Indian women are voting more than ever before. In many states, their turnout is now higher than that of men. But political discussions in the country rarely feature women – even in the media.

What are women thinking on the eve of the 2019 election?

Aarefa Johari and Nayantara Narayanan travel to find out in Half the Vote, a series that brings you the stories and perspectives of women – only women – on life and politics.

The closest bus stop to Kodakarai, an Adivasi cluster in Tamil Nadu’s Krishnagiri district, is 33 km away in the town of Denkanikottai. Kodakarai lies deep inside the Aiyur Forest Reserve. A metalled road runs all the way up a winding hill to the village but there is no traffic.

Nearly 500 families live in Kodakarai – most of them Irulars, who are categorised as a Scheduled Tribe, and a few Lingayats. The state forest department has arranged a bus for the village that can take about 40 people. It leaves for Denkanikottai at 9 am every morning and returns at 4 pm. If the residents miss the bus they have to walk to the town, sometimes trekking through the forest. It takes an hour to drive between the village and the town and about seven hours to cover the distance on foot.

“If no government has been able to provide a regular bus service to our village, how can we have faith in any government?” asked M Rajamma, 37, an anganwadi helper in the village.

The lack of access affects almost everything in Kodakarai, particularly women’s mobility. The women rarely go out of the village – Rajamma estimates about once a month – and then only for a wedding or a visit to the hospital. As Rajamma spoke, a girl of about five started crying. She had been scalded by hot water four days earlier. Her mother had applied a traditional medicine on the girl’s burned shoulder and she would take her to hospital only if it became absolutely necessary.

Rajamma said the anganwadi teacher comes to the village three days a week instead of five. “She has to come all the way from Anchetty,” she added. Anchetty is closer to Kodakarai as the crow flies but the road only goes through Denkanikottai and the trip takes an hour and a half.

Ranjitha, the village health nurse, also lives in Anchetty. “I am supposed to come three times a month but there are no buses here,” she said, examining pregnant women and giving them folic acid tablets. “Only when tribal department officials or some government vehicle comes here can I come,” she continued. “It is difficult as a woman to travel here alone.”

More importantly for Rajamma, the lack of connectivity affects the prospects of her daughters.

Value of education

Rajamma has two daughters and four sons. She herself studied only till Class 5. “Back then, we did not know the value of an education,” she said. “My father himself did not study. I thought if he didn’t study, what will I study and do.”

The Irulars have traditionally depended on the forest for sustenance and even now rely on collecting seasonal forest produce such as tamarind, gooseberry, honey, and shikakai. This produce sells in nearby towns for Rs 20 to Rs 50 per kg, Rajamma said.

She and her husband Muniraju also grow ragi on a one-acre plot of land jointly with Muniraju’s brothers. The village also relies on income from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which gives them 100 days of work per year.

“We only recently realised the value of education,” said Rajamma. “We see other people who have studied and make better lives, they get better facilities from the government. If my son or daughter studies, if they get a government job then our lives will be better.”

The school in Kodakarai is only till Class 8. Children who want to continue studying must go to a nearby town.

Rajamma’s oldest daughter studied only till Class 5. Her second daughter is now in Class 11 at a government school in Thally town, 50 km away. She stays in the school hostel, a facility Rajamma is thankful for.

“If we have to send our daughters to town to study further, the government is responsible for their safety,” she said. “The government has to provide a place for them to stay, it needs to make sure someone looks after them while they stay away from home. If the government does not provide these protections our daughters cannot go study.”

Rajamma with her four-year-old granddaughter who will start school this year. Photo credit: Nayantara Narayanan

Rajamma is disappointed that none of her children are particularly interested in studying. “They are all a waste,” she exclaimed. “They don’t attend school properly. They just sit at home.”

Rajamma is the only person in the village who gets a government salary of Rs 5,000. She lowers her voice when she talks about it. She has not told anyone else how much she earns for working as an anganwadi helper for fear her friends will start to resent her.

She works at the anganwadi from 9 am to 4 pm. She is supposed to take care of 50 children but said only about 25 to 30 turn up on a given day. She picks each child up from home and brings them to the anganwadi, where she keeps an eye on them while cooking their afternoon meal and then serving it.

Still voting for Amma

On April 12, a week before Tamil Nadu was scheduled to vote, Rajamma said she did not know when the election was. Nor did she know the candidates for the Krishnagiri constituency. “No one from any party has come to canvas for votes so far,” she said. “They came before the last election.”

As in several parts of rural India, Kodakarai collectively decides who to vote for. The men said the meeting where the decision would be taken was scheduled for the next day. The women did not know when the meeting would be held.

Rajamma, though, is not relying on the village’s collective decision. “I will vote for whoever does good work for us Irulars,” she said. “A lot of people will come and tell us they will build better houses and a proper school. They take our votes and then don’t do anything.”

The state government built homes for nearly half of the villagers some 15 years ago. Rajamma is angry that the roofs of their houses are now collapsing. “No one can stay indoors when it rains,” she said. “We keep complaining but no one comes to repair the damage. Only if a roof collapses and someone dies here will they come.”

Irular women of Kodakarai village, Tamil Nadu. Photo credit: Nayantara Narayanan

The only politician who has ever captured Rajamma’s imagination as a champion of women remains J Jayalalithaa, the former chief minister who died in December 2016.

“If there is anyone who has helped us, it was Jayalalithaa,” she said. “She is the only one who did what she said she would do.”

Starting 1992, Jayalalithaa held the chief minister’s office six times and in each term introduced welfare schemes specifically for women – the Cradle Baby scheme, free mixer grinders, pension for widows, financial maternity assistance and a free baby care kit for new mothers. As has reported, women in Tamil Nadu have been upset with the All India Anna Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam government for neglecting the welfare schemes Jayalalithaa launched.

Rajamma’s daughter has benefited from the maternity assistance scheme once. She is pregnant again and expects to receive Rs 18,000 when she delivers her child.

“When I had my children, there was nothing,” said Rajamma, highlighting the difference the programme has made. “We would not even go near a doctor.”

Rajamma also credits Jayalalithaa for the work the Irulars get under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, even though it is a central programme launched by the Manmohan Singh government.

She said she will vote for whoever promises to take Jayalalithaa’s work forward. She is not convinced Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami is the person for the job. “I have my doubts about him. Will he do anything?” she said.

Referring to the Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, she continued: “Even if someone from Karunanidhi’s party comes and says they will do the kind of work Amma promised, then I will vote for them.”

Read more in the series:

A weaver in Telangana who will vote for the first time says that no government has helped her family

A businesswoman in Mumbai wants Modi back because he is a ‘powerful person’

A Telangana farmer wants to protect her land, but will vote for the party her village picks

This shop owner in Hyderabad is voting for BJP – even though her business has fallen

A Muslim woman in Godhra says she’s proud that a man from her state is prime minister

A Bengaluru garment worker says politicians ignore the sector since it employs women