Neeta Potfode, also known as Neeta Tai is a Sarpanch in Anjangaon Mouda, Nagpur, Maharashtra. She has mobilised hundreds of women by setting up several SHGs in her village and hosting public events for women. She is a firm believer of women empowerment at the grassroots. Her vision for women is for them to have financial independence and to get their constitutional rights.
Please tell us a little about your background?
I was born in Nagpur city. My father worked in a bank as a peon in Nagpur and my parents come from a rural part of Maharashtra. My father was young when he moved to Nagpur with his aunt and she helped him get a job at the bank. My older siblings were born in the village in my mother’s hometown (or village) whereas I was born in the proper city of Nagpur. I was the youngest amongst all my siblings and I completed my graduation in Nagpur.
I am currently the office bearer of Mouda Taluka in Anjangaon. I came here after my marriage. Until I got married, my childhood and education were all spent in Nagpur, so I was not very connected to rural areas.
Tell us more about your decision to enter politics? What or who inspired you to enter politics?
At my home, we were 4 brothers and 3 sisters; my eldest brother worked at the bank, the second eldest brother worked at a life insurance company and my third brother worked at a bank, my older sister was at Nasik worked at a military school, and the other one too got a compensatory job after her husband passed away. And then there was me. There was no connection to politics at home but at school and college, I was involved in student politics and that is how I developed leadership skills.
When I got married into the village, comparing its condition to the city - I started thinking about how no one has made efforts to improve the living conditions and access to resources like water, electricity etc. as it was in the city.
I often thought, ‘there are educated people in the village; but why haven’t the office bearers been able to make a difference [even though] they have the power?’, but I never thought about doing it myself. Probably it was my fate, and I started to realise that if I was thinking about it, then why don’t I do something about it. Initially, my husband was active in politics for a while but then he left politics and concentrated on his shop. Then after 10 years, I contested for the general seat which was previously held by a man and I was elected the sarpanch.
What was your family and village’s reaction to your victory? Did they change their opinion after looking at the difference you’ve made?
As a woman, when I won a general seat the opposition, as well as my supporters, opposed me. They wanted a man to be in the Sarpamch’s seat. But the fact was that I did win and my family completely supported me. They were proud of me for becoming a sarpanch. No one in my family had held the office ever so my family felt really nice about the victory.
All the women who became sarpanch before me, could not really work assertively as their position demanded. Instead, their husbands assumed their roles and made the political decisions on their behalf. So, when I won the seat that was held by the same person [man] for 25-30 years; a lot of the villagers thought - what will this woman do as a sarpanch?
I was asked to hold office only for 2.5 years. and after that, the previous incumbent could take over the office - to which I agreed to. After 2.5 years, the men tried to throw me out of the office and they did succeed - but what I did before leaving was to use my special vote to nominate a woman to take my place instead of the man who was trying to take over the general seat.
Do you think a woman’s household responsibilities are more focused upon when she enters public life such as a career in politics?
Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar proposed reservation and added provisions for equality to our constitution because he believed that women have the power to succeed in whatever they do. The way a woman is able to manage a household, the same way she will be able to manage a village.
The work that a man cannot do - a woman definitely can. And so, women were given the chance to hold office.
Though it’s the 21st century and it's been long since we became an independent nation, we are still living in a patriarchy. If a woman is doing good work in the public domain, she is subjected to resistance from society. I am a working woman and people keep saying - how I do not pay attention to my household or how I am very involved and vocal in the village but not as much at home. So this kind of smearing still happens.
In politics, if a woman is independent and courageous, and gives a tough competition to men, the patriarchal society pulls her down. Only when she makes herself strong and believes in herself, will she succeed. So women who want to work, have to factor in a lot of things even today.
What are the obstacles you have faced as a woman in politics? How have you faced and overcome these challenges?
I am now serving my second term - and I have been elected by the people because of the work that I did. Even though I worked officially for the village for 2 and half years - I continued working for the development of the people after my time in office. For my predecessor, who held the seat for almost 30 years, I am still a threat. They continue to plot against me to stop me from succeeding in doing my work.
That’s why the public elected me again - but that does not mean 100% of the village population supports me. My response to such attempts to pull me down is that I do not pay attention. I know that I am doing my work right and they know that I am going forward! It is the men who speak such things against me because they don’t like women going ahead.
In a rural area, no husband would like their wife going ahead of them. Such a mentality exists. In my estimate, at least 85% of the men think this way and only 10-15% men are happy when their wife progresses even beyond them. As a result of societal backlash and pulling down, she often takes a step back. This is one key challenge to women in politics.
Moreover, I feel, the urban family supports women most of the time. However, in rural areas, men do not support girls and women completely. Some families might be happy that the woman in the family is progressing, securing positions of authority but at the same time, there might be families who would not support her.
Do you feel your work as a woman politician is appreciated as much as that of your men colleagues?
Of course! There used to be only two people who kept the highest position of authority occupied alternatively. No one else had occupied the chair apart from them. When I was elected to the position last year, it was the end of a career for one of them and the other was defeated in the election by me.
My work has been seen by the authorities. I do not face any issues with respect to administration. There are 8 Sarpanches in the Taluka. However, if the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) wants to implement any projects, they do it in my village first. For this, I feel honoured too. They do so because they receive cooperation here. I am interested in implementing new projects and cordially engage with the team to understand the project better. We have Bhide sir in Panchayat Samiti. If he has to convey anything, he conveys it to me and asks me to convey it to other Sarpanches. For Sarpanch meetings, they look for me before they start their discussion. I do not get a position of authority but respect from all because they appreciate my work.
Do women in politics support each other? How do they do so and how can build solidarity.
For women to support other women, the party affiliation matters. In my Gram Panchayat, there are 6 women but only one of them belong to my party. Even though we are all women, they do not support me in the work of Gram Panchayat because they have other party affiliations and they think they should support others only if they belong to the same party. However, women who do not care about party affiliation will definitely support each other.
Does the government support and encourage women to get into politics in your area? Would you like to share any examples?
To be honest, women could come into politics only because of the reservation. Without the reservation in local bodies, women would have just remained a voter. You would have seen only women from rich, powerful households with political background becoming politicians.
Please tell us about your initiatives to encourage women to enter politics and public life?
If you want to bring women out of their houses, then Mahila Bachat Gat (Self Help Groups) is an evergreen solution. After getting married, I started a Mahila Bachat Gat in the village. So far, I have established 16 Bachat Gats in my area. The women have started to speak up slowly. The women found a platform to stay informed, talk to each other and this led to them sitting along with the men in the public sphere for discussions.
I organised a public event, a haldi-kumkum (turmeric and vermillion) ceremony, where over 300 women attended. In a few days, I am also starting programs for women like tailoring, nursing courses. I also started Yoga classes for women during the lockdown. I keep doing some or the other programme to ensure that women come out of the households.
Earlier, the Rotary club provided sanitary napkins to women, guided them on its usage and provided a vending machine and dustbin at Gram Panchayat. Those who were using sanitary napkins were embarrassed to come out and throw it in the dustbin. Due to reservations, a woman may get some posts but for five years she won’t be able to participate or speak anything if she is not made to be bold in politics. In areas like my village, it takes a lot of time to bring about such changes. However, I am putting in my efforts to bring such changes.
What is the one thing you would want to change for women?
First, I want to improve employment among women and make them financially stable. I want them to get training and certificates, start their own businesses. Sometimes, a woman who is economically dependent on her husband is not able to take any decisions and is always in a dilemma of how to handle household and any other work. If she becomes economically independent and gains proper education, this question won’t be an issue anymore. Second, I want women to get all their constitutional rights.
What is your message to the young women aspiring to join politics in Maharashtra and India? How would you like to support women in the political space?
I advise them to start their career from the post of Sarpanch. They should get educated, not just general knowledge but must also have complete information about the post they desire. Even though your opposition may be older or more powerful than you, if you have self-confidence you will overcome the fear. I would advise all the young women who are interested in politics in India, don’t let your self-confidence break anytime. If you move ahead confidently and have the required knowledge, no one can defeat you.
I will only request women politicians in villages to get rid of the fear. What will the villagers say? How will the people working with me judge me? Keep all these questions aside, use your post effectively. Think this way - we are people’s representatives and we must do this work for society. For women getting a position because of reservation, please remember you have only got this opportunity because of the reservation that people fought for and without that no one would have asked us. We cannot waste this opportunity.
What would you like to tell the men in politics about becoming allies of women and helping them?
Every family needs a husband and wife for social growth and progress. Similarly, a man alone cannot run politics. Women are needed for political progress as well. So my advice to all the men is, ‘if you wish to succeed in politics, you will have to take women with you’. Today, Sarpanch makes the budget of a village and more than 50% of these Sarpanch are women.
In politics, there are not just male voters. To get support from women voters and fulfil their demands, women are needed in the party. A male prime minister will need women ministers in his cabinet. Men cannot do everything in politics all by themselves.
Worth Asking interview series is aimed at having conversations with women and men politicians at all levels about politics as a career choice for women.