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Friday, March 5, 2010

Women in panchayats: systemic hurdles to empowerment

As different organisations get ready to celebrate International Women’s Day (March 8), it is an opportune time to do a quick review of reservation of seats for women in panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). What impact has it had? Has it led to overall empowerment of rural women?

PRIs were created with the aim of decentralising governance and increasing people’s participation in the development process on an equitable and democratic basis.

It is a three-tier system that starts from the village and ends at the district level. Today, there are around 2.30 lakh village panchayats in the country, 6000 intermediate or block panchayats and 534 zilla or district panchayats.

Nearly 28 lakh persons constitute elected representatives of village panchayats; there are 1.44 lakh elected members in block panchayats and around 15,000 members in district panchayats.

Women in panchayats
At all levels, panchayats were historically male-dominated bodies.

In the first set of panchayat acts passed in the country in the 1920s, women were not even given the power to vote, let alone represent. The Bombay Village Panchayats Act, 1920, categorically stipulated that “no person may become an elected member who was a female…”

It was only in the mid-1940s, with the enactment of the Indore Gram Panchayat Act, that women got the right to vote in panchayat elections. The right was however restricted to women who were able to read and write or had immovable property.

In independent India, the question of securing representation for women in panchayats came up for consideration at the national and state levels from time to time, but the real impetus in this direction materialised only in the 1980s.

Following the lead taken by the UN in declaring 1975 as the International Women’s Year and 1976-1985 as ‘United Nations Decade for Women’, and responding to increasing articulation of women’s issues by civil society groups, policy-makers began to consciously focus on women in development. The emphasis can be seen in the Sixth and Seventh Five-Year Plans.

However, it was only in 1992, with the enactment of the Constitution (Seventy-Third Amendment) Act that PRI were truly institutionalised across India, with reservation of “not less than one-third of the seats for women”, at all three levels, in seats reserved for SC/ST groups as well as in the total number of seats, including unreserved (`general’) seats. The reservation also applies to chairpersons’ positions in panchayats in all three levels.

Accordingly, women today head around 175 district panchayats, over 2,000 block panchayats and 85,000 gram panchayats in the country. Overall, women account for around 37% of the 28 lakh-odd elected panchayat representatives in the country.

Have these apparently large numbers of women been able to make a clear and long-term impact on the functioning of panchayats and local governance? There is no definitive all-India study on the subject - the sheer numbers involved are forbidding - but we do have a number of region-specific studies and anecdotal evidence that give some indicators.

According to a 2004 study conducted by Devi Prasad and S Haranath on the participation of women in PRIs in Andhra Pradesh, reservation of seats has resulted in development of political awareness among women - it has created an urge among women to become a part of mainstream political, economic and social life. Despite many social and cultural limitations, women have proved better leaders than their male counterparts, the study observed.

Another study by Arun Chaturvedi also observed that the representation of women in PRIs in Rajasthan has enabled them to participate in the democratic process of the country. The number of women participating in gram sabhas has increased. The active role of women in these institutions has led to a situation where they have become “power sharers” and consequently they have become more confident and assertive.

Surat Singh (2004) found that in the state of Haryana, reservation has led to formal empowerment of women in panchayats and the emergence of new women’s leadership. Relatively young women have begun to replace older ones as representatives and these women have been able to participate considerably in day-to-day activities of the panchayat.

Women in Karnataka have shown that they are capable of providing leadership if they are given time, support, resources, training and freedom from men, according to a study by H M Hemalatha.

Anecdotal evidence from several media stories points to courageous women leaders facing enormous odds and even threat to life and property.

One such story is of Dhoolla Ratnam (48), member of the Srungavruksham gram panchayat, in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh who contested the panchayat elections in 2006 despite being repeatedly dissuaded and threatened by other candidates. She won the election and set out to help other women raise their voices against moneylenders, landlords and corrupt leaders.

Angered by her persistent probing into development expenditure and her efforts to expose corruption among village leaders, some people from the village decided to “teach her a lesson”. Her two kuppas (heaps of harvested paddy), stored on her leased two-acre farmland, was set on fire. When Ratnam continued her work, her house was set on fire in 2007, while she and her eight-year-old grandson slept on the verandah.

Thirty women panchayat leaders from 14 states of India who gathered in New Delhi on October 2, 2008, for the award ceremony of the Sarojini Naidu Prize instituted by the Hunger Project, identified a range of issues they have taken up and the pressing challenges they face:

  • Lata Panwar, a first-time ward member from Nahri panchayat in Sloan, Himachal Pradesh, recalled how she went door to door and told expectant mothers about the importance of the girl child and population control, despite opposition from men.
  • “Water is integral to women’s lives. We have got 10 tube wells installed and a thousand families have benefitted,” said Renu Bedia from Selenghat panchayat in Jorhat, Assam.
  • Maya Bhakuni from Chanauda panchayat in Almora, Uttarakhand, said, “I talk to men and women about the importance of natural resources for sustainability and try to stop them from cutting trees unnecessarily. Initially I faced a lot of opposition, especially from men, but after much persuasion many have stopped bringing raw wood from the forests.”
  • “We walk miles to meet the officials. Why can’t they come to our villages and lend a ear to people’s miseries?” asked Sangita Naik, president of Borda panchayat in Kalahandi, Orissa. “Grants are not enough to meet the development needs of our village. There are no concrete roads and even the benefits of Indira Awas Yojna (the public housing scheme) have not reached all.”
Systemic defects
While courageous women like Sangita, Maya and Dhoolla battle against the status quo, a proposal has been mooted to amend Article 243D of the Constitution, which currently provides for one-third reservation to women in panchayats, and increase the reservation to 50%.

Four states - Bihar, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh - already have 50% reservation for women. The government of Rajasthan has announced that 50% reservation will be implemented in the next panchayat election in early 2010.

But higher reservation for women leaders will not necessarily increase their effectiveness. Across the country, PRIs face some systemic defects, which hamper their performance, including the performance of elected women representatives:
  • Most states have not enacted rules and procedures to give panchayats functional autonomy. Panchayats function at the mercy of state governments and are usually treated as mere adjuncts of a state’s politico-administrative machinery.
  • Out of the total resources available for rural development, the central government and state governments have the lion’s share, leaving only 5-10% of the money in the hands of panchayats.
  • Governance procedures laid down for panchayats are generally complex and require a high degree of skill and literacy. Shrewd manipulators effectively get more space than semi-literate or illiterate but socially aware leaders.
  • Various developmental schemes and institutions have been initiated which directly undermine the legitimacy and role of panchayats. For example, under the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) a lot of work is done which falls under the purview of panchayats; panchayats have no formal say in the implementation. Likewise, state governments as well as CSOs are promoting special interest groups such as federations of self help groups, water users associations, Janmabhoomi groups in Andhra Pradesh and Gram Vikas Samitis in Haryana, which undermine the authority of panchayats. Unless these problems are squarely addressed, women’s role in local self governance is likely to be limited, barring stray instances of extraordinary grit and persistence.


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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