49-year-old Mazharkodi Dhanasekar can't help but smile as she recalls the work she has done for the village of Melamarungoor. The smile, however does little to hide the enormity of this woman panchayat leader's achievements.
Mazharkodi was elected to the post of panchayat president in 2011. She is amongst one of the 40 women leaders who have been elected to the post across six districts of Tamil Nadu, in the last 25 years since reservation for women came into play in local bodies. Thanks to her unrelenting efforts following this victory, the panchayat she heads in southern Tamil Nadu now has 650 toilets and is free of open-defacation. She is now known across the district as the leader who transformed a village that was ignored by even district officials.
A study arranged by Indiaspend.org, revealed that a majority of women elected to power in the local body elections were working independently of the men in their lives. In addition to this, they have carved distinct identities for themselves and overtaken men in building roads, providing drinking water and constructing toilets. This is despite challenges such as lack of access to finances, male-dominated political networks and limited powers.
Overall, Tamil Nadu, according to the report has India's lowest fertility rate- lower than Australia, Finland and Belgium. It also boasts of the second best infant and maternal mortality rate. The state records among the lowest crime rates against women and children as well but places like Melamarungoor are outliers.
"Block or district officials hardly ever came to visit our panchayat," said Mazharkodi. "They don't care about far-flung panchayats like ours. This meant they would not allocate extra funds for development. We just did not exist for them. Funds went to the panchayat closer to town." The block headquarters was stationed at Kalaiyarkovil.
As you travel away from Kalaiyarkovil towards the neighbouring district of Ramanathapuram, close to which Melamarungoor is situated,the roads are pockmarked and filled with potholes. On some stretches, only blobs of tar remain, the rest is mud. This is an arid part of Tamil Nadu and villages struggle to find drinking water. Women and schoolgirls in uniform line up plastic pots near common drinking-water taps once in four days, which is when the water comes.
"I wanted to change that," said Mazharkodi. "The only way, I realised, the district administration took notice of panchayats like ours was to completely transform it and to show them what can be done. I managed to do that."
When Dhanasekar assumed office six years ago, the balance sheet of her panchayat was a cause for concern. In 2005, eight villages from Ramanathapuram district were added to the 17 governed by the Melamarungoor panchayat.
However, the State Finance Commission (SFC) grants meant for the eight Ramanathapuram villages were not reallocated to Melamarungoor. SFC grants, funds devolved by the state government, are the single biggest source of income for panchayats.
Dhanasekar's first crusade was to get the SFC grants reallocated to Melamarungoor, which took a stream of petitions, weekly attendance at the district collectorate and more than six months of correspondence between the state department of rural development and the district administration.
She next turned her attention to the scarcity of drinking water.
Five years to bring drinking water to seven villages
The availability of drinking water is a major problem across Sivagangai district. Villages in the district receive water mostly under the Combined Drinking Water Supply Scheme, popularly called "Cauvery water", from the contested river that flows south from Karnataka.
In rural areas, every habitation has one or more common drinking-water taps, which get water at fixed times. Of 3,352 rural habitations in Sivagangai, 397 habitations get some drinking water. This varies from 10-39 lt per capita per day, against the 40 lt set by the National Rural Drinking Water Programme. Meanwhile, 2,955 habitations get 40 lt, according to 2016 Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board data.
In recent times, due to failing monsoons and mining in the Cauvery basin, villages are struggling from water scarcity.
For villages bordering Ramanathapuram district, salinity is an additional problem because the Indian ocean is nearby. As a 2014 report shows, desalination plants either do not work or operate below capacity. The eight Ramanathapuram villages added to Melamarungoor were acutely short of potable drinking water. It took Mazharkodi five years to have pipes laid and drinking water brought to seven of those villages. One village, Sattanur, still does not have a water source.
"I had to petition the Kalaiyarkovil panchayat union president (the panchayat union is the second tier of local government, a group of all gram panchayats in the Block) to get Rs 3,00,000 sanctioned for a reverse osmosis (RO) plant in one of those eight villages. This was so that villages around can get better drinking water," said Dhanasekar.
Before the RO plant started in 2015, people bought water at Rs 30 per pot. Now they pay Rs 5 per pot, so waste is discouraged. "Water in these parts is a valuable commodity and people should know its value," said Mazharkodi
The shortage and value of money
Panchayats in Tamil Nadu are short of funds. To get funds from other elected representatives, access to political networks is key. This is particularly difficult for women, most of whom are first-time politicians. Although panchayat leaders are not supposed to be affiliated to political parties, such affiliations are now common and often determine funding.
The Panchayat Union in Kalaiyarkovil Block is led by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Since Mazharkodi's family was allied with the AIADMK, it was not as difficult as it could have been.
"I could get some funds for another RO plant in my panchayat from the Panchayat Union," Dhanasekar. "But if you have links to a rival party, say the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), getting funds is next to impossible."
Dhanasekar's biggest achievement, however, is not only that she built 650 toilets in her panchayat but she did it for a cheaper price than others. She spent Rs 13,500 per toilet, of which Rs 12,000 is subsidised by the Centre's Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission). She is also lowered costs by buying raw material in bulk and engaging labour from the adjacent Virudhunagar district for an entire year. This was not just to build these toilets but also for other village construction activities such as the new Village Poverty Reduction Committee office.
A household toilet costs between Rs 20,000 and Rs 40,000, according to the 2016 field survey of SBM by Accountability Initiative, a Delhi-based think tank.
Mazharkodi, however, still had to spend more than Rs 1,00,000 of her own money to manage the shortfall, which some villagers could not pay. The money will not be reimbursed.
Dhanasekar is a Maravar, a subcaste of the dominant Thevar community and her family owns 15 acres of land in Melamarungoor, so she can handlr the loss. Although agriculture over the last five years has failed because of scanty rain, her family's finance and money-lending business sustains them well.
Dhanasekar is willing to spend her own money because of her determination to put Melamarungoor on the district map of Sivagangai as a model panchayat. But many panchayat presidents, especially those women of limited means, cannot do the same.
(With inputs from IANS)