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Mazharkodi Dhanasekar: The woman who brought Drinking Water, Toilets to a lost Panchayat in Tamil Nadu

In rural areas, every habitation has one or more common drinking-water taps, which get water at fixed times

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Toilets at a village in India, Wikimedia

– by Bhanupriya Rao

Tamil Nadu, March 11, 2017: Mazharkodi Dhanasekar has a radiant smile and is keen to talk about her achievements, which, as it emerges, are considerable: Building 650 toilets and making her panchayat free of open defecation in southern Tamil Nadu.

Dhanasekar’s fame has spread across the district as the woman who transformed and gained attention for a remote, lost panchayat–village council–largely ignored by officials until she was elected president in 2011.

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Dhanasekar, 49, is one of 40 past and current women panchayat leaders we surveyed across six Tamil Nadu districts to analyze the impact of a quarter century of reservations for women in local bodies. We found a majority of women now work independently of the men in their lives and, 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, as the first part of this series explained.

Overall, Tamil Nadu now 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.

Drinking water once in four days, 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).”

As you travel away from Kalaiyarkovil towards the neighbouring district of Ramanathapuram–close to which Melamarungoor is situated–the roads are pocked with potholes. On some stretches, only blobs of tar remain, the rest is mud. This is an arid part of Tamil Nadu, and villages struggle to find drinking water. Women and schoolgirls in uniform line up plastic pots near common drinking-water taps once in four days, which is when the water comes.

“I wanted to change that,” said Dhanasekar. “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.”

When Dhanasekar assumed office six years ago, the balance sheet of her panchayat was a cause for concern. In 2005, eight villages from Ramanathapuram district were added to the 17 governed by the Melamarungoor panchayat.

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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 turned her attention next to the scarcity of drinking water.

Five years to bring drinking water to seven villages

Drinking water is a major problem across Sivagangai district. Villages in the district receive water mostly under the Combined Drinking Water Supply Scheme, popularly called ”Cauvery water”, from the contested river that flows south from Karnataka.

In rural areas, every habitation has one or more common drinking-water taps, which get water at fixed times. Of 3,352 rural habitations in Sivagangai, 397 habitations get some drinking water–10-39 lt per capita per day, against the 40 lt set by the National Rural Drinking Water Programme–and 2,955 get 40 lt, according to 2016 Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board data.

In recent times, due to failing monsoons and mining in the Cauvery basin, villages now receive water once in four days, sometimes.

For villages bordering Ramanathapuram district, salinity is an additional problem because the Indian ocean is nearby. As this 2014 report shows, desalination plants either do not work or operate below capacity. The eight Ramanathapuram villages added to Melamarungoor were acutely short of potable drinking water. It took Dhanasekar five years to have pipes laid and drinking water brought to seven of those villages. One village, Sattanur, still does not have a water source.

“I had to petition the Kalaiyarkovil panchayat union president (the panchayat union is the second tier of local government, a group of all gram panchayats in the Block) to get Rs 300,000 sanctioned for a reverse osmosis (RO) plant in one of those eight villages, so that villages around can get better drinking water,” said Dhanasekar.

Before the RO plant started in 2015, people bought water at Rs 30 per pot. Now they pay Rs 5 per pot, so waste is discouraged. “Water in these parts in a valuable commodity and people should know its value,” said Dhanasekar.

The shortage and value of money

Panchayats in Tamil Nadu are short of funds, as earlier parts of this series have pointed out. To get funds from other elected representatives, access to political networks is key–particularly difficult for women, most of whom are first-time politicians. Although panchayat leaders are not supposed to be affiliated to political parties, such affiliations are now common and, often, determine funding.

The Panchayat Union in Kalaiyarkovil Block is led by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Since Dhanasekar’s family was allied with the AIADMK, it was not as difficult as it could have been.

“I could get some funds for another RO plant in my panchayat from the Panchayat Union,” Dhanasekar. “But if you have links to a rival party, say the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), getting funds is next to impossible.”

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.

Dhanasekar is aware of her unique position.

“Being in public office, I realised the amount of good I can do with power in my hands, even though it is limited power,” she said. “Now that I have achieved my aim of making Melamarungoor well-known, my next step is to organise women (panchayat) presidents into a federation and encourage more of them to contest elections. We need more women, fearless women.” (IANS)

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Delhi Woman Shot Dead In front of Husband, 2 Year Old Son

Her husband told police he had borrowed money from someone and alleged the lender was behind the killing as he was unable to pay the amount back.

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A woman was murdered in the early hours of the morning as the family traveled from Kashmere Gate to their home in Rohini in Delhi. Pixabay

New Delhi, October 25, 2017 : A 30-year-old woman was shot dead in the early hours of Wednesday in front of her husband and two-year-old son, police said.

Deputy Commissioner of Police Milind Mahadeo Dumbere told IANS the woman, Priya Mehra, was travelling in a car along with her husband and son when she was shot at around 4.30 a.m. in Shalimar Bagh in north-west Delhi.

Her husband told police he had borrowed money from someone and alleged the lender was behind the killing as he was unable to pay the amount back.

He had borrowed Rs 5 lakh in a high interest rate and as the debt grew into Rs 40 lakh, he was finding it difficult to pay back.

“There were four assailants in a car, according to the deceased’s husband, and she was shot at twice,” the police officer said.

Dumbere said no one has been arrested yet and the body has been sent to Babu Jagjivan Ram Memorial Hospital (BJRM) Hospital for autopsy.

The family was on the way to their house in Rohini from Kashmere Gate, when the woman was murdered. (IANS)

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Mahalaya: Beginning of “Devipaksha” in Bengali Celebration of ‘Durga Puja’

“Mahalaya” is the auspicious occasion that marks the beginning of “Devipaksha” and the ending of “Pitripaksha” and heralds the celebration of Durga Puja

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Mahalaya morning in Kolkata. Flickr
  • Mahalaya 2017 Date: 19th september.
  • On Mahalaya, people throng to the holy river Ganges in order to pay homage to their ancestors and forefathers; which is called ‘Torpon’
  • Mahalaya remains incomplete without the magical chanting of the scriptural verses from the ‘Chandi Kavya’ that is broadcasted in All India Radio
  • The magic is induced by the popular Birendra Krishna Bhadra whose voice makes the recitation of the “Chandi Kavya” even more magnificent

Sept 19, 2017: Autumn is the season of the year that sees the Hindus, all geared up to celebrate some of the biggest festivals of India. The festive spirit in the Bengalis all enthused to prepare for the greatest of the festivals, the ‘Durga Puja’.

About Mahalaya:

Mahalaya is the auspicious occasion that marks the beginning of “Devipaksha” and the ending of “Pitripaksha,” and this year it is celebrated on September 19.

Observed exactly a week before the ‘Durga Puja’, Mahalaya is the harbinger of the arrival of Goddess Durga. It is celebrated to invoke the goddess possessing supreme power! The goddess is invited to descend on earth and she is welcomed with devotional songs and holy chants of mantras. On this day, the eye is drawn in the idols of the Goddess by the artisans marking the initiation of “Devipaksha”. Mahalaya arrives and the countdown to the Durga Puja begins!

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The day of Mahalaya bears supreme significance to the Bengalis. The day is immensely important because on this day people throng to the holy river Ganges in order to pay homage to their ancestors and forefathers. Clad in white dhotis, people offer prayers and take dips in the river while praying for their demised dear ones. The ritual is popular as “Torpon”.

Mahalaya
An idol-maker in progress of drawing the eye in the idol of the Goddess. Wikipedia

As per Hindu myth, on “Devipaksha”, the Gods and the Goddesses began their preparations to celebrate “Mahamaya” or Goddess Durga, who was brought upon by the trinity- Brahma, Vishnu, and Maheshwara; to annihilate the fierce demon king named Mahishasura. The captivating story of the Goddess defeating the demon got popularized with the goddess being revered as “Durgatinashini” or the one who banishes all the evils and miseries of the world. The victory of the Goddess is celebrated as ‘Durga Puja’.

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Mahalaya remains incomplete without the magical chanting of the scriptural verses from the ‘Chandi Kavya’ that is broadcasted at dawn in All India Radio in the form of a marvelous audio montage enthralling the souls of the Bengalis. Presented with wonderful devotional music, acoustic drama, and classical songs- the program is also translated to Hindi and played for the whole pan-Indian listeners.

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Mahalaya
Birendra Krishna Bhadra (1905-1991). Wikipedia

The program is inseparable from Mahalaya and has been going on for over six decades till date. The magic is induced by the popular Birendra Krishna Bhadra whose voice makes the recitation of the “Chandi Kavya” even more magnificent! He has been a legend and the dawn of Mahalaya turns insipid without the reverberating and enchanting voice of the legendary man.

Mahalaya will keep spreading the magic and setting the vigor of the greatest festival of the Bengalis- the Durga Puja, to worship the supreme Goddess, eternally.

                 “Yaa Devi Sarbabhuteshu, Shakti Rupena Sanhsthita,

                     Namastaswai Namastaswai Namastaswai Namo Namaha.”

– by Antara Kumar of NewsGram. Twitter: @ElaanaC

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Lost in Time : The Less Explored Pamban Island and the Rameswaram Island | Travelogue

The land of temples, picturesque locales, architecture, and the home of the 'Missile Man' of India - welcome to the Rameswaram Island!

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We take you through a town lost in time, Dhanushkodi in Rameswaram island. Wikimedia

Rameswaram, September 15, 2017 : Off the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu, some 500 km south of Chennai, lies Pamban Island. Seemingly a stone’s throw from neighboring Sri Lanka, this is an island steeped in historical significance, and with some of the most resilient people alive.

One of the longest sea bridges in the country, the iconic Pamban Bridge connects the mainland with the island, also known as Rameswaram Island. With breathtaking views of the Bay of Bengal, the journey to the island over this bridge rewinds one to colonial times, when it was built by the British to improve trade relations with Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

Built in 1914 as India’s first-ever sea bridge, the 6,700-foot structure is in itself an engineering and historical marvel that has withstood several of nature’s furies — from storms to cyclones.

Rameswaram island
An overview of the Pamban Brindge. Wikimedia

The bridge initially ran up to the southeastern tip of the island, Dhanushkodi, now a ghost town. After a cyclone hit it in 1964, Dhanushkodi was washed away by the sea and is now a mere skeleton of the town it once was.

Remnants of its railway lines, church and the devastated dwellings of people can still be seen, though in very poor shape.

From the tip of the region, cell phone networks welcome one to Sri Lanka.

Visible from here is the Adam’s Bridge — a former land link between India and Sri Lanka, now undersea — that is also known as Rama Setu, the bridge believed to have been built by Lord Rama’s army to rescue Sita from Lanka.

Nambavel, a 50-year-old, says there can be no other home for him than Dhanushkodi, of pristine waters and picturesque views of the Bay of Bengal. Three generations of his family have lived here. Although the deadly cyclone forced many to migrate to villages around, some 50 families, including Nambavel’s, refused to leave.

“This has been our home for as long as we’ve known. We grew up playing in the sea water, then learnt to make our living through fishing or running petty shops,” Nambavel told this visiting IANS correspondent.

Rameswaram island
Residents of Dhanushkodi refuse to abandon their small town; for them the “sea is everything”. Wikimedia

“Even as many people we know migrated to nearby villages, there’s no home like Dhanushkodi for us — the sea is everything,” he said.

With sea levels rising around the world due to global warming, the region is constantly threatened by nature. But that does not deter Nambavel: “Even if another cyclone is close, most of us would like to be here, a land we’ve grown up in.”

Surrounded by sea and sand, the town cannot grow any crops and has no provision for electricity due to the wind velocity in the area. It is only the solar panels, an initiative of late President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam who hailed from Rameswaram, that light up the shacks of the few residents.

With Rameswaram considered one of the holiest places for Hindus, a majority of visitors make temples the focus of their travels.

Aiming to showcase the rich cultural and historical heritage of the island, apart from the much-visited temples, Utsa Majumder, the General Manager of the newly-launched Hyatt Place, Rameswaram, is working extensively on various itineraries that uncover the untrodden places in and around the region.

“There’s a lot more that the Rameswaram Island can offer than just the temples it is mostly known for. We want people to know that Rameswaram can be an experiential destination and not just a pilgrimage spot,” Majumder told IANS.

“From historic places that have stood the test of time to some incredible architecture and engineering like the Pamban Bridge, there’s a lot a tourist can see here,” she added.

The hotel offers these itineraries to travelers according to their interests, allowing them to explore different facets of the region, along with menus that present the cuisines of the land — from kuzhi paniyaram (rice batter dumplings) to kara kozhumbu (a spicy tamarind gravy).

Rameswaram Island
Local cuisine at Dhanushkodi. Wikimedia

The region also celebrates its much-beloved son Abdul Kalam. His two-storeyed house on Mosque Street is filled with thousands of his books and is always bustling with people.

A Rs 15-crore memorial to India’s “Missile Man”, inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 27, has also grown rather quickly as a tourist attraction. The memorial houses a copy of the last speech Kalam delivered at IIM-Shillong on July 27, 2015, a number of pictures of his meetings with world leaders, and a host of other objects.

As an island that is yearning to receive a boost to its tourism, even a bottle of water bought from a shack in Dhanushkodi goes towards supporting a family.

FAQs:

Reaching there: Flights to Madurai, the nearest airport, from all major cities. From Madurai, Rameswaram can be reached in 3 hrs 30 min (160 kms) by road.

For the picturesque views from a train, pick one that is available almost every hour to Rameswaram from Madurai Railway Station.

Stay: There are four-star, three-star hotels and smaller lodges in the town.

Best time to visit: October to March as the temperatures drop and stay between 20 to 30 degrees C, making travel easier. (IANS)