Report on

Women and Governance at the Grassroots:

Mhaska Chaska!

(Mhaskal and Changuna)


submitted by

Smt. P.N.Doshi Women’s College

NAAC Accredited ‘A’ Grade Institution


Jagdir Boda Vidya Sankul, Cama Lane

Ghatkopar – West, Mumbai – 400086

Telephone: 2513 5439





In the light of the growing indifference and apathy of citizens towards governance and the resignation and withdrawal of younger generation from any participation and ownership in social change, it becomes very imperative that some campaigns are whipped up to generate awareness. As an exercise in this direction, our college conducts several out-reach programmes. One of them is adoption of a village called Mhaskal. This village, in the outskirts of Mumbai has posed a challenge to us. Situated far away from the college, 45 kilometers, about an hour and a half by train, the physical location itself poses an intimidating threat to interested social workers. Added to this, the caste divides, the dismal sanitation or total lack of it, the poor transport links and communication facilities, it looked an insurmountable barrier. But once the project was flagged of, there was no looking back. Then it was that we met Changunabhai – the protagonist of this story. The Report records her story – it talks about the following:

a)       The critical role played by a tribal woman – Changunabhai – in the development of her village - Mhaskal

b)       The challenges faced by her

c)       The good practices she had established, the stumbling blocks she had to face in executing them and the benefits derived

d)       The interventions of the college in the scenario

e)       The focal points of our action 

f)         Lessons learnt

g)       Ideas and action plans for future

Not only does this make good reading, it has lessons for anyone to learn – the most important of it all- the one we have heard ad nauseum, yet have difficulty believing –‘Where there is a will, there is a way.’






‘Fire and Ice’ these are the words that come to your mind when you watch Changunabhai at work. She is passionate when she talks about her vision, and if you contradict her or question her, there is a cool composure that says: “I believe in what I say, and no matter what, I will stand by my belief.” This woman who looks like any other tribal woman has more than what meets the eye. Her medium height, small intense eyes, rugged hands and feet, a face that is strangely innocent though lined and laced with experience do not tell us of the trials and travails that she has taken in her stride.

Changunabhai Chandrakant Bagale is about thirty-eight, for she does not know her exact date of birth. Until recently, she was illiterate. She belongs to Katkari tribe, a scheduled tribe. One of three tribes in Maharashtra (other two being Gond and Kolam) identified by the Ministry of Welfare as a primitive tribal group, their population is concentrated in Thane and Raigad districts in Maharashtra. The Katkaris have been listed as primitive tribal groups due to very low level of literacy, stagnant population, pre-agricultural stage of existence and economic backwardness. As a community they are socially and economically on the lowest rungs of the development ladder. Most of the families are caught in a vicious circle of poverty, indebtedness and bonded labour. All able-bodied men, women and children work as bonded labour on brick kilns in far away places. Katkaris are cheated, exploited and made to work under sub-human conditions on the brick kilns. To make matters worse, the entire community is treated as a criminal tribe and often harassed by the police for no rhyme or reason. Over 90% of the families are landless and are totally dependent on wage labour for their livelihood. Government welfare programmes fail to reach the Katkaris. The exploitation by brick contractors, harassment by police and absolute negligence by government have left hardly any space or scope for the Katkaris to survive and prosper in an unequal world. The community today lives in abject poverty and desolation. Literacy rate 7 to 8 % (1% among females). Katkaris earn their living by working as landless agricultural labourers by taking fields on lease, fishing from the nearby river and working as construction labourers. Among the Katkari children who go to the govt. schools, the dropout rate is very high because of various reasons related to their specific socio-economic conditions. They are discriminated against in the schools in the name of their tribe in a constant atmosphere of dominance of the so-called mainstream culture.

The status of women in the tribal society is something very deceptive and illusory. There is the strange sense of freedom given to her to express her self and participate in local self-government and in contributing to the family’s earnings. But, there is too much of physical toil and exertion, beyond tolerable limits;  the abuse of the drunken husband or    the tribulations brought about by poverty are reasons enough for her to consider her life a drudgery. Besides all this, whether caste clashes are social, economic, or political in nature, they are premised on the same basic principle: any attempt to alter village customs or to demand land, increased wages, or political rights leads to violence and economic retaliation on the part of those most threatened by changes in the status quo. Tribal communities as a whole are summarily punished for individual transgressions; they are cut off from their land and employment during social boycotts, and women bear the brunt of physical attacks Against this backdrop, when you consider Changunabhai’s struggle to emerge as a champion of rights of women in particular and the deprived in general, it is no ordinary achievement.


An agricultural labourer from a tender age of... as far as she can remember, she married Chandrakant Bagale, when she was  hardly twelve. They have no issues and Chandrakant has moved on, married again and now has ----- children. But Changunabhai feels no bitterness about this, as this is a way of life with them. Infact, they all live together.  She has been living in Mhaskal, a tiny hamlet in Kalyan Taluka of Thane District, Maharashtra all her life and has been leading a quiet unruffled existence in a place that had no semblance of clean water, sanitation, or an environment conducive to healthy physical or mental growth. Born in an environment that hardly fosters any spirit of independent thinking in a woman, Changunabhai began to think of ways in which she can make her existence more useful and meaningful to society. Guided by her own innner self that told her that unless women take leadership there cannot be any qualitative change in the life of women, she contested the elections. The reservation policy for women and for scheduled tribes in gram panchayats came as a blessing in disguise and she was elected a panchayat member. Due to her ability for communication and polite and courteous manners, she was selected for the post of sarpanch, then reserved for scheduled tribe category, in 2001. Mhaskal follows the group panchayat system. For four villages together, there is one panchayat. For a year and a half she continued to be sarpanch. However, as misfortune would have it, the same members who elected her the sarpanch, crossed floors and dislodged her from the post as she proved to be a tough nut to crack and would not dance to their tunes. Now, she continues to be a member. She was reelected as member again in the next elections.

Our college, Smt. P.N.Doshi Women’s College, gained firsthand experience and insight into her psyche and personality when in 2002 we launched our Out-reach Programme in Mhaskal Village. We adopted this village, about 45 kilometres from Mumbai city and took up the challange of uplifting this village with about 1500 inhabitants. Situated in sylvan surroundings, the village was blessed with Nature’s bounty; but it sadly lacked leadership and direction. Steeped in ignorance, the villagers were muddled in poverty and communal inequalities. None of the government programmes to reach out to tribal peoples had reached here. Statistics show that  ONE OUT OF EVERY THREE girls in Maharashtra never goes to school. ONLY ONE PER CENT of women in the Katkari tribe in the State are literate. Yet, according to the latest census, Maharashtra holds the second position amongst major states (excluding smaller States and Union Territories) in levels of literacy with a 77.27 per cent literacy rate. Kerala heads the list with a literacy rate of 92.9 per cent. The Bal Hakk Abhiyan report outlines the discrepancy between plan allocations and actual funds made available in the annual State budget for education as well as the gap between the amounts allocated and the amounts spent. For instance, in 1998, Thane district should have built 700 classrooms. Instead only 72 were built. We decided we will step in and make a difference. Every enlightened and responsible individual and group should take up some social cause and work on it and not wait for the government to work things out. We must do our bit. So, we took this up.

When we entered the scene in 2002, the village scenario left much to be desired. It was  a far cry from the clean lively vibrant village you see today. There was a narrow, beaten footpath that was often interrupted by clear rivulets, or muddy stream or wastewater. Inside the village too there were no pucca roads. Amongst the scattered huts and houses garbage and litter was strewn all over. There was no sewage system and no wastewater disposal system in place. The poor sanitation had caused severe and frequent spread of epidemics ranging fro airborne to waterborne diseases. There was a school, but the attendance hardly reached 50%. New-born babies were usually underweight, this being no surprise due to the malnutrition of the would-be mothers. The villagers led a hand-to-mouth existence and there was the single cropping of jowar. Only one crop a year was cultivated. The rest of the year, both workforce and fields remained unused. Very few women were literate and hardly anyone knew a skill that could help her earn her livelihood.


Changunabhai worked hand-in-hand with the college initiatives. Whenever she saw eye-to eye with us she spared no stone unturned to see that the programme was a success. Whenever she differed from our perspective or failed to see the insider’s point of view she made no bones about it and clearly let us know he point of view. She would call a spade a spade and would disagree with us doggedly if she felt she was justified doing so. If she was sidelined by caste Hindus for her forthrightness, boycotted by some selfish supporters for not being the yes-woman they thought she would be, and by-passed by some arrogant members because she was illiterate, she has surprised them by becoming literate by making use of our literacy drive programme, her quick grasp of administrative details and confidence and drive that draws support of women cutting across caste divide! She is the first to take the plunge and thus is an inspiration and an example for the village women. In our Skills Imparting Drive, when we launched programmes to teach women tailoring, phenyl making, agarbatti making, candle making etc, she was the first to join the classes. This motivated many women to join the classes and they now know to make and market the products.

Pained by the slights she had to face due to illiteracy, she took great pains to see that there was a good turnout in the Jilla Parishad School. She personally visited the school almost daily and took keen interest in individual students whenever they remained absent. She was a very vocal and empathetic via-media between the students and our college. Firstly, she realized that many students perhaps would attend school regularly if only they would get more wholesome and tasty food instead of rice which was the only item they got through government aid. She requested the college to provide dal, oil and vegetables and spices to make the food more appetizing. She monitored the implementation of the mid-day meal programme and saw to it that it went on without a hitch. Secondly, she took efforts to see that the state bus service timings were suitably changed for the benefit of teachers who travelled from far to reach the school in Mhaskal. She could see that either the buses were too early or too late, and this caused considerable waste of time or stress to the teachers. She never took the State Bus machinery as a given that cannot be changed unlike many who tried to discourage and dissuade her or even laughed at her so-called wishful thinking! She achieved this because she had positive thinking and give-it-a-try-come-what-may attitude. She observed that the village children performed poorly in Mathematics and English and persuaded us to arrange for teachers for these subjects. Now, after class hours, everyday children get special coaching in these two subjects. The school did not have a compound wall and this led to stray animals and even human beings misusing the premises when the school remained vacant on holidays and at nights. When the teachers from our college offered to donate the money to buy the needed material, she mustered enough labour from the village community to build the wall and this was done in just a week! Thus, she could understand the pulse of the people, the local needs and our limitations. Her sensitivity helped us activate a social change that could transform the face of the village in two decades.  

She was instrumental in bringing about a change in the mindset of people regarding their farming habits. The village had water shortage in spite of copious rainfall. Our NSS volunteers were ready to train them in water conservation, soak pit management and alternate cropping, but,“ what would these chicks from concrete cities know to teach us?” was the cynical response of the villagers. Changunabhai met them regularly to work on their mindsets and this facilitated our efforts to reach out to them and make a meaningful contribution to their economy. Now, after fruitful session with our NSS teams, the villagers are into multiple cropping and about sixty acres of land are always under cyclic cropping. Needless to say, many farmers have now started laughing all the way to the banks, even if it is for small savings accounts!


Changunabhai drove home the fact that whatever skills we impart should integrate with the culture and ecosystem of the villages. She said that poultry and dairy farming could be training options that would be eagerly lapped up by the village women. Sure enough,  these programmes are going great guns. She also engendered the idea of providing loans for buying goats and buffaloes to village women. She, with the inside knowledge of a local woman and insight of an administrator would tell us among the applicants who genuinely needed the loan and who didn’t. She would also promptly tell us information regarding who amongst the needy was likely to pay back the loan and who wouldn’t!  Her compassion and candidness are again qualities that mark her as a leader par excellence!

The college wanted to impinge on the villagers the futility of destroying forests for fuel and wanted to give them alternate fuel. Hindustan Petroleum magnanimously extended support to this programme. So we could start a community kitchen. The villagers were provided with gas cylinders and stoves at a common place and they could cook on a payment of Rs. 6 per hour. Changunabhai popularized this idea and persuaded even people from other padas (Areas) to use this facility. The villagers found this a useful and convenient option. They could save the time they spent on collecting firewood and they had smoke free environment too.

Changunabhai initiated the Total Sanitation Campaign (Sampurna Gram Swachata Abhiyan). The village has snow secured Second Prize in Kalyan Taluka for Sanitation. She has made the villagers understand the need for toilets and now 45 common toilets are already constructed. She has also put in place systems by which water bills are paid in time so that there is regular assured water supply. 

 Changunabhai was very proactive in implementing some welfare measures for expectant mothers. Prompted by her suggestions, the college ensured a good supply of nutritious food for pregnant women, which in turn would ensure healthy babies, organized regular checkups of pregnant women in the village, and health and hygiene workshops.

The college could also moot and organize self-help groups due to the support of Changunabhai. Now there are may self-help groups that take up several issues on their own and find solutions.

 Our college project in Mhaskal had these focal points:

a)      Recognize that women are the primary providers of the basic household needs and they are affected the most by adequacy and accessibility of resources like water, sanitation, cooking fuel and domestic lighting.

b)      Low access to or shortage of water means women will have to walk longer to fetch water. While rich households can hire people (mostly men) to fetch water providing relief to their womenfolk, women from poorer households cannot afford such luxuries and will be subject to severe hardships.

c)      The absence of household latrines has a gendered impact, in that women are constrained to perform their ablutions at prescribed times which might affect their health adversely. Possessing individual/group latrines, specially for the sake of privacy and convenience (for women) is important. Perceived impacts are: time savings, drudgery reduction, intra-village harmnony, reduction in diseases and related medical expenses, and health improvements

d)      The type of fuel used and the cooking instruments (which vary from one household to the other) too have a direct bearing on women's health. Access to a resource without control will impact negatively on women, specially those belonging to poor and SC households, more than men.

e)  The project, thus, recognizes that its success largely depends upon women's access, adequacy and control over resources which, in turn, depends upon how well intra- and inter-gender issues are identified and addressed.

Interactions with Changunabhai have been a learning experience:

a)      The potential that lies hidden in village women is like tinder that with a whiff of fresh air could snap up into a flame! To harness that potential any outside body needs to win over the confidence of the villagers, and understand and accept the ethos of the place.

b)      Participation of women in social activity is a necessity. Women are realistic, precise, efficient and cost-aware in their focus. It is not enough to include women in governance, but it is vital that we help them take up leadership roles. As leaders women exhibit foresight, determination, courage and flexibility.  

c)      It is not possible to stand outside a pool and teach swimming. One needs to jump into the waters to feel if it is cool, trepid or hot, if the current is mild or swift, and if the waters or deep or shallow. Only then can one understand the possibilities and problems for the learner. Similarly, one needs to work with the villagers, be with them in body and spirit for a while to understand their needs and give them satisfactory services.

d)      Life skills should be taught to villagers to make them self-reliant. Capability building measures should be scaled up and several skills could be imparted.


There are several new initiatives and policy decisions that could bring about a revolutionary change in the role of women in the governance of the village:

a)      Initiate programmes to work on the mindsets of men and make them realize that women in leadership positions are not threats to their status and power but complements to their role and position

b)      Create Mahila Sabhas that will have judicial and legislative powers like Gram Sabha *

c)      Inculcate a sense of ownership and responsibility among user groups and thus enable sustainability of investments by encouraging community’s participation in all spheres planning, construction and operation and maintenance, community contribution to capital cost and organisation and management through self-management  and meeting the expenditures exclusively through user charges

d)      Foster inclusion, equity, women and greater community control over decisions and resource allocations

e)      Hold consultations with a variety of stake holders – village community, women, SC, STs, OBCs, NGOs, government functionaries, political leaders, people’s representatives and the media

f)        Addressing gender issues to ensure accessibility, adequacy and control of resources for women

Mahila Sabhas should have the liberty to decide if they want to be involved in / participate, or otherwise, in a particular project; community mobilization; planning including the choice of technology; constructing including tendering, supervision and making payments; and operating and maintaining any particular project. This may be decided on the basis of the relevance or urgency of the project to women

Very often, a situation brings out the heroes and heroines amongst us. This project at Mhaskal  made us realise,  to quote Thomas Gray,

‘Full many a gem of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness in the desert air ‘

This report is just an effort to see that this does not happen with Changunabhai.