Anita Dhangda’s victory is no ordinary one. In an atmosphere that was totally unfavourable to her, Anita won by a clear majority with the support of a cadre of activists that toiled with her day and night for the Zilla Parishad elections. What makes her victory even more special is that she fought against Vanita Jadhav, the candidate of former TADA detainee Hitendra Thakur. Her election clearly was a triumph of ballet over bullet; and proof that grassroots struggle and faith in democracy do pay! Today Anita stands amidst the Panchayat and development officers, a role model for the oppressed and poor.

It has been a remarkable journey. Few are aware that she is India’s first Zilla Parishad representative to have once been a bonded labourer. For three generations 22 members of the Dhangda family were kept as bonded labourers by Bhagwan Desai, a landlord of Mandvi village. It was for mere Rs 500 that Ramu Dhangda’s father had borrowed for his marriage that Desai kept them all bound for their lives. Besides Rs.5-10 and 22 kgs of rice a year, they were given nothing. Living in absolute poverty, they were kept indoors and disallowed from going anywhere. In 1989, the family was released from bondage; they had no money, no food to eat and unemployment was their reality, but they were free!

The struggle for getting one’s rights had already begun for Anita, but there were other difficulties ahead. She lost her father-in-law and her husband, and reponsibility for the family’s welfare fell on her shoulders. However, she had the support of Shramajeevi Sanghatana, the organization responsible for giving her family and many other bonded labourers their freedom.

"I was initially upset that [voters] had supported the more powerful people and not elected us - those who have been fighting for the rights of the poor. But I also understand it was their verdict and also the fear that most have".
"From my childhood it was imprinted in my mind that unless we fought, we’d not get our rights. I think this struggle has been the crucial factor for my success in the elections. As here too I had to fight against muscle and money power," says Anita. Contesting under the banner of Shramajeevi Sanghatana, Anita lost the Gram Panchayat elections last year to Hitendra Thakur's Vasai Vikas Samiti. However she was encouraged by Vivek and Viduylata Pandit of the Sanghatana to contest elections again this year. The fight against terror hasn’t been easy for this lady. "I was initially upset that people had supported the more powerful people and not elected us those who have been fighting for the rights of the poor. But I also understand it was their verdict and also the fear that most have. The sanghatana made me understand that we poor only need to fight for ourselves and this time we fought under the Congress banner," she states firmly.

The Sanghatana and its cadre believed that they had to begin at the village level and battle against atrocities. All the villagers and activists joined hands to keep an all night vigil in every village of the constituency. "We saw to it that our activists prevented the opposition from distributing alcohol and money, which had happened last year. This helped the villagers to overcome any sort of fear or terror that was put on them previously," says the main strategist Vivek Pandit. They did catch four presiding officers with members of Vasai Vikas Samiti, red-handed drinking alcohol three days prior to the elections, that too inside the election booth! Action is pending against the officers.

Anita’s new struggle has just begun. Her first mission is to provide drinking water to all the villages of her constituency. "We still live in mud huts with no electricity or proper drinking water. I have come to speak to the Block Development Officer and the other Gram Panchayat officers to decide on a final plan for proper distribution of drinking water. I have to learn and take actions immediately," says Anita.

Her chief supporter so far has been her mother-in-law, who is proud of Anita’s achievements. Shevanti Dhangda says, "I’m happy for her. She must do something for the family and especially her children. Someone needs to look after them as my husband and son are dead. I’m proud of her courage - she’s not the kind to get scared. She should go further." Anita's two children, a son and daughter, study in class four and three, while the mother-in-law looks after the house and the goats. They still do not have a regular income, but what they have is the determination to fight the ills and make a change for others. Anita’s words are firm as she says, "I understand the issues of my people as I too am poor and all I want is that we are treated as proper citizens like others."