Thane (Maharashtra): From once being a shy, ill-informed and a nondescript widow of a long-time Adivasi bonded labourer, 34-year-old Anita Ramu Dhangda has come a long way. Anita’s life is a classic example of what empowerment does to women in rural India — in terms of personality development and increased commitment to the society.
Having represented over 15,700-odd people, mostly Adivasis, in Vasai taluka of Thane district in Maharashtra, for a term of five years in the Thane Zilla Parishad, Anita is today the district head of Mahila Thingi (women's spark). Mahila Thingi is the women’s wing of the Shramajeevi Sanghatana, an organization crusading against the bonded labour and working for the rights of the tribals inside and outside Thane district.
“Sanghataka has given me an opportunity to reach out to and work with Advasi women in the entire Thane district. My job is to form bachat ghats (saving groups) among the 15,000 members of the Mahila Thingi and help them save money for their future. I involve them in development activities in the villages and hamlets they live,” says a confident Anita.
A mother of two children coming from the poorest of poor Adivasi Hindu Warli family, Anita has an excellent track record as the first-time ZP member, representing people in 13 Gram Panchayat areas in Vasai taluka of Thane district in Maharashtra. "My ZP tenure brought me closer to people in my ward and made me understand their problems," she says.
Seven years ago, her election to Thane ZP as a Congress nominee with the active support of a leading NGO in the district Shramajeevi Sanghatana, made news both in the regional and national media. Anita's win over Mrs Vanita Baliram Jadhav, wife of a Panchayat Samiti Sabhapati and staunch supporter of the local land mafia don-MLA Hitendra Thakur, came to be dubbed as the victory of ballot over bullet in this tribal belt of Thane district. "I have tried to live up to the expectations of people in my ward," she says.
If anything, Anita's work in her ward speaks for her. From her ZP-individual member fund amounting nearly Rs. 7 to 8 lakh a year, Anita helped construct a reservoir, seven drinking water wells, two village roads, two Kolhapur bandharas (small village dams), and undertake repairs of faulty bore-wells, during the last five years.
Besides, she has —through the general development funds of ZP — ensured construction of toilets in at least seven schools in her ward, sinking of nearly 30 bore-wells and setting up of half a dozen Anganwadis during her tenure.
She did not re-contest the ZP polls when her tenure ended in April 2007. Instead, she plunged headlong into the organisational work. She earns her living by being a full-time worker of Shramajeevi Sanghatana — a job that fetches her a sum of Rs 2,000 per month.
Anita, whose husband Ramu Dhangda died six years ago, lives along with her daughter Preeti (13) and son Mahesh (15), in a two-room hutment at Mandvi village, 15 km from the taluka town of Vasai. “My son Mahesh is appearing for the SSC examination this year. I am confident he will do well in the examination. I want him to become graduate at least, which is a big thing for us,” a primary school-drop out Anita says.
She joined the Shramajeevi Sanghatana after her husband’s death. In fact, it was the Sanghatana which had, way back in 1989, freed 22 members of Dhangda family from the clutches of a landlord Bhagwan Desai, whose three generations had kept Ramu's family members, including Ramu, his father and mother as bonded labourers.
As the head of the women’s wing of the Sanghatana, she has formed 150 bachat ghuts (saving groups) among tribal women in Vasai, Wada and Bhiwandi talukas. Each bachat ghut comprises 10 women members and each of them saves as much as Rs 50 per month. Which means each bachat ghut saves as much as Rs 6,000 per year. Collectively speaking, the 150 bachat ghuts save as much as Rs 9 lakh per year.
"I go to as many villages as I can as part of my work. My job is to help tribal women forming their own saving groups, comprising 10 women each. The groups thus formed collect money from the member-women periodically and deposit it either in post offices or local co-operative banks. I am not directly involved with the running of these groups. I come into picture as an arbitrator whenever there is a dispute among the group members," Anita says.
Sanghatana's founder-president Vivek Pandit heaps praise on Anita for performing well both as a ZP member and as organization's worker. "Despite being a primary school drop-out, Anita learnt the ropes fast. We are pleasantly surprised by the amount of work she has done in her ward. We wanted her to re-contest the ZP polls. But, she backed out saying she wanted to devote more time for the Sanghatana and her children," Pandit says.
It is not that she does not want to return to electoral politics in future. "Yes. I would like to represent my ward once again in ZP in future. But, currently I am happy heading the women’s wing of the Sanghatana and contributing in my own way to the welfare of tribal women in the district,” Anita says.
Ask her if she knows anything about the international women’s day, Anita replies: “We celebrate the day every year. Thousands of tribal women gather at the Sanghatana campus at Usgaon in Vasai taluka every year and spend the whole day listening to the Sanghatana leaders and taking part in the cultural activities.”