Hem Kumari from Assam, India.

"Panchayats could be more vibrant with a little more support from the bureaucracy as well as from the legislative assembly. The latter needs to devolve more powers, functionaries and funds to panchayats, and the bureaucracy need to reform its lengthy procedures."

Hem Kumari is a woman with a mission. After devoting 14 years to setting up and running a school in a small river island - Bhakat Sapori, Golaghat district, Assam for tribal children from the Mishing community, she decided to take the opportunity of the reservation for women in panchayats and contest the elections for the post of President. Her social commitments ensured her a seat, and she took up her new responsibilities as Panchayat President, Rajabari Panchayat as a challenge in the year 2001. She has an impressive list of achievements to her credit, these past two and a half years. From building much needed toilets and homes, she built a daily market place and three sports fields. Hem Kumari's achievements include:

- Three sports grounds
- Twenty five toilets
- One daily market
- Houses for 198 poor families
- Old age pension to 67 persons
- Grants to widows
- LPG (bottled gas) stoves to 27 families

What is especially remarkable is that Hem Kumari has been able to ensure that the control of and revenue from public assets like markets, fish ponds and stone quarries is in the hands of the panchayat. She has also put up a gate for collection of toll tax, as well as made plans to collect other kinds of taxes from people - like business people, market place, etc. This ensures a considerable source of revenue to the panchayat with which to undertake development funds.

The panchayat members meet regularly - twice a week - discuss panchayat matters, and diligently keep records and attendance. In February every year, the Panchayat meets to draw up an annual plan. Once the plan receives approval, they focus on implementation for the rest of the year. For the year 2004 - 05, the Rajabari Gaon Panchayat has a budget of Rs.8 lakhs (80,000 rupees, equaling roughly US$1,500) and it has already received Rs. 4.75 lakhs as the first installment. The panchayat has a supervisory committee with ward members for different activities. Needless to say, Gram Sabha participation is the highest in the area. People feel they have a say in the development process and the Panchayat is result oriented.

To create a new life and community for people displaced by floods and land erosion, Hem Kumari took on the challenge of resettling them in a way that they retain their sense of community and ties to each other and the land. Apart from much needed physical infrastructure like roads, bridge and electricity, she also helped them set up a Namghar (a spiritual and community center) as well as a functional anganwadi. She was instrumental in setting up a women's self-help group and a Mothers Forum. Hem Kumari also organized training in weaving for women, as well as helped them access yarn for this.

Her Vision is to build a Panchayat that is self-sufficient and does not depend on "government funds".

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