She gave up comfort to serve at the grassroots level

When Arati Devi, a young banker from Ganjam district in south Odisha, decided to quit her job and return to her village a couple of years back to serve the people as the Sarpanch (village head), she had never imagined that she would come this far. 

The 32-year-old had recently attended an international event in the USA on women empowerment and leadership as the sole representative from India. For her performance as a woman village head, she has also been nominated for a couple of awards.

“My aim has always been to provide service to the people in my village. However, these recognitions, particularly a trip to the USA to attend an international event as the sole representative from the country definitely made me happy and satisfied,” said Arati, an MBA who had an excellent academic career-- she was the first girl from her village to secure a first division in the High School Certificate (HSC) examinations.

She was serving with a well-known private sector bank in its local branch in Berhampur, the biggest business hub in south Odisha till 2012 when she decided to return to her native village - Dhanuapada under Polasara block - to contest the Panchayat elections, following a request from the villagers, particularly the elders. “I was keen to do social service right from my student days.

 When the post of Sarpanch in my village became reserved for women, a majority of the villagers sat together and decided to approach me as they wanted an educated woman for the important post who can deliver. And I accepted their request,” said the young lady village head, adding that she won the elections by highest margin of votes in the entire block. 

Once elected she left no stone unturn­ed for the development of the village as well as the entire panchayat. Her focus area was women’s literacy and empowerment, besides improvement of public distribution system and development of infrastructure like construction of roads and electricity supply.

Her efforts were lauded by all. In fact, it was her performance as a woman village head that impressed the US-based organisation which selected her to attend international conference-cum-seminar.

“The organisers approached me for the international leadership programme after reading an article on my work published in a national English daily. After a formal interview, I was off to the USA to attend the event which included field visits, seminars as well as exchange of ideas between participants from different countries. I was the youngest among the delegates,” Arati said, adding that the organisers had invited representatives from 22 countries of which 19 had attended the event. 

As a part of the programme, the delegates visited five US states, including Washington DC, Philadelphia and Texas. The visit to Washington included a trip to the White House though the delegates could not meet President Obama because he was busy with some prior engagements.

What impressed Arati most during her 23-day trip was the freedom and respect the women enjoy in the USA. “In that country men and women are truly equal. Women are free to do any job, anywhere and at any point of time unlike in our country where we make tall claims to give equal opportunities to women but we do not do that in reality,” she lamented. 

Asked to elaborate, she gave the example of 50 per cent reservation for women that is in place in Odisha for Panchayat elections. “In order to empower women and give them equal opportunities in the grass-roots level, the state government has provided 50 per cent reservation for women in gram panchayat elections.

 But in many instances it is seen that after their elections to the post of Sarpanch, the women would go back to do their household jobs. And their husbands or brothers would turn de-facto village heads running the show for them. This practice should stop. The actual purpose of providing fifty percent reservation is defeated once the husband or brother of an elected woman representative take charge on her behalf,” she said.

Back to her USA trip, Arati also felt happy to see the Americans’ love for their national flag. “In the USA, they have their national flag. Besides, different states too have their own flags. You visit any government office in that country and one will find the national flag as well as flag of that particular state in display prominently. Even at many places one would find flags on both sides of thoroughfares. Americans do love and respect their flags very much and that perhaps gives them a boost to their patriotism and nationalism,” she observed. 

The trip also provided the young fema­le village head to utilise her experience there for the benefit of her village back home. In order to give equal opportuniti­es to women in her village, she is now trying to ensure active participation of wom­en in “Palli Sabhas” (village meetings).

“Earlier, the women were not taking active part in Palli Sabhas. Now, I encourage them to be part of the process. And the response has been very positive,” she said.

Arati now wants to graduate to active politics (panchayat elections are held in Odisha on non-party basis). She, in fact, has already accepted membership of ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) to further her political career as she feels that one needs to remain in politics to do social work better.

She had also campaigned for the Naveen Patnaik-led party during the recently held Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. “Social service through politics is my aim as well as motto. My ultimate goal, therefore, is to be a Parliamentarian,” she maintained with a smile.

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