Setting women's feet on Manipuri Hills

Setting women's feet on Manipuri Hills

Hatlhing Doungel, 45, is a single mother of three boys and one girl. Like any mother, she takes care of her home and kids with love and diligence, but today she is not responsible for their well being alone. Ever since she was elected to the Autonomous District Council (ADC) of Tamenglong district, she has taken her duty of ensuring the development of her region and her people very seriously. Though she lives and works from her office in Manipur's state capital, Imphal, Hatlhing visits her Phaituol constituency once every week, disregarding the security threats or the long hours away from her children.

In the violence-affected northeastern state of Manipur, while the panchayats perform the function of local governance in the Valley area, the ADCs look after the local administration in the five hill districts. Presently, there are six ADCs operational – one each in Ukrhul, Tamenglongun, Churachandpur, Chandel and two in Senapati district in Senapati and Sadar Hills.

It was in 2010 that the ADCs were reconstituted after a gap of 20 years, which was when Hatlhing was elected. In fact, three elected and two nominated women made their way into the ADCs of Ukrhul, Tamenglong, Churachandpur at the time. Hatlhing lost her husband in 1996. Undeterred, she became actively involved within her community as a social worker. Her years of dedicated work as the secretary of the women's wing of the Kuki Innpi Manipur, the apex body of the Kuki community, helped her win the confidence of the people. So when elections for the ADC were announced, she was encouraged to contest. Hatlhing defeated three candidates to secure her position on the Tamenglong ADC. Today, she is happy that she is in a position to contribute to her community in a new capacity. "Undertaking development work and the implementing welfare schemes is number one on my agenda. And to ensure smooth functioning, I work along with the tribal chiefs, who are the appointed chairmen or heads of village councils," she says.

In the last couple of years, Hatlhing has dealt with a number of crises. She recalls the stand off between the state officials and the villagers in None, owing to land acquisition during the construction of the Jiri-Toubal railway line. "When the villagers came to me with their problem I called for a face-to-face meeting with the officials to ensure that everyone got adequate compensation," she narrates.

It's the larger administrative problems she has to face that frustrate her. "Even after the ADCs have been revived, the Tamenglong council is not fully functional yet. Moreover, our budget is still allocated by the state government, which ties our hands," says Hatlhing, who is provided with a special security cover during her weekly trips to Phaituol, the only non Naga constituency in the district.

Grace Zamnu, 41, the lone woman on the 26-member Churachandpur ADC, is also passionate about her work. She was elected from Muallum constituency on a Congress Party ticket. Unlike Hatlhing, for Grace contesting an election was not unfamiliar territory. In fact, due to her father's political ambitions her family has gone through some tough times. "A succession of failed campaigns compelled us to sell off our property and other assets to survive," recalls Grace.

Despite that she could neither keep herself away from activism, nor could she say no to joining politics, as it provided her with the perfect platform to raise her voice for women's rights. Interestingly, it is her father, currently the Village Chief of Zou Veng and Advisor to Zou tribe's apex body, United Zou Organisation, who has been her greatest supporter.

Grace started out as a student leader and then went on to become the General Secretary of the Zomi Mother's Association, a federation of women's groups of the Zomi community. "Women and children's rights are closest to my heart, so be it leading demonstrations against rapes and domestic violence or setting up shelter homes or rehabilitating orphans, I'm always ready," she says. It was her spirited activism that caught the eye of her community elders and tribal leaders, who suggested her name for the Churachandpur ADC.

Grace is focusing on implementing women's empowerment programmes. Though there are no special funds earmarked for the purpose, she has devised her own way of doing things. She plans fund raising activities, helps women form Self Help Groups (SHGs) and assists them in managing money by facilitating the opening of bank accounts. Besides this, Grace lays a great emphasis on involving women in income generating activities such as starting up handlooms. Says she, "These days, it is profitable to market our traditional outfits by giving them a modern twist. They are in great demand." Moreover, recognising the value of a good education, she personally monitors the schools in her constituency, regularly visiting and interacting with teachers and the school board.

Naturally, all this good work has not been achieved without a few hiccups along the way. But nothing disturbs her more than the fact that the ADCs are not being allowed to do anything more than implement state welfare schemes. She elaborates, "The ADC Act is not strictly put into practice. The council, therefore, neither has any specific development plans and policies nor has it got funds of its own. Even council members are not paid any allowance."

Hatlhing believes that things can change if more women become part of the political landscape at the grassroots. "Women's reservation needs to be implemented in the hills. While the valley benefits from this - because the Panchayati Raj system exists there - why can't the same be done here?" she questions.

Grace agrees, "While the quality of participation for women in the hills has a long way to go in terms of decision making in politics, at least women's representation should be increased through reservation."

Hatlhing and Grace are leading by example. Remains to see how far they succeed in ensuring women's issues take centrestage in local politics.

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