It's not often that one gets to hear about resounding success stories of women's grassroots leadership 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 panchayat leaders from Odisha, Haryana and Tamil Nadu were feted in the capital on the occasion of the 20th Women's Political Empowerment Day - not many are aware that there are several tribal women leaders in Tripura who have been quietly doing dedicated work within their communities for many years now.
Notable among them are the female members of the Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous District Council (TTAADC), an independent council administering the tribal areas of the state. Sandhya Rani Chakma, 36, is one of them. Elected to the TTAADC from Karamcherra constituency in Tripura North district for a second term in 2010, she is the only woman on its nine-member Executive Council and holds the portfolio of social education and health. Then there's Sabitri Debbarma, 55, member from Demdum-Kachucharra constituency in North Tripura. Over a busy career spanning 15 years, she has been elected to this Council thrice - first in 1995 and then in 2000. She is now doing her third stint since 2010. Additionally, she has spent one term in the state assembly in 2008 as well. Completing the terrific trio of capable female leaders on the 30-member TTAADC is Madhumati Debbarma, 43, from Kulai-Champahour constituency in Tripura West district, whose commitment towards the welfare and rights of her people got her elected into the local governing body for the first time in 2010.
After Tripura attained full statehood in 1972, the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council Bill, 1979, was passed by the state legislative assembly in March 1979 under the provisions of the 6th Schedule of the Constitution. The idea, as per official documentation, was to "fulfill 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 the last 20-odd years of its existence women have regularly been elected as members and have made their presence felt as efficient administrators.
The Council administers four zones and 17 blocks spread across eight districts with its functioning headquarter at Khumulwng, 26 kilometres from the state capital, Agartala. There are 527 village councils under it, which function as primary institutions of the local self-government.
Sandhya presents a very positive picture while talking about women's participation in local self-government in her state, "It is very good and encouraging. I find that women are pro-active when it comes to working for their community." This experienced leader first forayed into politics during her college days as an active member of the Student Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), besides being a part of the Tripura Tribal Student Union. In addition, whenever she had the time she would keenly involve herself in CPI (M)'s party work. This approach won her the confidence of her party colleagues and her name was proposed for the list of candidates for the Council. "I was elected to the Council even before I got married," she smiles.
Uniquely, unlike in other northeastern states, Tripura's women have always been active members of political parties. Like Sandhya, her two other female colleagues also started out as "dedicated CPI (M) party workers" in the local units at the grassroots. Interestingly the three were also active members of the All India Mahila Sangathan .
Naturally, women's welfare has been central to their agenda from the very beginning. Though education has changed many rules for their lot, as is prevalent in most other parts of the country, a majority of the women are still disempowered and deprived of their basic rights. Those living in the rural areas are even more vulnerable. This is why Sandhya, Madhumati and Sabitri have taken up women's empowerment, particularly economic sustenance, with a vengeance.
Discuss work with the trio and they all speak the language of development. Healthcare is an issue that is close to Sandhya's heart and she feels that access to proper and affordable medical care in rural areas is the urgent need of the hour. In the last couple of years, she has managed to set up two working hospitals in her constituency and considers them among her biggest achievements.
Providing means for income generation has been another priority area and for this they help local tribal women to organise themselves into collectives that make handloom as well as handicraft products from cane and bamboo. Besides this, incentive is given for rubber plantations and animal husbandry, too.
Every fortnight Madhumati makes it a point to tour the villages in her area and spend time with various women's groups during her visits. "I stay in the villages for 15 to 20 days as I feel good living and working along side the local women. These trips motivate me and strengthen my resolve to continue working for them," she remarks. Like her Sabitri too travels to her constituency quite often, as she loves being among "her people".
Of course, they have done work within their communities by smartly managing the funds that come their way through the TTAADC, which in turn is financed by the state government. But even as they call the Council's budget a "development budget" they do admit that "a majority of the money goes into paying the salaries". They also rue the fact that many a time they end up undertaking projects that have already been commissioned by the state and that leads to unnecessary expenditure.
Sold out on woman power, the trio puts in a strong case for reservations and bigger role in party politics to boost women's entry into the political arena. Sandhya informs that while gram sabhas - operational in districts that do not fall in the TTAADC area - implement women's reservation, it is not extended to the district council. She believes, "If institutionally women are given more support then many more will come forward to contest elections." She adds that political parties, too, will need to nominate more women as candidates, "As women leaders this has been a constant demand from our end. We are always trying to ensure more nominations for women."
With women actively participating in the development process at the local level, particularly in the rural areas of the state, the vibrant and inclusive autonomous district council is a testimony to the fact that Tripura's women are more than capable to lead as elected leaders. Sandhya, Madhumati and Sabitri are just a glimpse of female power.