and paid them from the income of the village pond. After the appointment of three teachers, students of my village school performed well in the matriculation examination. So this year the department has agreed to foot their salaries,” she reveals.

Having a dynamic leader like Arati has truly changed the fortunes of the people of Dhunkapa. From streamlining the Public Distribution System, the backbone of rural food security, to ensuring the proper implementation of welfare schemes like the Indira Awas Yojna to bringing electricity to this Dalit hamlet, she has done it all.

Septuagenarian Kuni Pradhan, who had lost all hope of getting her old-age pension, is all praise for the sarpanch’s efforts, “From going to the panchayat to the block office, I had made every possible attempt to get my work done but was always turned back. Forget about getting some assurance, those of us who approached the concerned officials were not even given a chance to meet face to face with them. When I informed the new sarpanch about my problem she immediately came to my rescue ensuring that I get old-age pension regularly.”

Notably, Arati has taught the locals the importance of joining forces for the betterment of the community. Road connectivity to Dhunkapa had always been poor and the situation used to become unbearable during the monsoon with heavy rains wiping out all traces of the unlevelled pathway. When people approached Arati for a solution she first called a Gram Sabha meeting and subsequently went to the Rural Development department. When the department turned a deaf ear she led a mass rally to their office. Elaborates Mayadhara Gauda, a local, “Around 4,000 villagers reached Berhampur. Under pressure, the department head immediately sanctioned Rs 30 lakh for workable repair of the road. We have also received assurance that soon a proper paved road will be built under Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana.”

These days, Arati is concentrating all her energies towards building the agency of the women of her panchayat, “We have Self Help Groups in our village but my effort will be on looking for newer ways to leverage the talents of women so that they can contribute to their households. I know that once they are financially secure they will have a voice and decision-making powers in the family and community.”

Another positive outcome of Arati’s rise to power has been the lowering of the age of marriage in the area. Says Sarita Badatia, a college-going student who sees a role model in the sarpanch, “Earlier, girls between 15 and 18 years were forced to marry as they had no future. Today, attitudes have changed and we don’t have to work hard to convince our parents to let us study and make a career before settling down.”

For her part Arati is completely sold on women power. She concludes, “A woman can do wonders if she gets the support of her family and the society. I am the sarpanch of a remote village and I have managed to travel the world and influence opinion makers. One day I may be representing my people in the Parliament. Dreams do come true.”

(Women's Feature Service)