With 650 toilets, Mazharkodi Dhanasekar has turned her village into a testament to what great leadership can do. Dhanasekar's fame has spread across the district as the woman who transformed and gained attention for a remote, panchayat village council, largely ignored by officials until she was elected president in 2011.
Dhanasekar (49) is one of 40 former and current women panchayat leaders who work independently of the men in their lives. Despite a series of hurdles that denies them access to finances, such as male-dominated political networks and limited powers, they have carved out distinct identities for themselves and overtaken men in building roads, providing drinking water, and toilets.
The state has India's lowest fertility rate—lower than Australia, Finland, and Belgium—second best infant mortality and maternal mortality rate, and records among the lowest crime rates against women and children, as IndiaSpend reported in December 2016. But places like Melamarungoor are outliers with the availability of drinking water once in four days and crumbling roads. "Block or district officials hardly ever came to visit our panchayat," said Dhanasekar. "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 of Kalaiyarkovil)."
In these villages, women and schoolgirls in uniforms line up plastic pots near common drinking-water taps once in four days, which is when the water comes. Dhanasekar said,
I wanted to change that, the only way, I realised, the district administration took notice of panchayats like ours was to completely transform it, show them what can be done. I managed to do that.
In 2005, eight villages from Ramanathapuram district were added to the 17 governed by the Melamarungoor panchayat. However, 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 those 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.
Dhanasekar's biggest achievement, however, is not only that she built 650 toilets in her panchayat, but she did it cheaper than others, spending Rs 13,500 per toilet—of which Rs 12,000 is subsidised by the Centre's Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), or SBM—by buying raw material in bulk and engaging labour from the adjacent Virudhunagar district for an entire year, not just to build these toilets, but other village construction activities such as the new Village Poverty Reduction Committee office.
A household toilet costs between Rs 20,000 and Rs 40,000, according to this 2016 field survey of SBM by Accountability Initiative, a Delhi-based think tank. Still, Dhanasekar had to spend more than Rs 100,000 of her own money to manage the shortfall, which some villagers could not pay. The money will not be reimbursed. Dhanasekar is a Maravar, a subcaste of the dominant Thevar community, and her family owns 15 acres of land in Melamarungoor, so she can absorb the loss. Although agriculture over the last five years has failed because of scanty rain, her family's finance and money-lending business sustains them well. Dhanasekar is willing to spend her own money because of her determination to put Melamarungoor on the district map of Sivagangai as a model panchayat. But many panchayat presidents, especially those women of limited means, cannot do the same.