Boonikhet is a nondescript panchayat, cradled in the lofty Pir Panjal mountains in Surankote block of Poonch district in Jammu & Kashmir, but its ward panch, Zaitoon Begum, is anything but ordinary.
For the permanent residents of Kashmir, life isn’t easy. The terrorism in valley has affected almost everyone, right from the children to the senior citizens, from the villages to towns and from rich to poor. This once heavenly abode has seen a whirlwind of conflicts in the last few years. The State has never been calm with growing militancy, the curfews, lockdowns and lately, the corona pandemic. There were times of calmer waters but only for a brief period of time. The development in the Valley has taken a huge toll. At the rural level, it is the Sarpanchs and Panchs who are responsible for the development of villages and upliftment of their society. One among them is Zaitoona Bano, the woman Sarpanch of Waliwar, Qasbalar, who against all odds has done an exceptional work in her area and positively influenced the neighbouring villages. This is the story about her empowerment and her resolve to fight against all odds.
Zaitoona Bano recollects with supreme pride in her eyes ,” I have witnessed the amount of development that has taken place in the last thirty years. It doesn’t commensurate with the funds which have been allotted over the years and have always left me astonished as to why there was no desired development that should have taken place. I always had a shimmering quest to bring a change for better ; and in year 2018 i got an opportunity when I was elected as the Sarpanch of Waliwar, Qasba lar, with a huge majority without any political affiliation and since then, I have never looked back. Being a woman, I have disproved the notion for a woman where they are expected to raise children and look after the household chores.”
She continues , soon after my election, the abrogation of Article 370 brought its share of curfews and lockdown. But at the same time, it also brought large number of developmental schemes in every sector, directly under the supervision of the Central Government which we were deprived of earlier. In my own village, the developmental schemes and government initiated programmes have reached every nook and corner within a short span of time. Scholarships for school students, pensions for senior citizens, financial start up aid for setting up poultry farms and sheep rearing, subsidiary provision of tractors etc. has been made available under the new government schemes.
In spite of the curfews and lockdown, it has been ensured that the works under MGNREGA and 14 Financial Commission is not stopped. Under the village Panchayat, forty lakhs rupees has been allotted for developmental works in the FY 2019-2020 from the Government and all the funds are being utilized judiciously. Prior to abrogation of Article 370, there were instances where the allotted funds were utilized without any work on ground. However, since the assumption of responsibility as a Sarpanch, local laborers are employed to carry out developmental activities in the area which in turn created employment opportunities for the villagers in the village, thereby improving the local economy. New roads were constructed and repaired, water supply system improved and nonstop power supply provided to every household in the locality. The state of development is steadily progressing which had earlier become stagnant due to corruption, nepotism and political interference.
To add on to the positive beginning of my tenure as Sarpanch, Waliwar, the Army has also played a major role in keeping the conflicts away from us thereby creating a peaceful atmosphere for developmental activities to progress. They have also kept the youth of the area motivated and engaged them constructively through Sports and Career Guidance Programmes. They have conducted Medical Camps in backward areas which have helped the poor and needy to a great extent. The literary, sports and cultural competitions carried out for the students has inculcated the spirit of competition among them thereby improving their academic performances. They have ensured security for us from any anti national elements which attempt to threaten the peace in the area.
Being a woman, a mother and a Sarpanch of my village, it has always been a challenge for me as I cope with the ever increasing responsibilities. However, keeping my dreams alive, I always wanted to be a torch bearer for thousands of woman who are stuck between the kitchen and their own aspirations to bring renaissance with women empowerment in the society, irrespective of social background. I am happy that I have been able to motivate other women who have started their own self help groups and working for the betterment of society in whatever way possible. The motivation had a cascading effect and has spread to neighbouring villages as well. More importantly, the villagers believed in me for the work I have accomplished so far as a Sarpanch.
My story, of an ordinary household mother, who defied all the naysayers and de-motivators to become the lady Sarpanch of my village inferences one thing, “the fortune favours the brave”. There are thousands of women across Kashmir who would gladly accept the challenges for a change, for women empowerment and for building the society into a vibrant progressive economy if given a chance.