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Buyu Piira, the oldest Gaon Burhi of Hong Basti in Ziro Valley, Lower Subansiri district
Buyu Piira, the oldest Gaon Burhi of Hong Basti in Ziro Valley, Lower Subansiri district|EastMojo image
IN-DEPTH

Arunachal Pradesh’s ‘Gaon Burhis’: Under-represented, underpaid

Women village heads are working shoulder to shoulder with their male counterpart to help fellow villagers; however, they are not getting the respect they deserve

Makepeace Sitlhou

Ziro Valley: If anyone is following ‘Dream Girl’ Hema Malini with a sickle posing with farmers in her constituency in Mathura, we know election season is here and, with it, political posturing.

In Arunachal Pradesh, which is set to go for polls for state and general elections on April 11, political leaders have been rubbing shoulders with Gaon Burhas (GB) in the state. Easily identified by their ‘red coats’, GBs are assistants to the district deputy commissioners who handle matters of family and inter-clan disputes (primarily over land) at the village level.

In February, chief minister Pema Khandu announced a Rs 500 hike in the monthly honorarium for Gaon Burahs and Burhis (their women counterpart) and more involvement in matters of development in the district. He was recently seen inaugurating an office cum guest house for GBs at Dobam village, Karsingsa, for which the government had allotted Rs 45.74 lakh in the planning budget last year.

Apart from mandating an office-cum-guest house in every district, he announced that all GBs would be insured under the Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Bima Yojana for death benefits. In November last year, he had distributed TV sets to 29 GBs in Seru village.

While Tana Yaga, a Nyishi Gaon Burhi of Dolikoto colony in Banderdewa near the Assam border, is grateful for the TV sets they received, she said they are woefully in need of infrastructural support. “At least the government can provide us an office with a desk and chair. We have to do a lot of administrative work like signing documents apart from solving disputes”, she told EastMojo.

With a monthly honorarium of Rs 1,000, Yaga barely manages as the sole breadwinner of her household looking after her unemployed son along with his wife and three kids. Unlike the GBs in neighbouring Assam, who she claims receive about Rs 9,000 per month, they are extremely overworked and underpaid. “We have to get our own name badges made. The only thing we get on time are the red coats,” she said. Instead of an honourarium, a monthly salary would be more fair for the labour we put in, Yana added.

“We attend to people who are sick or those in need of one or the other government documents like ration cards, etc,” she said. Referring to the practice of bribery in Assam, she said, “GBs are paid for signing PRC, Scheduled Tribe certificates, birth certificates or land deeds. We do all this for free.”

As government agents, GBs are barred from campaigning for any candidate and are expected to observe a neutral position on any of the political parties. However, after speaking to the Gaon Burhis, it is clear that personal recommendations from them can sway votes, not to mention that tribal pockets have traditionally voted as a clan or even a village.

“Some of the GBs might individually suggest but they won’t be seen openly campaigning since they are not allowed to,” Buyu Piira, the oldest Gaon Burhi of Hong Basti in Ziro Valley, Lower Subansari district, told EastMojo.

Who are the Gaon Burhas/Burhis?

Last year, the Arunachal Pradesh state assembly retired the ‘Anchal Samiti’, the intermediary level of the three-tier panchayat system and instituted a simpler two-tier system for ease of development and more funds. While Gaon Burhas and Burhis are not elected members of the panchayat, they are chosen by the deputy commissioners from a list of names nominated by the village council.

Although it bears some resemblance to the traditional tribal system of village chieftains, and may have certainly been inspired by this native role of leadership, the position was created to act as government lackeys. The order for Gaon Burhas’ appointment as local emissaries first came in 1945 under the North East Frontier Agency administration of British Assistant Political Officer and Special Officer for the then Subansari Frontier Division.

As per government data from January 2017, the state has a total of 2,467 GBs. However, there’s no centralised record of male and female, although figures quoted by the CM recently pegged it at 1,342 Head GBs and 8,024 GBs. Each district has a varied number of GBs from 748 in Aalo, West Siang to just 96 in Anini, Dibang valley.

Tache Lombi, general secretary of the Gaon Burha Association in Itanagar who has been collating the GB data in all the districts, estimated 205 Gaon Burhis in the entire state of which 20 are Head Gaon Burhis.

Lombi told EastMojo that the government is still in the process of updating the 2017 data. “Many of the district deputy commissioners haven’t submitted the list of GBs under their administration,” he said. One of the reasons, Lombi said, for the huge gap in the data and the figures quoted by the CM possibly is the rampant appointment of GBs by MLAs.

“In this election year, more than 1,000 GBs have been appointed, many of whom are ad hoc and haven’t even received a certificate from the administration.” Ironically, he added, the astronomical number of GBs has been cited as a reason by the government for their failure in increasing their monthly honorarium.

GBs are chosen on the basis of their inter-personal skills of decision-making, fairness and wisdom. Traditionally, tribal village chieftainship across the region has followed a hereditary system as it did here even with the Gaon Burhas. While they largely adjudicate on land disputes and family conflicts, quite often, criminal cases are first brought to their notice.

With the appointments becoming politically incentivised now, the corrupt system has lumped a lot of inefficient GBs on to innocent village folk. Yaga says that unlike Assam, where there’s a GB representative for a village of 5,000 residents, Arunachal Pradesh has a GB in every street, many of whom are ad hoc. One such Gaon Burhi in Papum Pare district that EastMojo reached out to declined for an interview for this reason.

“Politicians have used the GB post as a bait to get support during elections. Many of these GBs do not know how to make an inquiry or resolve land disputes. They are spoiling our name,” she said.

Gender gap and discrimination prevails

The female counterpart followed only in 1993, Ronnie Nido discovered while researching a paper on Gaon Burhis in the Nyishi tribal belt for the Zubaan-Sasakawa fellowship for young researchers in the Northeast.

Nido said that a big movement towards the inclusion of women in such roles that coincided with the push from Indian National Congress for greater representation of women in governance ushered in the government directive. “The GBs told me that they convinced the Gaon Burhas using the growing number of cases related to women’s issues as bait, many of which were pending unresolved at the time,” she said.

In Ziro valley, the government appointed Gaon Burhas to help broker a peace accord between the warring Nyishis and Apatanis, according to Piira. Both tribes are among 26 major tribes (and 100-odd sub tribes) in the state although Nyishis are visibly in greater majority and hold dominance over all other tribes.

“Men were initially reluctant to bring women into the fold, rigid as they were in the conservative role and place of a woman in ‘domestic bliss,” she told EastMojo. But after a government order was passed, she recalled, they had to cede space to women. Dr. Jumyir Basar Anyi, who teaches Anthropology at Rajiv Gandhi University, told EastMojo that until the first formal directive was passed in the year 2000, the 1945 regulation was followed.

Expectedly, the first set of Gaon Burhis was not taken seriously enough. “At first, people questioned the very definition and role of a Gaon Burhi,” said Narang Yamyag, another Gaon Burhi in Hong Basti. “In the early days, the men would ask us to make tea while they sat and discussed important matters in the GB meetings.”

It took the DC’s intervention three years ago to instill confidence among the women to participate equally in the meetings. “Acche se gaali diya tha mard logon ko. Tab se humne saa (chai) banana band kar diya,” she said.

Narang Yamyag, who has been the Gaon Burhi of Hong Basti since 2008
Narang Yamyag, who has been the Gaon Burhi of Hong Basti since 2008
EastMojo image

Also, with the increase in the number of Gaon Burhis, Yamyag says, the male folk have started treating women with the same dignity and respect on all official matters. “Now we even sign on BPL card applications and equally attend to cases of dispute here. But some men still talk.”

While there were a few women who preceded Piira, the number of Gaon Burhis have only swelled in her time with as many as 20 appointed in her village. However, the ratio to Gaon Burhas, she said, remains unmatched even today although she could not specify the exact figure of Gaon Burhas.

Yaga agrees that Gaon Burhas continue to think of women in a lesser role. “We had appealed the DC here that if a Gaon Burha is the president then a Gaon Burhi should be made general secretary. However, our women are still not ready to openly come out and demand their rights,” she told EastMojo.

Although GBs are vastly different from village chieftainship, in many cases, the role gets passed down from the premature demise of a GB to his wife until the male heir comes of age. Yaga said that’s how she came into the job after her husband, the Gaon Burha, passed away in 2003.

“The GBs still follow the kinship system. However, my appointment came because of my own credentials as someone who has worked for the welfare of people especially on boundary disputes with Assam,” she said.

Despite a higher female voter turnout in the state, only 11 women candidates contesting for assembly seats and a lone female candidate for the West constituency are in the fray this time – a clear sign that women representation in politics is yet to see a marked improvement in the state.

In this scenario, the reality in the grassroots would reflect if a bottom-up approach might be more favourable for the patriarchal society in Arunachal. In the absence of clear data on the ratio of Gaon Burhis to Gaon Burhas and the lack of awareness among local journalists on the former, the picture is far from reassuring.

Piira, however, said she has seen a massive jump in the representation of women in local governance at the GB level and the panchayati system since she became Gaon Burhi. “The number of women at the Anchal level has definitely increased. In the future, I see more women at the Zilla parishad, even a female MLA,” she said. “Today, women are equally at power with men.”

Buyu Piira, the oldest Gaon Burhi of Hong Basti in Ziro Valley, Lower Subansiri district
Buyu Piira, the oldest Gaon Burhi of Hong Basti in Ziro Valley, Lower Subansiri district
EastMojo image

A clear tilt towards Modi/BJP

A visit to the homes of Gaon Burhas and Burhis revealed a shiny new TV set sitting in their living room, courtesy Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He doled out a TV set for all the GBs on the occasion of the launch of Arunprabha, the 24-hour Doordarshan channel as a part of Prasar Bharati’s broadcasting infrastructure and network development. Moreover, other SOPs and Modi’s welfare schemes like Ujjwala and toilets built under Swacch Bharat resonated deeply with the GBs who EastMojo spoke to.

“Modi gave us TV sets but also (Kiren) Rijiju really helped us out with money and materials when our houses were burnt down last year,” said Piira. Many of the Apatani homes are traditionally built with bamboo stilts, which are prone to fire given that tribal hearths are still reliant on firewood for cooking.

In Ziro constituency, under which her village falls, people have never re-elected a sitting member to the legislative assembly. Piira thought that this pattern ought to change this time for the sake of sustainable development in the valley. Tage Taki, a government engineer-turned-politician with the BJP who was elected from this seat in 2014, should be given a second chance, she said.

“He has fulfilled most of the points from his 2014 manifesto and has initiated a lot of necessary development projects for which he deserves a second term to complete the work,” she told EastMojo.

Even where welfare schemes have fallen short of funding to the beneficiaries, the impact has still been positive especially when compared to the previous apathetic Congress government. Moreover, development has suffered under an unstable government that shifted from elected Congress followed by defections to the People’s Party of Arunachal and eventually, a BJP government in 2017.

In Yaga’s basti, government schemes on housing, toilet construction and free gas connections have certainly won over the 500-odd residents in her administration. She said that residents here, including her, had to spend close to Rs 2 lakh to build a toilet under the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan. “We only got one fourth of the money to rebuild our house and construct a toilet (prior to which they used a makeshift squatter). We are yet to receive the remainder of the sum,” she told EastMojo.

Tana Yaga, Gaon Burhi of Dolikoto Colony in Banderdewa near the Assam border, with her daughter-in-law. She received the TV set when PM Narendra Modi came to town in February
Tana Yaga, Gaon Burhi of Dolikoto Colony in Banderdewa near the Assam border, with her daughter-in-law. She received the TV set when PM Narendra Modi came to town in February
EastMojo image

The sense of gratitude towards Pema Khandu was absolute among the GBs and the inauguration of an office cum guest house has been a longstanding demand, said Lombi. While GBs are entitled to a yearly increment, they’ve always had to fight tooth and nail for it.

“A hike of Rs 500 is the maximum that we have seen since we mostly get an increment of Rs 100 on an average. We are extremely grateful to both Pema Khandu and Modiji,” Lombi added.

(Makepeace Sitlhou is a journalist based in Guwahati. She can be reached at makepeace.sitlhou@gmail.com)