"I will never ride behind anyone", says Chudamani Naik, a sarpanch from Keonjhar district in Odisha, one of the country's 250 most backward districts until a few years ago.This Class IX educated, mother of two, won her first elections in 2002, when she was just 27 years old. However, she has been serving the communityfor years without any official recognition or support.
An impressionable young girl who, "saw politicians like the village sarpanch walk around with people and speak to them in a very commanding manner", Chudamani decided to make a small difference by first helping children in her district get an education.
Chudamani made a small start by leading self-help groups to get 20 students back to school. Even after she won the elections, she never lost sight of this vision. Over time, she has helped 250 dropouts get back to school. Understanding that education was in the best interest of all, she uses stories and simple language to explain the RTE Act and the benefits of education to mothers in a relatable way.
Independent, hardworking, and confident Chudamani is the sarpanch today but she has also seen her fair share of hardships. Hailing from a family in the throes of poverty, feisty Chudamani used to work in a school preparing mid-day meals, even when she was pregnant with her son. However, through it all, she believed that she could make a difference. This conviction inspired Chudamani to stand for elections, in spite of strict opposition from her mother-in-law and acquaintances.
Today, brave Chudamani does not like to depend on anyone for anything and is passionate about bringing awareness to people about their rights. Like she says, "…I am self-reliant and ride a cycle to all the eight villages. I am disciplined and understand the value of time."In 2007, Chudamani lost the elections. But this did not in any way blur her vision of empowering people with the right information and knowledge. Initially, she felt awkward talking to people more knowledgeable than her but later realized it was a learning opportunity and a chance for self-improvement. With her never-say-die attitude, she fought back with strength and resilience and in the end that paid off. Chudamani is today, doing what she loves most….helping people and giving them the power to help themselves.
During her tenure she has built roads for better communication with other villages, improved heathlcare services for women in particular, installed 40 tubewells for clean drinking water, facilitated forest rights schemes and helped the needy get homes and land. She has also helped hundreds of people get access to widow and old age pension, etc. so that they can live their lives with their head held high.
Chudamani has achieved a long list of milestones and realizes that there are several bigger issues to deal with. From low awareness of schemes to low participation of women and alcoholism, the problems are complex and solutions don't always lie within easy reach.With greater access will follow empowerment and a world of opportunities. The very astute Chudamani who otherwise uses the mobile phone only to answer and make calls, realizes that technology and the internet can, in her own words, 'do everything!'
While this might be true in some way, in reality, it is women like Chudamani who with their firm resolve and strength of mind can do everything and inspire others to follow suit.