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)”.