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Soudamini- a woman Sarpanch on a mission

Mahendra Bhoi, the 35 year old job card holder of Sarakana Panchayat in Balianta block has now something to feel happy about as he has some work in his village through National Rural Employment Generation Scheme of the government. Earlier he had to go to the city to work as a labourer.

Even though there were hundreds of job card holders in this panchayat, they had no work and were forced to migrate. But, the situation changed when the newly-elected woman Sarpanch of their panchayat provided them regular work that helped them meet both ends in their own village.

Basanti Nayak, a middle-aged woman faced difficulties in going to Balianta Community Health Centre (CHC) for her regular health check up. She had to cajole her son or other villagers to drop her at CHC where she waited in the queue for a long time for her turn to come.

But things changed after opening up of a Public Health Centre (PHC) in her own village. Not only Basanti, but more than 10,000 people of the adjacent four panchayat now enjoy the health service facilities rendered by this PHC.

All credit goes to the woman Sarpanch Soudamini Das of Sarakana Panchayat in Balianta Block in Khurda district on the outskirts of the capital city Bhubaneswar.

Soudamini was elected as Sarpanch in 2012 for the first time. She was reluctant initially to file her nomination, but acceded to the request of the villagers as the post was reserved for women candidates.

“When in 2012, 50 % seats in panchayat elections were reserved for women candidates, many well wishers, including my family members urged me to contest the election. After getting elected, it was surely a challenge for me to work for the development of the Panchayat”, says Soudamini.

The Sarakana Panchayat has 15 wards, 10 revenue villages with 6,500 population and 4500 votes.

In the first meeting of the Panchayat members, she found out most of the cluster/hamlets in her panchayat did not have concrete roads and hundreds of people were going out in search of jobs despite having job cards.

She learnt that there were government schemes to construct roads, renovation of ponds and other infrastructure development works.

“In 2012 after the panchayat election the then Panchayati Secretary Aparajita Saragani conducted extensive Pallisabha and Gram Sabhas in all the Panchayats to create awareness among villagers about their role in the development process. It was definitely a good effort and it helped both Sarpanchs and ward members to have a better idea about Pallisabha, gramsabha and about the need for decentralized planning”, says Sukant Mohapatra, State Co-ordinator, The Hunger Project, a non – profit organization working towards the capacity building of elected women representatives of Gram Panchayats.

Mohapatra said, “Unlike their counter parts, elected women representatives are less educated, have less understanding of budgeting, most of the time dominated by male members of the families and don’t have a voice at Block office to put-forth development process and planning. So, it is always a difficult task for women Sarpanchs in the decentralized planning and development process. Through our regular training we have tried to build-up their self confidence, communication skills and leadership skills to carry out the planning process and development”.

In these years Soudamini, who is better known as Sarpanch didi in her Panchayat, emphasized on various development works from NREGS, opening up of PHC, construction of Anganwadi centres, electricity facilities to most of the hamlets and ensuring supply safe drinking water?

 She explains, “In the first Pallisabha the villagers demanded concrete roads and work for job cards holders, then it was scrutinized in the Gramsabha. After several rounds of discussion a resolution was passed and submitted to Block office of Balianta, within a few weeks Block development officer (BDO) approved a total six development projects, including concrete roads and renovation of ponds in the Panchayat. I was happy that the people who were going out in search of work got both work and payment on regular basis”.

Construction of new Anganwadi centres in the Panchayat was next most important item in her agenda. Due to the absence of proper anganwadi centre, children used to sit under a tree or somebody else’s varandah.  

For the construction of Anganwadi center resolution was passed at panchayat meeting and sent to CDPO office.

“Now constructions of three anganwadi centers have been completed and two others are under progress. I am happy that now the children of my panchayat are not sitting under a tree but a pucca house is protecting them from sun and rain”, she says with a beaming smile

The most difficult job was to run the primary health centre. It was a long standing demand of the villagers. Even as the previous Sarpanch had constructed the building, there was neither any doctor to attend the patients nor medical staff to provide health care. She along with other ward members and villagers went to meet the collector and pressed for letting the PHC function properly. The collector agreed and now the PHC has doctors, Pharmacists and ANM’s attending regularly to patients.

The PHC’s opened from July 2014 and as many 30 to 40 patients keep attending it on daily basis. After opening up of this PHC around 10,000 populations of four panchayats are being benefitted, said the Pharmacist.

Soudamini feels for the development of Panchayat, focus should be on improving its financial strength. When she took over the charge, the Panchayat had barely any fund. Now, it has Rs 3 lakh after leasing out the weekly haat and ponds under the panchayat. She hopes to garner Rs. 5 lakhs by 2016.

We need our own fund to be invested on other development work of the Panchayat,” she says.

Balianta BDO Anamika Adhikari feels, “Decentralization planning plays a vital role in the development of Panchayat. Focus is always on the proposals taken up at Pallisabha and Gramsabhas. The work is done by villagers and monitored by the villagers. Only the funds are released by the government. Because the development work is now on their own hand, they are more concerned about the quality of the work. After completion of any concrete road you will find the name of VLL (Village level leaders), amount spent and the duration on the wall of the starting point of the road”.

She adds further, if there is a better understanding and co-ordination between sarpanchs and samiti members, it helps government officials to approve the proposals and include the Panchayat in the development process

“In  2012, when 50% seats were reserved for women in PRI’s the focus was to ensure women took leadership, under stood the governance process, accessed information about government schemes and did not cat as proxy Sarpanchs.After capacity building and sensitizing programmes, many women opted to file nominations and Soudamini was among them and today she stands out separately. Her journey inspires others”, says Anuradha Mohanty, Executive Director, PECUC an organization working on sensitizations of EWR’s.  

Soudamini dreams to see her Panchayat a real developed one. Education, health, sanitation, drinking water facilities, electricity facilities and concrete roads to all hamlets, besides including villagers into social security and food security schemes- she has many plans in stores.

The woman Sarpanch is also giving equal importance to learning computer, understanding annual budget, mid-term reviews and physically visiting sites to monitor the work progress

“People of my panchayat elected me with a hope that I should develop our panchayat and I want to prove them right”, says the under matriculate Soudamini”. 

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