Fantastic tribe of women leaders

Ninglun Hanghal | Updated on: Aug 01, 2013
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Tripura boasts grassroots politicians working dedicatedly for the welfare of their tribal community.

It’s not often that one hears about the resounding success of grassroots women leaders from Tripura, a small landlocked hill-State in the northeast. While exceptional panchayat women from other parts of the country have been routinely making headlines — just recently three of them from Odisha, Haryana and Tamil Nadu were feted in the Capital on the 20th Women’s Political Empowerment Day — not many are aware that Tripura has several tribal women leaders working dedicatedly within their communities for years now.

Notable among them are the members of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council, an independent body administering tribal areas. Elected to the council from Karamcherra constituency in Tripura North district for a second term in 2010, 36-year-old Sandhya Rani Chakma is the lone woman on the nine-member Executive Council and in charge of social education and health. Then there’s Sabitri Debbarma, the 55-year-old member from Demdum-Kachucharra constituency in North Tripura, who has been elected to the Council thrice since 1995. Additionally, she has spent one term in the State Assembly in 2008.

Completing the terrific trio of capable women in the 30-member council is 43-year-old Madhumati Debbarma, from the Kulai-Champahour constituency in Tripura West district, whose commitment towards the welfare of her people got her elected in 2010.

After Tripura attained Statehood in 1972, the Assembly passed the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council Bill in March 1979 under the 6th Schedule of the Constitution. The idea, according to official documentation, was to “fulfil the long-cherished demand of the people of Tripura for self-government in tribal majority areas... and strengthen the bonds of unity between the tribal and non-tribal masses as well as emancipate not only tribals but all the deprived people from all types of injustice and exploitation”. The council started functioning in 1982, and in its 20-odd years of existence women have been regularly elected and they stood out as efficient administrators.

The council administers four zones and 17 blocks across eight districts, with its headquarter at Khumulwng, 26km from Agartala. The 527 village councils under it function as the primary institutions of local self-government.

Sandhya presents a positive picture of women’s participation in the local self-government. “I find that women are pro-active when it comes to working for their community.” She entered politics during her college days as a member of the Student Federation of India, the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), as also the Tripura Tribal Student Union. Her involvement in the CPI (M)’s party work won her the confidence of party colleagues and her name was proposed for the council. “I was elected to the council even before I got married,” she smiles.

What’s unique to Tripura among the northeastern States is that its women have always been active members of political parties. Sandhya’s other two female colleagues also started out as “dedicated CPI (M) party workers” at the grassroots level. All three were members of the All India Mahila Sangathan.

Naturally, women’s welfare and empowerment, particularly economic sustenance, have been central to their agenda from the outset. Like elsewhere in the country, a majority of Tripura’s women are still disempowered, deprived of basic rights. Those in rural areas are even more vulnerable.

The three women leaders speak the language of development. Healthcare is close to Sandhya’s heart and the urgent need to reach affordable medical care to rural areas. Over the past few years, she has managed to set up two hospitals in her constituency and considers this among her biggest achievements.

Income generation is another priority area for the women leaders and they help organise tribal women into collectives that make handloom and cane handicraft. Rubber plantations and animal husbandry too have been given incentives.

Every fortnight Madhumati tours the villages in her area and spends time with women’s groups. “These trips motivate me and strengthen my resolve to continue working for them,” she remarks. Sabitri too travels often to her constituency as she loves being among “her people”.

While smartly managing the funds that come through the council, which in turn is financed by the State Government, they also rue that “a majority of the money goes to paying salaries”. Moreover, they often end up undertaking projects that have already been commissioned by the State, leading to unnecessary expenditure.

Sold on woman power, the trio strongly favours reservations and a bigger role for them in party politics. Sandhya points out that while gram sabhas — operational in districts outside the council — implement women’s reservation, the council does not. She wants political parties to nominate more women candidates. “If institutionally women are given more support, then many more will come forward to contest elections,” she says.

© Women’s Feature Service

Published on August 01, 2013
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