14,53,973 Women Representatives Elected In Panchayats; But Who’s Really In Charge?

by | Mar 22, 2022

After India gained independence, Gandhi observed, As long as women of India do not take part in public life there can be no salvation for the country; the dream of decentralization could never be fulfilled. I would have no use for the kind of Swaraj to which such women have not made their full contribution”. Gender inequality is one of the serious issues that currently plague our country. In recognition of its detrimental effects, both the Centre and State governments along with NGOs have been making an effort towards empowering women and strengthening their economic, social and political status.

The twin constitutional processes that have contributed to bringing women into the political fold have been the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts. The Act has mandated a third of all seats be reserved for women. According to the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, 20 states have increased this reservation to 50%. Currently, there are a total of 14,53,973 elected women representatives in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI), which amounts to nearly 45% of the total number of seats. Increasingly, women are being elected to general seats as well. This number dwindles when we look at Lok Sabha where the total elected women representatives are 14.4% and 9% in State Assemblies.

India will have completed almost 3 decades of the 73rd Amendment next year. This Act has borne mixed results. Its merit lies in the impetus to decentralize governance and enhance rural participation in decision-making. However, its glaring shortcoming is that although it gave reservation to women and marginalized communities, it made them mere representatives, without really empowering them. Male relatives of these women representatives often take power away from them, taking advantage of her position in the reservation regime.

This video by Khabar Lahariya from Faizabad, UP humorously showcases the hijacking of women’s roles by the male members of their families. Apart from patriarchy, factors such as casteism, poverty and illiteracy also hamper the performance of women in these institutions.

Is Women’s Political Participation An End To Itself?

Not yet, it seems. A Planning Commission study found that as a result, only a few women representatives had become PRI members out of their own interest and self-motivation. While the reason for becoming a PRI member for a large segment of women representatives (61.6%) was the reservation provided to them i.e., “Women Seat”. Only some women representatives (24%) mentioned that they had done so because of their interest in social work/village development.

Unfortunately, most of the women were seen only as figurative members of the Panchayat. At the GP level, only a few (13.6%) thought of PR as “Government of the people, by the people and for the people”, while the others were either unaware (44.8%) or related it to village development work (41.6%).

The above-mentioned study collected the views of the respondents as to whether men or women are more effective in administering the panchayat. Data shows that men (51.44%) were more effective in administering the panchayat in comparison to women (48.55%). If we see the position of women in administering the panchayat in the states, 68.66% women in Maharashtra, 50.66% in Chhattisgarh and 53.33% in Gujarat women were more effective than men.

The Glass Ceiling Is A Mirage

It is believed that in rural areas, women (especially upper caste) who enter politics have family and political connections who are said to help them at every step from the decision to contest, to getting successfully elected.

A survey found proxy women members who contested because they belong to a political family. There were also women who had no political background but wanted to make it big in politics. On the other hand, under-privileged women often face threats of violence when they have dared to express their intention to contest elections. Violence against women representatives is generally worse when they also happen to belong to a scheduled caste or tribe group.

A photo of women in panchayats
A still from the show ‘Panchayat’ also tells about this phenomenon of men hijacking women’s roles.

Das (2013) in his study on Dalit and tribal leadership in Gujarat found that only one-third of the Dalit women were able to win the panchayat elections independently. He finds education, experience in social issues, motivation to bring development to their community, prior performance in panchayats, family support, personal relation with villagers, economic stability and family’s political contacts as factors responsible for women to access panchayat positions.

This indicates that the road to success is not easy for those without such background. Thorat (2002) also feels that despite several constitutional provisions, the problem of caste-based violations of human rights in modified forms continues to persist leading to the exploitation of Dalits especially in rural India as the oppressed caste are yet to be fully politically mobilized against the dominant caste.

Sirohi, India: Former Sarpanch of Chenar Panchayat Duli Bai (L) during an exclusive interview on January 25, 2016 in Sirohi, India. Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images

Benefits Of A Woman Sarpanch

Elected women representatives articulate and emphasize priorities that are different from men, these priorities largely remain within the framework of development. Pattanaik’s (2010) study on the functioning of Elected Women Representatives in many panchayats found it is clear that women’s leadership in panchayats is transforming India...

..Women throughout India- from Orissa to Assam to Uttar Pradesh to Bihar to Gujarat- are ensuring that roads are repaired, electricity is brought to their villages, schools are built, toilets built, medical services are available, water sources are made safe, local savings groups are formed, and the list goes on and on.”

Elected women representatives like Kanku Ben, sarpanch of Kukma Juth (group) Panchayat in Kutch, an award-winning artisan focused her endeavours towards development of all kinds. She brought computers for the government school to modernize education and also worked upon social issues prevalent in different communities. There are many more such women in different parts of the country who have done and continue to do incredible work.

The failure to identify various hurdles and deficiencies has led to implementational problems that need to be rectified. Since most women are contesting the seats vacated by their familial males (due to reservation) they are expected to make way for them again. “So many women become interested in politics by the time their term ends,” said Salma, a deputy secretary in DMK, Tamil Nadu. But they may never get another chance. On rare occasions where the husband is ready to concede the seat, people around ask: Why is he giving his wife another chance.

In conclusion, women representatives must be fully integrated into the fabric of rural Indian politics. Thus ensuring sustained participation. Salma reminds us what happens to women when their term ends, “They go back to where they came from-inside their homes”.

This article was originally published on Youth Ki Awaaz as a part of the Justice-Makers’ Writer’s Training Program.

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