Last year, the news of a group of tribal women stopping the Himachal Pradesh Agriculture Minister Ram Lal Markanda from entering Lahaul and Spiti district’s sub-divisional headquarters Kaza had made it to the national headlines.
The tribal women, who alleged that the minister was violating local quarantine rules, were led by a strong, thirty-year-old woman, Sonam Dolma who has now been elected as the Pradhan of Kaza Gram Panchayat in the recent elections.
This International Women’s Day, as Sonam plans to organize the first all-Mahila (women) Gram Sabha, here is an account of her actions and future plans to work for the people of her community.
Elected President of the Mahila Mandal (an all-women welfare group) a few months into the lockdown due to Covid-19 Pandemic, most of Sonam’s tenure was spent working tirelessly to contain the spread of the virus in this cold desert region.
The committee on Covid-19 (formed by the residents of Spiti) of which Dolma was the member, had decided on a number of measures to ensure that the valley remained free from the virus. The steps included mandatory quarantine for anyone who returned to the valley and wanted to visit the place during the lockdown period. The fact that there were no positive cases of Covid-19 till that time reflected upon the effectiveness of the steps taken by the panel. Mahila Mandal, led by Sonal, played a significant role in executing the said plan.
“We ensured that a substantive number of members from the Mandal kept a vigil at the entrance to Kaza. People, especially students, returning from different states as their institutes were shut were taken to the designated rest house for quarantine. Our members took turns to stay put at the gate from six in the morning till late in the evening,” informed Sonam while applauding the efforts of her fellow women who committedly performed their duties despite being involved in agriculture activities.
It was around that time that Sonal was faced with a challenge that required immediate decision and action. What should have one done when the State’s Minister of Agriculture wanted to visit Kaza? He and his entourage were asked to go for quarantine as was the case with everyone. He refused to follow the rules and decided to go back as he had some work. This incident drew spontaneous protests from the members of the women’s body and others.
“When we had put small children under quarantine, how could we change rules for someone just because of his power position?” rued Sonal.
FIRs under various sections were lodged against more than 200 members of the Mahila Mandal including Dolma herself for participating in the protest.
Much before joining the Mandal, Sonal, a mother of two small children, would actively participate in Gram Sabhas and other meetings where matters related to the development of their Panchayat were discussed. She would use these meetings as a platform to raise concerns and bring the attention of the leaders to certain pressing issues. She would also volunteer for activities to help her fellow villagers.
Her commitment towards the development of her village and her ideals won the hearts of the people of Kaza who elected Sonal as their representative at the Gram Panchayat level.
After the win, Sonal has immediately started working on the promises she had made to the villagers. Top on the agenda of her long list is to provide logistic assistance for cases to be withdrawn against the members of the Mahila Mandal.
The next challenge, and by no means an easy one, would be the task to restore Forest Rights to the families who were denied their rightful claim in absence of the required documentation or other reasons. “This task will include completing paperwork for these families and meeting other mandatory requirements,” informed Sonal.
She is also committed to addressing the challenges people face during the harsh winter season when temperatures can drop to -10 to -20 degree Celsius. “The footpaths become dangerous during heavy rain and snowfall. There is a need to fit interlocking tiles to make the walking trails suitable for all the seasons,” explained Sonal as there are several such footpaths in the three villages that come under the Kaza Gram Panchayat.
Another issue specific to the winter season is that as icy winds blow here, women have a hard time washing clothes near the streams. Sonal aims to construct covered dhobi ghats for women to protect them from these bitingly cold winds, rain and snow.
The shortage of water is another pertinent issue that villagers of Kaza Gram Panchayat are confronted with. Sonal believes that people should not be struggling for such basic needs and she will ensure the installation of hand pumps in the villages which need immediate intervention.
Traditionally, says Sonal, people of Kaza preferred growing protein-rich black peas. But in the last few years, they have given up this traditional crop to grow the cash crop of green peas instead. Due to restrictions on travel the previous year, the crop had no buyers and the families growing the green peas had to suffer huge losses.
“I will encourage my people to follow their traditional wisdom and return to growing black peas. The benefit of this crop is that it is sold only after drying and can be stored for a much longer period, unlike the green ones which are easily perishable. And the price this crop fetches in the market is also quite high. It is usually sold at Rs 200 for one kilogram,” explained Sonal. These are her plans for her five-year tenure.
Sonal is all excited to organize the first all Mahila Gram Sabha on the International Day for women on the 8th of this month. The agenda of this meeting would be to demand the closure of liquor shops in her Gram Panchayat.
“In the past, we had campaigned to get the liquor shops shut but were unsuccessful in our efforts. This time, I am quite determined and will take up this issue again at the Mahila Gram Sabha,” said Sonal determined to get rid of the nuisance that alcoholism has caused in the valley.
Sonal, who has completed training for the newly elected leaders and is awaiting exposure visits to other places, talks about the Mahila Gram Sabha session on the 8th.
“This meeting will be a platform for women to share their issues without worrying about men. They will be given a fair chance to put forth their ideas of the work that they think the Gram Panchayat should focus on,” shared an enthusiastic Dolma, not unmindful of the responsibilities and meeting the expectation of the people who have reposed faith in her leadership and voted for her.