The 73rd Amendment saw over a million women emerge out of their homes to hold public office at the grassroots level for the first time ever. Getting elected to Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), gave them a voice and the opportunity to make a difference. According to the thematic report ‘The State of Panchayats: 2007-08, An Independent Assessment, Volume 1’ by Institute of Rural Management Anand, 40 per cent of these elected women belonged to marginalised sections of the population. Of these, around 70 per cent were illiterate and most had no previous political experience. Hence, there was widespread apprehension that men would manipulate them. But, despite several such instances, the presence of such a large number of women has brought in gender equity and spelt a social and political revolution, the significance of which will take one generation to fully unfold. These elected women representatives (EWRs), whether self-motivated or encouraged by the gram sabha have ended up serving as role models for others. However, the extent of women’s empowerment varies from region to region since the panchayat works under legal frameworks that differ from state to state. Surely, an endeavour to broad base democracy on this scale is bound to have shortcomings and setbacks, and would need course correction. However, there is no taking away from the fact that there have been huge benefits, which have not been fully understood or studied, to empowerment and development through panchayati raj.
From representation to participation: Some issues
Results from the a 2008 AG Nielsen and ORG-Marg, the largest ever survey on any aspect of the panchayat, covered the gram panchayat in 23 states with a total sample size of over 20,000, including EWRs, elected male representatives (EMRs), ex-EWRs, official functionaries and members of the community. Nearly three-fourths of the EWRs in the sample belonged to the scheduled caste, scheduled tribe and OBC categories, and were evenly divided above and below the poverty line.
This nationwide survey found EWRs taking a keen interest in grassroots politics, and prioritising pressing developmental needs such as initiating work on bringing piped water to villages, building schools, crèches, community halls, popularising smokeless stoves, intervening and counselling abusive and/or alcoholic family/matrimonial matters. They were also more involved in monitoring the presence of teachers in schools and medical staff in health care facilities, and inspecting nutrition centres under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). Niraja G Jayal in her 2006 article, ‘Engendering local democracy: The impact of quotas for women in India’s panchayats’, published in Democratization, noted how women-headed panchayat was seen to dramatically increase revenues through sponsoring the auction of village ponds, community forests and village markets for the larger welfare of the community. A 2003 study by Neema Kudva ‘Towards gender equity: Policies and strategies’, published by the International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society reveals that in Karnataka, the reservation for women in PRIs has seen mixed results: it has made women more visible, decreased levels of corruption in PRIs, and increased the efficiency of women representatives. Gender quota, in her opinion, is a crucial component of strategies that seek to empower women through increased participation in the political system.
Another systematic study on the participation of women in the political sphere shows that a more equal gender representation increases policy congruence. This 2008 study by Karl-Oskar Lindgren et. al, ‘Who knows best what the people want: Women or men? A study of political representation in India,’ published in Comparative Political Studies brought out by Sage Publications, shows that women are not only better equipped to politically represent but also far better at representing than men. The results are shown to apply in highly different socioeconomic contexts.
Yet, the issue of surrogate participation of women is a popular notion that refuses to fade away. Although proxy participation does continue in highly patriarchal cultural and social settings, surrogate participation may actually mean that the man is playing a nurturing and consulting role and assisting the new woman entrant into the panchayat. Further, while surrogate participation might exist for the woman’s first elected term, we often come across situations where women have increasingly asserted themselves once confident, even winning the next election on their own.
There is, however, big difference between representation and participation. It is easier to legislate representation, but it is rather a complex and difficult task to create conditions for participation. Proper representation does not automatically lead to proper participation.
Scholars like Esther Duflo have been sceptical about reservations, and feel that political reservation does not automatically lead to good governance. However, in a 2005 paper ‘Why political reservations?’ published in the Journal of the European Economic Association, she does recognise reservation as necessary for weaker sections if elected representatives focus on the needs of the majority. Other studies, such as E Bryld’s 2001 paper on ‘Increasing participation in democratic institutions through decentralisation: Empowering women and scheduled castes and tribes through panchayat raj in rural India’, in Democratization, suggests that reservations may bring women into the panchayat but cannot really empower them due to factors like illiteracy, language barriers, inexperience or low respect commanded among fellow villagers. These problems always prevent the active participation of women in decision-making. Since many female panchayat members lack the basic capabilities of working within this system, their illiteracy, inexperience, and language barriers result in them often getting ignored by their male counterparts.
In many instances, as pointed out by Shiv Kumar Lal in his 2007 work, ‘A study of issues and challenges in empowerment of women through their participation in the panchayat raj institution: A case study of Allahabad district of Uttar Pradesh’, lack of a grievance redressal mechanism for gender related issues result in most elected women in panchayats ending up as dummies with a minor role in decision making.
M S Ramanujam and J S Sodh in their 2006 study ‘Panchayati raj system: A study in five states of India’ published in the Indian Journal of Industrial Relations have recommended a separate quorum for the attendance of women at all gram sabha meetings, in view of their neglected position in most regions of India. Mani Shankar Aiyar has gone so far as to suggest a sub-quorum of female attendance to be built into the required quorum in gram sabhas in his 2002 article ‘Panchayati raj: The way forward,’ in Economic and Political Weekly. He suggests meetings of the mahila sabha, comprising all adult women voters of the village panchayat, to precede meetings of the gram sabha, so as to ensure that gender concerns and preferences are fully reflected in the proceedings of the gram sabha.
The self-help movement has also had a far-reaching impact on the empowerment of women and several who have gained confidence through self help groups (SHGs) have stepped into the panchayat. These women are bringing their experiences into actual governance and thus making the state sensitive to issues of poverty, inequality and gender injustice. In many cases, these SHGs are working with elected women to build networks that are helping solve local problems. These networks, says Amitabh Behar et. al in their 2003 article ‘Networks of panchayat women: Civil society space for political action’ published in the Economic and Political Weekly, need to be viewed as an important step towards strengthening democracy in the country.
However, the effective participation of women in PRIs can become a reality only if the panchayat operates in a principled manner. Aureliano Fernandes in his 2003 paper ‘Aggrandiser government and local governance’, published in Economic and Political Weekly, has indicated persistent deficiencies at three levels—state, panchayati raj institutions and societal levels. For panchayati raj to fulfil its foundational tenets of empowering the community there is a need to recognise the primacy of societal good over individual or political goals. Decision making processes in the panchayat also need to be better defined to diminish the possibility of elite capture, proxy participation and single-point decision. For instance, where consensus is emphasised in decision making, the strongest voices always prevail. Thus the emphasis on consensus in decision making should be approached with caution.
The rotation of reservations in the panchayat is another contentious issue as it has been now accepted as a barrier to emergence of women’s leadership in the panchayat. If reserved seats are rotated after every five-year term there is little incentive for a member elected on a reserved seat to perform. Thus, despite increased numbers of EWRs in the panchayat, women’s empowerment demands changes in the administrative and social structure through a collaborative, multi-pronged approach.