Mazharkodi Dhanasekar, 49, can’t help but smile as she recalls the work she has done for the village of Melamarungoor, Tamil Nadu. The smile, however does little to hide the enormity of this woman panchayat leader’s achievements.
Mazharkodi was elected to the post of panchayat president in 2011. She is among one of the 40 women leaders who have been elected to the post across six districts of Tamil Nadu in the last 25 years since reservation for women came into play in local bodies. Thanks to her unrelenting efforts following this victory, the panchayat she heads in southern Tamil Nadu now has 650 toilets and is free of open-defecation. She is now known across the district as the leader who transformed a village that was ignored by even district officials.
Mazharkodi Dhanasekar Block or district officials hardly ever came to visit our panchayat. They don’t care about far-flung panchayats like ours. This meant they would not allocate extra funds for development. We just did not exist for them. Funds went to the panchayat closer to town.
The block headquarters was stationed at Kalaiyarkovil.
As you travel away from Kalaiyarkovil towards the neighbouring district of Ramanathapuram, close to which Melamarungoor is situated, the roads are pockmarked and filled with potholes. On some stretches, only blobs of tar remain, the rest is mud. This is an arid part of Tamil Nadu and villages struggle to find drinking water. Women and schoolgirls in uniform line up plastic pots near common drinking-water taps once in four days, which is when water comes.
“I wanted to change that,” said Mazharkodi. “The only way, I realised, to make the district administration take notice of panchayats like ours was to completely transform it and to show them what can be done. I managed to do that.”
When Mazharkodi assumed office six years ago, the balance sheet of her panchayat was a cause for concern. In 2005, eight villages from Ramanathapuram district were added to the 17 governed by the Melamarungoor panchayat.
However, the State Finance Commission (SFC) grants meant for the eight Ramanathapuram villages were not reallocated to Melamarungoor. SFC grants, funds devolved by the state government, are the single biggest source of income for panchayats.
Dhanasekar’s first crusade was to get the SFC grants reallocated to Melamarungoor, which took a stream of petitions, weekly attendance at the district collectorate and more than six months of correspondence between the state department of rural development and the district administration.
She next turned her attention to the scarcity of drinking water.
Access to Drinking Water in Seven Villages
The availability of drinking water is a major problem across Sivagangai district. Villages in the district receive water mostly under the Combined Drinking Water Supply Scheme, popularly called “Cauvery water”, from the contested river that flows south from Karnataka.
In recent times, due to failing monsoons and mining in the Cauvery basin, villages are facing water scarcity.
“I had to petition the Kalaiyarkovil panchayat union president (the panchayat union is the second tier of local government, a group of all gram panchayats in the Block) to get Rs 3,00,000 sanctioned for a reverse osmosis (RO) plant in one of those eight villages. This was so that villages around can get better drinking water,” said Dhanasekar.
Before the RO plant started in 2015, people bought water at Rs 30 per pot. Now they pay Rs 5 per pot.
(The article has been edited for length.)