Sheeja Anil no longer fears criticism. She has faced enough of it in her three-and-a-half year long tenure as president of the panchayat of Chennithala, a small village in the Mavelikkara division of Alappuzha district. She says it is not easy being a woman representative in the region. “Despite the women’s reservation having helped us, we have to face taunts and insults for every action we take,” says Sheeja.
Though it is a holiday, Sheeja’s office is abuzz with activity. “The elections are fast approaching and we have many things to complete before the next governing body takes charge.” Being a gram panchayat president has been a real test for the 36-year-old first-timer in politics who has transformed the panchayat with her efforts. During her tenure, the gram panchayat received several awards such as the Nirmal Gram Puraskar for complete sanitation and waste management, the complete literacy award and the ‘fallow less panchayat’ certification. These awards are proof of Sheeja’s competence as an administrator. In spite of this, she has faced criticism from various quarters whenever she has tried to do something new.
A post-graduate in English, Sheeja entered politics quite coincidentally. In 2010, a year after 50 percent women’s reservation in local bodies was introduced in Kerala; local Congress leaders approached her and asked her to contest the polls. Although reluctant at first, she thought of giving politics a try after her husband encouraged her.
Sheeja won the election on a Congress ticket and took charge of the panchayat in 2012. Out of the 18 members, the United Democratic Front (UDF and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) won eight seats each and the remaining two went to the BJP. The lean majority of the UDF has often posed challenges to the ruling body in taking decisions. “The opposition always stood there to counter every decision we made. They seldom cared about the merit of the projects I undertook. They targeted me and demanded my resignation every time I proposed an innovative project,” says Sheeja.
Sheeja’s example shows that it is a tough road for women elected in local bodies as a result of reservation for women. However, her story is one of overcoming these odds. As a woman with a modern outlook, Sheeja had to face vindictive criticism springing from the narrowmindedness of people. “Those initial days, after I took charge of the office, were depressing,” she says. But she braved it all and went ahead to concentrate on her duties. She addressed long-standing issues such as bad roads, poor drinking water facility and flood woes.
She made use of social media in order to easily interact with people. She was criticised by the opposition for this progressive step but went ahead with it. “With everything going digital, we thought we should make use of the technology ourselves. We learnt everything from scratch and the effort paid off in the end. Even the district collector of Alappuzha lauded our effort,” says Sheeja.
Sheeja also started a project under which basic military training would be given to the youth of the panchayat. The project helped many secure a job in the army and helped in keeping youngsters fit. Furthermore, her efforts helped in turning more than 925 hectares of barren land in the panchayat into cultivable land. This also got the panchayat a state award in 2014.
In her first tenure, Sheeja has more than proved her potential as a good administrator. However, despite the laurels she has got for the panchayat, she will not be contesting for a second term. She says that the decision is due to personal reasons, but it makes one think why a competent person would not want to get elected again. Perhaps it is because of the fact that despite reservation for women, the road to gender equality in politics is still a tough one.