Thursday, October 28, 2010

Women & RTI power bring a remarkable change in a village of Uttar Pradesh

Ready for the fight - Rasoolpur's women take charge of village
development, ably tackling corruption along the way..

Anjali Singh

Education, they say, is a tool for freedom of thought and action. If
you want proof of this, come to Rasoolpur, a small village nestled in
Uttar Pradesh's Baraich district, and visit its Poorva Madhyamik
Vidyalaya. Eight years ago, this school was the site of a powerful
anti-corruption campaign. But what is particularly surprising is that
the campaign was anchored by local women. The campaign continues.
Ramawati, 35, heads Ma Gawat, a self-help group (SHG) with 12 women
members and plays a dual role as ASHA Bahu or the local maternity
health worker. "We have five SHGs running in Rasoolpur and they are
all managed by women," she says.

It all began when the new school building constructed in 2003 for
local children started leaking just a few days after construction. It
finally collapsed during the monsoons that year — fortunately, there
were no children in the classrooms when the roof fell or it would have
been a huge tragedy. "That's when we women decided to take matters in
our own hands and seek justice for the village. The headmaster and the
village pradhan refused to listen to the men and threatened them. But
they could not stand against us," she laughs.

Another local woman leader, Rajkumari, who formed the Mari Mata Swayam
Shayata Samuh (an SHG named after the local goddess, Mari Mata, with
10 members), says, "It's our right to get access to education for our
children and we are ready to face any obstacle that comes in our way.
When we investigated the collapse of the roof, we found that the
material used for it was adulterated. The iron girders were not thick
enough. Clearly, the money sent by the district administration to
build the school was embezzled."

When the local women confronted the person responsible, he threatened
them too, but they were not intimidated and decided to start a
campaign to expose him and get the school building reconstructed.
This was the beginning of a focused campaign to highlight the issue in
the media and take the matter up to the State government authorities
in Lucknow. It caused quite a stir. Predictably, an inquiry was
ordered by the technical division of the Basic Education Department of
the State. The District Magistrate came down for inspection, took
stock of the situation, and finally okayed the reconstruction of the
building. There was disciplinary action against the headmaster, who
was transferred.

The move was celebrated throughout the village. Sushila Devi, a mother
of five and member of a local SHG, says, "We used to guard the school
building day and night, throwing chappals and jhadus (brooms) to keep
the headmaster's goons from tampering with evidence, which had to be
kept intact until the officials had completed their inspections."

Finally, the verdict came in favour of the women and the building was
reconstructed. Sushila says, "Now our children come here to study
while we women hold our group meetings here. Today, all my daughters
go to school. Had we not fought for our rights, our children may have
never got an education."

That episode was, however, not the end of this saga. Rasoolpur's women
SHGs decided to take up other issues like child marriage and infant
mortality, using the school as their platform. Today, almost eight
years later, the campaign against corruption continues to be a part of
their agenda. Says Ramawati, "Getting the school reconstructed was a
victory no doubt, but our village had many other problems too. For
instance, women here did not go for institutional childbirth. To add
to that, there were no income generation schemes for women who were
facing financial difficulties. So when we sat down for a meeting with
a Samuh member, named Suresh Mishra, he suggested that we begin by
first investing in saving schemes for the local women." Mishra, a
social worker, has formed a group to facilitate meetings of local
women on a regular basis in the village.

Initially, the women hesitated to participate as they had little money
to spare. That was when Ramawati came forward and volunteered to make
an initial contribution of Rs 20. A few months later, many more women
were able to save Rs 20. A group fund was set up from these savings
and the money was used to buy provisions and run a grocery shop (there
is one shop in the village which was set up by an SHG member with a
loan from the joint fund the women were running). Rations were bought
at cheaper rates than those offered by the government-run ration
depots managed by the village pradhan.

Jitendra Chaturvedi of DEHAT, an organisation which is active in the
area, vouches for the effectiveness of campaigns launched by
Rasoolpur's feisty women. "Earlier I had seen 12 or 14-year-old girls
getting married. Today, the marriageable age has risen to at least 18.
In fact, even after their marriage, the bride is not generally sent to
her husband's home for another three to four years. It is only when
her education is complete and she is ready to take on the
responsibilities of family life, is her gauna (consummation of
marriage) organised," he says.

Chaturvedi points to another positive outcome: After eight years of
awareness campaigns, more women are now seeking institutional
deliveries, something that was unheard of a few years ago.

But this is still not the end of the story. Through their SHG
activities, the women have managed to free their once-mortgaged land,
improve the literacy rate in the village by joining adult education
programmes — like the government-run Tara Akshar — and are now seeking
leadership training.

The latest anti-corruption drive exposes a huge scam in the Public
Distribution System (PDS). According to the 50-year-old Rajkumari, the
PDS run under the supervision of the pradhan has been mismanaged,
leading to a scam amounting to Rs 22 lakh.

"Through the Right to Information (RTI) Act, we have forced the
pradhan to return the ration cards made in our names, which he had
retained. On inspecting them we realised that rations were supplied
illegally through the PDS store using our cards," she says.

The women also unearthed a racket where job cards in the names of
non-existent people were being issued, resulting in Rs 10,000 being
withdrawn every month from the funds earmarked for the rural
employment guarantee scheme.

Rajkumari regards such corruption as a challenge. She says, "We will
not give up until we stop it. Jai Adhikar! (Victory to our rights)"

© Women's Feature Service

Urvashi Sharma

RTI Helpmail( Web Based )

Mobile Rti Helpline
8081898081 ( 8 A.M. to 10 P.M. )

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