Reading involves an effort, but she manages with some help. Yet, the never-say-die spirit of this 54-year-old has taken her on a stupendous journey. From being a homeless, landless and rightless tribal, Janakamma has gone on to fight for the rights of her people and has managed to get a residential school upto class seven for the children of Abbalati. She plans to get a hospital and a high school sanctioned for her village.
“As many as 125 children from 26 haadis study here. A high school will be of great help to ensure that these children get an education. I have been told job prospects are brighter for those who have completed their SSLC,” she says. She has never used the ‘ST’ or ‘woman’ reservation tag to win the seat, either during her tenure as a Sangha member or as a GP member. She contested from the general category on both occasions. That has been a bigger victory for her because she fought against male candidates hailing from communities that have enjoyed greater social acceptance.
A life of penury
Janakamma represents 26 haadis and villages, covering 530 families. Hailing from a community that was displaced from the forests surrounding Periyapatna, Janakamma worked as a labourer earning as little as 25 paise. When Stree Shakti Sangha activities began in her village 20 years ago, Janakamma was among those who initially opposed the ‘outsiders’ and their attempts of trying to get women together. “We were living a life of penury. For days on end, when there was no work, boiled leaves were our staple diet. We didn’t even have money to buy salt,” says the mother of three. Her daughters and son, along with her husband, never understood what Janakamma was up to, when she started attending Sangha meetings and sometimes travelled to ‘big cities’ like Mysore and Bangalore. “I had not even seen Periyapatna, seven kilometres away from Abbalati, let alone other cities,” she says.
Janakamma learnt the ropes pretty fast, with support from Mahila Samakhya, and was GP President-elect from her Gram Panchayat when elections took place in 2000. Needless to say, she swept the polls. “I had to depend on officers to tell me everything. Some helped me, while others misguided me. But, both gave me important lessons,” she says, as her eyes moisten. It was one of those days when the residential school sanctioned to their village was ‘snatched’ by a nearby village. Till then, an anganwadi was being run under the tree in the village.
“We then went to Vidhana Soudha and returned with records to say that the school and hostel belonged to us. They had no option but to help us build it,” she says. Eventually, the school started functioning, four teachers and three cooks were recruited and aashraya houses were built too. She preserves a photo with the then prime minister A B Vajpayee and the meeting she attended in Parliament, where a discussion pertaining to the significance of the Panchayat Raj system was held. “It gave me a great sense of conviction. I felt whatever I was doing was indeed important,” she says.
During the subsequent elections, Janakamma didn’t contest. Though the candidate she supported won the polls, not much changed in the village. “This time around, when the elections were announced, people from our haadi called me and said they wanted me to contest because there was a lot of work left to be done,” she adds.
After winning the polls, Janakamma, along with 50 people surveyed a reserve forest in the area. They have now launched a campaign to get small shares of land for people of her community to lead a life with dignity. “We tasted success when we campaigned for ration cards. We waylaid the MLA, MP, ministers and even met the CM to get things done for our village. This time too, we are asking for an acre or two each for families which are dependent on labour for a livelihood,” she says. During her tenure, Janakamma got a lot of work done including laying of roads, installation of street lights and construction of houses worth over Rs 1.20 crore. Her Sangha members have driven out the arrack vendor who has a roaring business from the village. There are hardly any cases that reach the police station because people respect the Panchayat and its verdict.