Santabai Warkade was an ordinary woman from an ordinary Adivasi (tribal) family until she joined Ekta Jan Sangathan.
Exactly a back, her village people were dancing on the streets and garlanding Santabai as she had won the post of Sarpanch for Neempani Panchayat in Betul district. She had become the first ever Sarpanch to be elected from her Amagaon village.
Every alternate morning Santa takes a walk around houses in her village to hear-out grievances from her people. “Don’t worry, I will put forward the petition”, she assures them as her assistant writes down the pointers on a piece of paper.
Many recall a “changed” Santabai as a person who was once a “timid woman”.
I have known her for a long time. A timid woman who only kept to herself. The women of the village never spoke in public, especially in front of male Sarpanch and other officials, unless they were given a go ahead by their husbands. We never thought that a woman could also contest elections ..
She is now a changed person – more bold, determined, confident and fearless. Today, the women are more vocal and active in developmental and petition works,” says Kallibai, Santa’s supporter.
The Sangathan, formed some 6-7 years back of the village, gave immense power to the people question the authority and empowered women in the process.
It was all because of the organisation that women like me demanded for what we were deprived of. The previous sarpanches never asked us for our demands or requests. So, gradually people stopped caring who the Sarpanch was, where he worked from, because we had in our mind that the system is not meant for us (the labour class). It is for the people who are in power,” Santabai says.
In a terrain where water scarcity and poor irrigation made it difficult for famers to harvest crops, most of the families migrated to other areas in search of work.
We had to earn money for survival. And we had no idea that we could demand work under NREGA and create wells, ponds, roads, houses, check dams without migrating to a different place,” she says.
After joining the Sangathan, Santabai along with other women started participating in Gram Sabhas (official village meetings) and questioned Sarpanch about the progress of work in her village.
After repeated attempts to get their issues addressed, the organisation decided to nominate someone for panchayat elections from their own village, preferentially a woman, who was also a member of the Sangathan.
By this time, Santa’s personality transformation was setting in. She was emerging as a vocal leader in women’s rights and development work.
Santabai’s name came to the fore-run and she filed the nomination papers after seeking due approval from her husband, a primary school teacher.
Santa recalls her days when she started campaigning. “It was tough being the lone woman candidate. I received threats from the opposition to withdraw nomination. They told me that a woman should not get involved in matters like elections. I had sleepless nights. In the last phase of campaign, the opposition distributed freebies, alcohol, money, chicken, and we had no money like them”.
Santabai is not alone in the system now. She encourages more women to join her and occupy seats in the panchayati raj.
In next four years, I want to provide permanent shelters to homeless people, concrete road in the village, irrigation facility like ponds and wells for every farmer and toilets for every household, she says with confidence.