'People are yet to reconcile to woman-empowerment'

However, the 60-year-old-lady has not only proved herself to be an efficient sarpanch of Harmara panchayat in Ajmer district of Rajasthan, but also become a symbol of change.

She does not care for a backlash or a counter-reaction against the steps she takes to ensure justice to the weaker sections including dalits and women. Her story, which is also the story of Indian democracy taking its roots, begins in 1980s when she joined a protest to secure better wages in drought relief works in her area.

She is one of the new generation leaders who have come up from the grassroots as a result of the clash between NGOs and the government over the implementation of welfare programmes. Unlike earlier leadership, the new leadership has no ideological or political hang ups.

Naurti knows the pulse of the society and is aware of all the relevant issues — both short term and long term — which concern her village people, from gender equality to rights of labour, to the needs of wider participation in the democracy. Unlike a trained political worker who relies on ideology and party guidelines and instinctively knows how to manipulate public sentiments to favour personal or party interests, she learns from her experiences, and from NGO level discussions which are mostly apolitical. She is ready to sacrifice the power to favour a right cause.

Anil Sinha of Deccan Herald spoke to Naurti during her recent visit to Delhi to receive Kalpana Chawla Award of Excellence. These awards are given every year by the Punjab Engineering College Old Boys’ Association in recognition of exemplary work in different fields.

Excerpts:
When did you start all these?
It was in 1981. Famous activist Aruna Roy and her husband Bankar Roy had come to my village. They inspired us to fight against the low wages in drought relief works. Wages were about Rs 3-4 a day. This became a long struggle. We had to file a PIL in the supreme court. Ultimately, we got justice and the government was forced to increase wages. That struggle changed our lives. We found ourselves in the midst of a long struggle which aimed at changing the society.

Has the wage issue been settled?
No. The government does not want to give proper wages to those who work for welfare programmes. Now we are fighting for an increase in the wage for MNREGA workers. The government has fabulously increased the wages of its employees, but is not ready to extend this generosity to poor labourers because they are not organised. The prices of essential commodities have reached an unbearable level, but the government is not ready to increase wages. We will continue fighting against this injustice.

How does it feel to lead a panchayat?
I was elected to this post only a year ago. All the powerful people of my area worked against me. Despite their opposition, I won. The rival candidate spent a huge amount. I spent very little because I did not have money. I canvassed without using any vehicles. I did not feel the need.

Those who are against changes in the society create difficulties. The family too contributes its bit. You have to resist family pressure. They want to enjoy privileges coming out of the political power. It is not their fault, they see it happening everywhere. Villagers also do not object to it. It could be any one, husband, son or any other from the family who want to do the work on behalf of you. However, I have not allowed it to happen. I perform my duties without any interference. People are yet to reconcile to woman-empowerment and thereby shun the idea of the husband or son running the panchayat by proxy.

Can the woman-empowerment through panchayat raj lead to gender equality?
The panchayat raj alone can not lead us to gender equality. It is a long way. Particularly in Rajasthan, things are very difficult. We have seen incidents like Deorala where Roop Kanwar performed a sati. We fought against it. I was part of the movement. This is not so long ago. The girls are discriminated against from the very beginning. Child marriage, dowry harassment and domestic violence are common.

What are the roadblocks to eliminating these evils?
Caste is the biggest hurdle. The caste does not allow change in the society. The upper caste women are more exploited when it comes to the issue of dowry and domestic violence. There are 400 upper caste families in my village. Women from these families undergo worst kind of treatment due to these evils. For me, it has been a regular struggle. I try to bring the culprits to justice. Caste plays a negative role. It favours all these evils. The leaders in our area oppose any change.

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