Under a scorching summer sun, a swarm of 400 furious women engulfed the scruffy electricity office of Banda district in north India. They were all dressed identically in fluorescent pink saris. For more than a fortnight they and their families had had no electricity, plunged into darkness at dusk and stewed in sweat at dawn. But they had all been sent bills demanding payment for power they had never received.
It was at noon one day last May that the group, brandishing sticks, first surrounded and then charged into the office, punching the air and shouting slogans of solidarity. They wanted to confront the officer in charge but met instead his cowering juniors, at whom they bawled to telephone the boss. When the man refused to come to the office, the women became incensed. They snatched the office key, roughed up the terrified staff and, after herding them outside, locked the door and ran away, vowing to return the key only when they had electricity again.
Products of this cruel environment, the hundreds of pink-clad women knew that their electricity supply had been disconnected by corrupt officials to extract bribes from them to get the power switched back on. With no functioning law to fall back on, they knew also that the only way to get a power supply was to take matters into their own hands. Within an hour of their absconding with the key, the electricity was restored.
It is just one victory in a list of successes achieved by the Gulabi Gang since it formed two years ago. Gulabi means pink, and refers to the electric shade of the uniform worn by the 500-plus members, who hail from Banda's arid villages. The women have become folk heroes, winning public support for a series of Robin Hood-style operations. Their most daring exploit was to hijack trucks laden with food meant for the poor that was being taken to be sold for profit at the market by corrupt officials.