India

Is Mohanlalganj the best place to be a woman politician in India?

A village in Mohanlalganj
Image caption Most of the 1.8 million people in Mohanlalganj earn their living through farming

Mohanlalganj in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh has elected more women to represent them in parliamentary elections than any other constituency in the history of independent India. BBC Hindi's Divya Arya went there to find out if it is really the best place to be a woman politician in India.

To get to the largely rural Mohanlalganj, I take the national highway from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh.

It's a comfortable drive and the roads are in surprisingly good condition as we get off the highway and make our way to Billaiya Kheda village, which has a female village council head.

It is evident that the area is impoverished. All we see are small brick and mud houses interspersed with dry fields. There are no factories or the humdrum of trade.

Finally, we spot a few women drawing water near a hand pump and stop to ask for directions.

I ask for directions to the council head, Laxmi Rawat's house.

Same story?

The women leave the buckets of water they are carrying and the youngest of them, Neha Rawat, giggles.

"She is only the head in name, the real head is her husband's employer, Shankar Yadav," she tells me.

Her mother explains that Mr Yadav was the village head until last year but backed his driver's wife Ms Rawat for the position after it was reserved for a woman candidate by the Indian government.

Image caption Neha Rawat is different from other girls in her village, as her parents send her to school

India first introduced quotas for women in local village council elections in 1992 to increase their political representation.

But over the years, instances of men using their wives, relatives or employees as puppets while really calling the shots, has become a problem.

I had expected Mohanlalganj to be different.

But, Susheela Saroj, who was the last woman MP to be elected from here in 2009, says that despite Mohanlalganj's stellar record, getting real power to women village heads has been a challenge.

"I have witnessed men leading victory parades in their village after their wives win elections, and I have pulled them aside and made them give their garlands to their wives instead," she says.

Indomitable spirit

Most of the 1.8 million people in this area earn their living through farming. Literacy levels are low, especially amongst women.

Neha Rawat is a lucky exception. Her parents are sending her to school. But she will not be able to go to college as her parents, who work as labourers, cannot afford the fees of transport.

"It's far way in the city and privately owned, they can't afford the fee or the cost of transport," she says.

Mohanlalganj has no government funded college for girls.

Image caption Mohanlalganj has no government funded college for girls

But this has not dulled her ambition.

"I still want to become a village head, though not like Laxmi Rawat, I want to be Shankar Yadav. I want real power just like women MPs," she concludes.

I am still thinking of Neha's indomitable spirit as I make my way to Laxmi Rawat's house. What is it be like to be a village head with no power?

Laxmi Rawat is a beautiful young woman. Her jewellery and clothes set her apart from the other women of her village, but her one-room house is tiny, which is unusual for a village head. She seems happy though, saying that it is a good arrangement.

Limitations

"I have only done five years of schooling and don't understand any of this. I trust Mr Yadav, follow his directions and do what he says."

But eventually the cracks appear.

Although she accepts her limitations, she dreams of a different future for her one-year-old daughter.

Image caption Laxmi Rawat dreams of more for her daughter

"I just want her to quickly grow up so I can put her into school, so that she is able to achieve better things in her life."

Next I travel to find Chibau Khera, a village that got electricity for the first time ever in 2013.

It is a small cluster of about a 100 relatively well-to-do families. Many own buffaloes and a few have even had their houses painted.

But apart from a government health worker and her assistant, women don't work in any job or trade here.

Priyanka Yadav is one of the only two girls in the village to pursue a Masters degree.

Image caption Priyanka Yadav is one of two girls in her village to pursue a masters degree

"My parents had refused any further study after I completed my bachelor's degree, arguing that it was unsafe for a girl to go to the city alone.

"They also felt it was of no use, since all I had to do was get married," she tells me.

But Ms Yadav found a way out.

Her friend Shashi was one year ahead of her and also wanted to study further. Shashi waited a year for Priyanka and then they convinced their parents to let them go to the city college together.

Mohanlalganj may not be the shining example of development, women empowerment or change brought about by repeated terms of women MPs, as I had imagined.

It does have its surprises though, in its tough and smart young women.

Priyanka Yadav winks and calls out to me as I leave.

"Who knows what we may do next?"

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