This 89-year-old panchayat president is on a mission to transform her village
Veerammal paati, the panchayat president of Tamil Nadu’s first biodiversity heritage site Arittapatti, has built schools, bridges and drinking water taps in 300 homes.
She could pass off as your friendly neighbourhood granny with a hundred stories to recount from the past. But 89-year-old Veerammal paati (grandmother in Tamil) has both her head and heart firmly fixed on the present and the responsibilities she holds as the oldest panchayat president of Tamil Nadu.
Last year, the village of Arittapatti in Madurai, which she heads, was selected by the Government of Tamil Nadu as the state’s first biodiversity heritage site. Arittapatti recently hosted IAS officer Supriya Sahu, the Additional Chief Secretary to the Government in the Department of Environment, Climate Change, and Forests.
It was during her visit that Sahu introduced Veerammal to the world with a heartwarming post on X that showered praises on the panchayat president’s “infectious smile, unbridled enthusiasm and positive attitude.”
“What an honour to meet her and discuss our plans for the development of Arittapatti,” Sahu posted.
Veerammal has been pouring her heart and soul into the development of this village almost all her life. Having born, brought up and married into the village, she headed self-help groups in her youth that helped young women get loans for farming and aided them in resolving family disputes.
“The will to give back to the village always ran in the family,” she tells Her Story. “My brother worked for the village’s development and my husband was the vice president of the panchayat for a whole year.”
Veerammal herself contested the panchayat elections twice—in 2006 and 2011—before she finally won the third time in 2020 at the age of 86.
“People of the village, especially the women, who have witnessed her dedication to their causes selected her for the post of Panchayat president. It’s a position that she has earned over years of demonstrating that she cares for the people,” says R Odayan, the village forest committee head of Arittapatti.
For Veerammal, it was a moment she had awaited for years. “I thought I was finally in a position to change the lives of my people,” she says.
And so she did in several ways. Over the course of her three-year tenure, Veerammal has overseen the construction of four water tanks and bridges to cross over water bodies. She has helped provide drinking water to 300 homes under the Central government’s ‘Jal Jeewan Mission’ and is currently working on an Anganwadi school. She has also made sure street lights have been installed in most places and faulty ones are replaced in record time.
But working on areas such education and roads, which need urgent attention in the village, have been an uphill task for Veerammal, who in spite of her milestones, hasn’t escaped the power politics and patriarchy prevalent in her village.
“Opposition leaders and their men pose hindrances to Veerammal’s efforts to work on the ground. Since many of their leaders have held past positions here, they use that influence to stall or delay the projects she tries to implement,” says Odayan.
Veerammal says for years, she has been trying to build toilets for Scheduled Caste women, roads, and new campuses in the place where 60-year-old, dilapidated structures of village primary schools stood. "There is a lot of poramboke land [land that doesn’t fall under revenue records] in the village and we try to use it for developmental projects. But opposition candidates and their men don't allow these projects to take off claiming their right over these lands. They also try to influence the people of the village," says Odayan.
"While it is true that there is politics everywhere, here, it gets especially rough because they know I won’t be able to run from pillar to post getting clearances at this age,” says Veerammal.
But this granny isn’t anywhere close to giving up. She’s up by 5 am every day, cooks her own food, and works on the farm on the days she doesn’t have to be in office. “I try to go to work every day. I want to stay adept with the status of every single project we have taken up. I want to do all I can for my village before my time on this earth comes to an end,” she says.
Edited by Affirunisa Kankudti