The reservation of not less than one third in the panchayat structure including positions reserved for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (SC/ST), was constitutionally mandated for women in all parts of the country. This provided the potential for women leadership across the caste-class barriers.
The beginning of 21st century has seen states enhancing reservation to 50 per cent—with fifteen states, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar (first to do so), Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tripura, Uttarakhand and West Bengal offering this larger platform. At present India has about 1.36 million women members in the panchayat who constitute 42.3 per cent of the total elected representatives (Strengthening of panchayats in India: Comparing devolution across states, 2012-13; The Indian Institute of Public Administration).
While the political entry of women was evolving in the panchayat and urban local bodies, another development was taking place partly with the effort of government, but mostly with the initiative of civil society groups. Self-help groups (SHGs) comprising of women from the socio economically weaker sections were being formed and nurtured mainly in rural areas that gave them an opportunity to save and access micro credit options. The government programmes of poverty alleviation contributed further to this process. National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) added their SHG-bank linkage programme in 1992, which is a major part of the micro-finance market outreach today with 56.6 million clients out of a total of 83.4 million benefitting from this programme (Microfinance India: State of the sector report, 2012, ACCESS development services). The anti-poverty strategy also included a major programme of self-employment with support of bank credit and subsidy. The focus on women in the first self-employment programme of the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) of 1980 was further strengthened by a separate sub-programme of Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA). This was later restructured in 1999 as Swarnajayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY) to cover all aspects of self-employment of the rural poor; to be a holistic programme for micro enterprises development; and, to organise rural poor into SHGs. The role of the panchayat in these programmes was to identify below poverty line (BPL) beneficiaries to make them eligible for bank credit and government subsidy for their micro enterprises in primary, secondary and tertiary sectors.
The programme has now been re-structured and re-designed as Aajeevika – National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) launched in June 2011, aiming to create an effective institutional platform for rural poor to enable them to increase household income through livelihood enhancement and improved access to financial services. This programme seeks to cover 7 crore rural households, 600 districts, 6000 blocks, 2.5 lakh gram panchayat and 6 lakh villages in the country through self-managed SHGs and federated institutions. The programme is substantially focused on women collectives.
The involvement of the panchayat in the above process is however minimal, limited to only selection of BPL beneficiaries. The remaining process of SHG formation, access to bank credit and taking up economic activities is done by government functionaries. The NRLM approach structures a mutually beneficial working relationship between the panchayat and BPL SHGs, but it cautions that autonomy of such SHGs is not to be compromised. The panchayat is to be actively involved in identification and mobilisation of BPL households in affinity based SHGs, facilitating federations of SHGs and providing basic facilities for their effective functioning, giving priority to the demand of the SHGs in their annual plans and making suitable financial allocations and coordinating with other departments or agencies. But the NRLM does not envisage any special role for women panchayat leaders, important from a gender perspective. Also with a strong political will to support women leaders in the panchayat and their capacity building on one side and the SHG movement on the other, there has been a tendency of both groups to consider their institutional structure as the most effective and their members as the most active women leaders.
When women entered the election process at the panchayat level, those who were active SHG members were natural candidates as they had visibility in the local society. There is no supporting data, but entry of women members into politics was more perceptible in the southern states where SHG movement was well developed. But, it may also be noted that the women’s candidature was also affected by community and family members, who often did not want to promote articulate, active women in an effort to maintain their domination. Women leaders in the panchayat and local collectives of SHGs are strong tools for women to work together. It needs to be supported as a policy not only at the national level but also at the state and sub-state levels. There are successful examples of women who made their entry in the public sphere through an SHG, such as the Kudumshree groups in Kerala, and then moved to the panchayat. The combination of economic empowerment of women through SHGs, both as individuals and as groups, and political and social empowerment through the institutions of local self-government can change the face of rural India.
If we look at the question of empowerment, women panchayat leaders have an important role to play in economic institutions of SHGs which work for access to micro credit. Access to resources and power to exercise a choice is critical for empowerment. Micro finance is one such resource while women leaders are the second powerful resource that drive inclusive rural governance and access to development programmes with desired focus on gender and social justice. It is expected that elected women in the panchayat will make a significant contribution to models of gendered governance with equity, social justice and efficient delivery of public goods and services. They are expected to enhance levels of attention to gender concerns and meet women’s practical as well as strategic needs.
Early studies of women in panchayat had focused on the impact on women’s self confidence in performing their role especially in the context of comments on their namesake membership and interference of male kin. Some recent studies have explored the impact of women’s entry in rural governance and in delivery of public goods and services and present a mixed picture. Thus R Chattopadhyay et. al, 2004 in their paper ‘Women as policy makers: Evidence from a randomised policy experiment in India’, published in Econometrica, found women leaders investing more in goods where women had expressed a preference. L Beaman et. al, 2010-11, in their paper ‘Political reservation and substantive representation: Evidence from Indian village councils,’ NCAER: India Policy Forum, confirmed female leaders in rural India delivered more drinking water infrastructure, better sanitation and roads than their male counterparts. However women in the panchayat, as in some other institutions, continue to face constraints arising from patriarchal and institutional factors.
Women leaders in the panchayat, especially at the village level, must institutionally and collectively work for increasing access of women to micro finance for family needs and for starting and expanding their micro enterprises. A forum of a village development committee can be set up with participation of women panchayat leaders and representatives of SHGs to develop livelihood and required micro credit plans and actively seek support of micro finance institutions and banks for funds. The committee should also work to inculcate responsible borrower practices and also help in removing constraints and difficulties.