The panchayat, traditionally dominated by five influential male elders of the village, worked together to settle social disputes. Women had no role in this exercise. As the revival of the panchayati raj system gained popularity during India’s freedom struggle, so did the need for providing women a platform to share their thoughts. The recommendation came post Independence through the Balwantrai G Mehta Committee 1957, which provided a co-option of two women members.
The ‘Towards equality: Report of the committee on the status of women in India,’ chaired by P Guha, 1974, Ministry of Education and Social Welfare, evaluating the social and economic conditions of Indian women, presented a bleak picture—low literacy, low work participation, high maternal mortality rate etc.; but the Committee did not recommend seat reservation in the political sphere—they perhaps believed that women would come up as able leaders on their own. However, the Committee did recommend an all women panchayat to look after the welfare activities of women. On the other hand, the National perspective plan for women, 1988-2000; Report of the core group set up by Department of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Human Resource Development; recommended 30 per cent reservation of women at the panchayat level. It was not taken up till 1987, when the Karnataka Panchayat Act reserved 25 per cent seats for women at the zila parishad level. Finally, the historic 73rd Constitution Amendment Act of 1992 was passed.
Two decades and four terms of panchayat elections later, there is a rising level of awareness among eight million women about India’s political process (considering that four terms have seen nearly 4-5 million women in panchayat, and an equal number who have contested and lost); the unique experiment has generated social mobilisation of an unprecedented scale. One would presume that social needs at the village level would be fulfilled with such a large number of women in the public domain. Yet, India maps significant maternal and infant mortality rates; malnutrition; lack of safe drinking water; and so on. A number of contradictions continue to exist despite a million plus women grass root leaders and a number of women self help groups (SHGs) operating at the village level. It is still a fact that women and girls have dismal access to basic services linked to survival. For example, the child sex ratio in the age group of 0-6 at the all-India level has come down from 927 to 914 between 2001 and 2011(Census 2011). At least 46 per cent children below age three are malnourished (www.unicef.org/india) in spite of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and mid day meal programmes run by the government. But, certain circumstances help elected women representatives (EWRs) to perform exemplarily—and it is the purpose of the essay to examine
Structure and constraints
There are about 532 district panchayat, 5912 block panchayat and 2.3 lakh village panchayat all over India. There are three million elected representatives in all, of which 660,000 are from the SC and ST communities (Mathew George, ed., 2013, Status of panchayati raj in the states and union territories of India, Institute of Social Sciences, Concept). It is interesting to note that women are heading 175 district panchayat, 1970 block panchayat, and more than 77,000 village panchayat all over
The panchayat has been assigned the task of preparing developmental plans on agriculture, food security, sanitation, safe drinking water etc., and implementing schemes. As the panchayat has limited resource raising powers they depend on financial support extended by the central and state governments. Of the funds assigned to the panchayat under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) Rs 290 million were utilised since 2006 to pay labour alone (Annual Report, 2012-13, Ministry of Rural Development). But, apart from identifying the beneficiaries entitled for a job card, the panchayat should also decide the kind of work and location under the MGNREGS. As of now it is the prerogative of the department officials. Similarly, for sanitation, safe drinking water, food distribution, agriculture etc., the panchayat should be allowed to take an active role. Apart from construction of roads, identifying beneficiaries of Indira Awaas Yojana and getting doles for pregnant women through ASHA, precious little has percolated to ground zero.
Moreover, the funds allocated are tied to particular schemes leaving little flexibility to the panchayat to exercise discretion. This disregards the felt needs of the area, pushing a ‘one size fits all’ approach in decentralised development. Of course, there are state level variations. For example, Kerala has given 40 per cent of the total budget money to the panchayat or nagar palika to spend as per their need.
Profiling elected women
The ‘Report of a survey on National Rural Health Mission and panchayats’, 2013, by the Institute of Social Science (ISS), published in Mainstream, studied selected elected women representatives in 20 states and revealed that 55 per cent of the EWRs were in the age-group of 25-49 and nine per cent were below 20 years of age. In terms of the occupational break-up, 41 per cent of the women replied that they were householders, followed by agriculture with 27 per cent and labour with 14 per cent. As for the duration of their leadership—82 per cent were first-timers who were propped up by the family, community or political party to contest, while 13 per cent constituted the second-termers.
It was a heartening revelation that some of the women who contested the first election were also contesting subsequent panchayat elections. They were in fact found to be campaigning with the help of women groups in the area. The elected women representatives in panchayat constituted of 14.3 per cent SC and 8 per cent ST candidates (Mathew George, 2013).
Caste, class, ethnicity and patriarchy keep most women leaders shackled. Women are rarely allowed to take decisions without being titular fronts for influential men. Most first time women leaders, supported by male de-facto heads, have little role to play in the panchayat, which is further complicated by their low literacy levels. It is obvious that such members, particularly at the panchayat level were unable to prepare developmental plans. Women leaders are further alienated from the process, as gram sabha meetings are largely unattended by them. The end result is low level of knowledge related to governmental schemes and thus low distribution of benefits to stakeholders. It was seen from various micro-studies that where NGO support, active women’s collectives, well-directioned political will, as well as family support are provided, women have emerged as able leaders.
NGO supported representatives
It is interesting to note that after intensive training, the perception of self-worth changed among women leaders. Illustrations from various studies conducted by the ISS, ranged from bathing steps being constructed for facilitating use of ponds by women to women participating in the palli or ward sabha in the hope of getting widow pension and old age pension (Rayagada, Odisha), and more. Further, the awardees of women’s political empowerment day celebrations being organised by the ISS and held in April every year since 1994, showed that successful elected women representatives working with NGOs take up social issues such as domestic violence, promotion of the status of the girl child, widow remarriage etc., very vocally. A Jafri et. al 2006, in their paper ‘Gender mainstreaming in district plans in Madhya Padesh, have mapped similar results through their NGO, Samavesh, in the district of Dewas.
ISS has also evaluated the activities of a UNDP project ‘From reservation to participation: Capacity building of elected women representatives and functionaries of panchayati raj institutions’, 2003-2008, which marked an active role of women in the gram sabha as well as panchayat after being a part of women’s collectives. The project covered one district and two blocks in each of the ten states taken up. Women panchayat members, backed by SHGs, voiced women’s concerns confidently in the gram sabha meetings, working as an advocacy group to implement drinking water facilities on a priority basis, ensuring uninterrupted power supply in the panchayat, spending the panchayat’s revenue in improving the drainage system, supply of electricity, encouraging women to avail the facilities of Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) etc. Thus, when backed by women’s groups, women panchayat members become effective leaders, cutting across all caste and class barriers. A similar finding was recorded by J Devika in a 2007 study ‘Between empowerment and liberation: the Kudumshree initiative in Kerala’, published in the Indian Journal of Gender Studies. She noticed that the women in the programme not only formed women’s collective, but contested for elections at the panchayat level; many were engaged in activities such as leasing land for ensuring livelihood and working for reforestation etc., through the panchayat. They were also appointed as social auditors in case
MGNREGS has reserved 33 per cent of the total work load for women since 2005. As a result, the percentage of women workers in the southern states is more than 60 per cent (Ashok Pankaj, ed., 2012, ‘Right to work and rural India: Working of the mahatma gandhi national rural employment guarantee scheme, Sage). A 2008 study by L Beaman et. al, titled ‘Women politicians, gender bias and policy making in rural India,’ attempted to find out whether women in panchayat were really making a difference. The authors analysed data collected on the basis of reservation status of 1995-2000 for 11 major states. They concluded that villages with women leaders have more public goods, villagers are less likely to pay bribes, and there is an improvement in attendance of girl students. Villages with women sarpanch do better on two dimensions – drinking water and immunisation. Higher investment in clean drinking water could potentially lead to large improvements in children’s health (ibid.). The authors observed that women sarpanch in West Bengal invest more in the development priorities of women and children and pre-school children in Rajasthan are more likely to be immunised and attend government day care centres in villages. As per the authors’ findings, the presence of a female pradhan makes women more likely to participate in discussions during the general assemblies. Also, relative to male pradhans, female leaders were found to be more responsive to the concerns raised by female villagers; and more women were found to be attending the gram sabha meetings wherever women happened to be the head, the authors reiterated.
Women reservation in the panchayat was provided constitutionally with a view that it would create an enabling situation whereby women leaders would become decision makers. This policy is in the process of creating social mobilisation by bringing more than a million women into the public forum. However, women are unable to reach the pinnacle of success due to their socio- economic conditions; semi-literate status; and male domination within their households. In other words, most of them are ill-prepared. This issue of preparedness needs to be tackled through effective NGOs, women’s collectives, political will or positive family support. Another area of active research is increasing crime against women. The National Family Health Survey 2005-06 reported that a substantial proportion of married women have been subjected to physical and mental violence. Out of all states, women in Bihar seemed to be most abused, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal (NFHS-3: 2005-6). According to the India’s National Crime Records Bureau, published by the Ministry of Home Affairs, on an average about 125 women faced domestic violence in 2000, which increased to 160 in 2005. Scholars documenting incidence of violence against women since 1985-2007, which included the period of women’s representation in local government noticed that violence against women has increased by 44 per cent (S Ghosh, 2011, ‘Watching, Blaming, Silencing, Intervening: Exploring the role of the community in preventing domestic violence in India’, Practicing anthropology). In another study by B Ghosh et.al titled ‘Local governance: Search for new path’, Concept, opined that violence is partly due to women’s presence in the panchayat as women themselves are becoming conscious of their rights. This aspect needs further strengthening with future research.