Introduction – What is a Balika Panchayat?
The Women and Child Development Department of Gujarat (will be referred to as WCD), under the initiative Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, launched a pilot project of creating Balika Panchayats. This project was started with the aim of increasing adolescent girls’ and women’s participation in local governance through a formal setup. Balika Panchayats have previously been formed in four Panchayats from different blocks across Kutch, namely; Kukma, Kunariya, Maska, Mota Angiya, and Vadasar, the final Panchayat of this project.
Balika Panchayats’ aim is to create a platform and provide opportunities for young women, to deliberate upon the issues that they face and then learn how to tackle them. Apart from identifying and solving issues in various sectors, the chosen body also learns the formal procedures of governance and workings of and with the Panchayats.
This would help them understand decentralization, their role, and what all falls within their jurisdiction. This will teach them a lot about governance processes, the procedures involved, how to take up various issues, tackle them, and ways to present them and talk about them.
Approach And Planning
On 5th March 2022, the Sarpanch of Vadasar gram panchayat, Preeti Ben, and team members of SETU Abhiyan held a meeting to decide and formulate establishing a Balika Panchayat in Vadasar. The meeting agenda was to reach a final decision on various factors like age, tenure, voter list, funds, the dates for holding the election, and the timeline of the entire procedure. On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2022, an event was held in Vadasar Gram Panchayat to celebrate women. In collaboration with WCD, SETU Abhiyan, and the Panchayat body of Vadasar, the formation of a Balika Panchayat was announced and the decided details were given out to the audience.
The final decisions that were taken are as follows:
- Age of Nominees – Keeping in line with the term ‘Balika’, the decided age of nominees was between 11-18 years
- Age of Voters – The voters’ age was established as those between 11-21 years
- Tenure – The time duration for one Balika Panchayat’s term was kept as two and a half years. This time period was decided because this would mean that during one term of the Panchayat, two Balika Panchayats would be elected and would get a chance to learn
- Posts – The decided posts for election of Balika Panchayat were of Sarpanch and Sabhya
- Documents from Nominee – When filing their name for nominations, the nominee was required to attach a copy of their Aadhaar with the form
The present people were informed that the Balika Panchayat serves as an opportunity to encourage and empower the younger generation of girls and teach them various things in the process. The need of forming a Balika Panchayat in Vadasar arose from the fact that this would help prepare young girls for their future in leadership and governance.
On 14th March, a Sabha was held with all the girls of the village along with the Sarpanch, a member of WCD, and SETU Abhiyan team members. The proceedings related to the elections were discussed on an open platform. There are eight wards in Vadasar, it was decided that one representative from each ward will be elected along with the Sarpanch, forming a 9-member body. Those wanting to stand for the post of Sarpanch had to get a note prepared by the Panchayat signed by their parents which gave them permission to do so.
The candidates standing for ward representatives had to seek oral permission from their parents. Details regarding campaigning and voting were decided in the meeting, like, as which members will perform which function on the day of voting, the time of voting, logistics to ensure that all the people voting would be able to do so, etc. The last date for the candidates to file or withdraw their nominations was 19th March.
Before the campaigning process could begin, candidates for Sarpanch and ward representatives were divided into two panels – these two panels had one Sarpanch candidate and one representative from each ward. After this division, each panel chose its symbols (Bat and Kite) and started campaigning. For both the panels, this process started with door-to-door visits and using their symbol to convince people to vote for them.
The candidates included various issues in their agendas like creating a garden in the village, a library, starting embroidery and beauty parlour classes, and building toilets in any household that may not have one. They also spoke about ensuring water availability in houses that faced issues related to it and improving the conditions of the tree plantations around the village, etc.
Post this, there was a meeting held on 22nd March, where both the panels introduced themselves and presented their agendas to all the voters. Chetan bhai, a member from WCD gave an orientation where he spoke about the electoral process, the importance of the entire event, campaigning, and finally about the voting day. After this, the two panels presented their agendas and spoke about why people should vote for them. This meeting then ended with a question-and-answer round, where the voters got a chance to ask questions related to their issues and what the panels would do about them if they win. This then led to a further discussion about girls’ and young women’s issues.
The day of the voting was 23rd March and it started at 3 PM at the government school in Vadasar. The total voter list comprised 54 girls. During this process, members from the Panchayat body, members from WCD, and SETU Abhiyan team members were present to ensure that everything runs smoothly. The Election officer was Hiren bhai, the presiding officer was Komal ben and the Counting officer was Kinjal ben. The various responsibilities that were taken care of in the process were putting up the information desk, checking the voter list before the voter goes in to vote, getting the signature, marking the fingers of the voters, and giving out the ballot papers.
Counting And Results
The voting ended by 4:30 PM and 50 out of 54 people had cast their votes. After voting ended, the Sarpanch and ward representative candidates were called in, they ensured that the box containing the ballot papers had not been tampered with and was opened in front of them. All the candidates and voters were present and this created an air of curiosity and enthusiasm among the present people. The counting for the ward representatives was done first, the nominees from each ward were called and the counting was done in front of them and the winner was announced. This happened for all the wards 1-8. After the elected ward representatives were declared, the same was done for the Sarpanch nominees. The elected Sarpanch for the newly formed Balika Panchayat is Malti Vinod Vekariya and she won by 39 votes.
After announcing the winners, each elected representative was felicitated by the Panchayat ward representative, and the Balika Panchayat Sarpanch was felicitated by the Preeti Ben, Vadasar Sarpanch. Each of them received a letter from the Panchayat body making their election official. After the Balika Panchayat was formed, there was a celebration with music wherein all the winners, candidates, voters and others went around the village and congratulated the new Balika Panchayat.
Learnings And Outcomes
- The parents of the adolescent girls were not very supportive of them standing for the elections as they were afraid that it could create a rift between the girls
- The population of Vadasar is less compared to other villages, hence the functioning of Balika Panchayat will be smoother, more attentive, and inclusive as they will be able to focus on all the issues present in the village
- The recent Gram Panchayat elections took place and the friction between the opposition and the current Panchayat body was visible, as the daughter of the opposition’s candidate was neither allowed to stand for Balika Panchayat elections nor cast a vote
- Any development work started after the formation of Balika Panchayat, the body has been involved in it and the project is started with them inaugurating it
- The Balika Panchayat office has a different office space to work and function from
- One of the major outcomes is that the body has already begun to strengthen female participation in the Gram Sabha and will continue to act as a stepping stone in assisting the Panchayat body with its agenda while working on its specific issues
- The department shall prepare a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) containing guidelines with respect to the roles and responsibilities of ‘Balika Panchayat’ and its members
- There shall be training and capacity building of the elected Balika panchayat members in collaboration with departments, and organizations working on the subject. Basic reading materials and resources should be provided to empower their know-how of the functioning
- There shall be guidelines with regards to the election such as providing a list of DOs & DONT’s during the campaign and throughout the election. It includes putting a cap on funds, and a manifesto that is not against any caste, creed, gender, religion, or against law in force
- There shall be a provision of providing space (office) and basic funds/grants to operate and function smoothly without depending on the Panchayat for everything, specifically social security and welfare grant to them
- There shall be common eligibility criteria for standing and voting, and tenure across Kutch for Balika Panchayat
- There shall be coordination between line departments, schools, and other related departments with Balika Panchayat so that the issues can directly be raised & resolved as and when they arise
- There shall be the issuance of a newsletter and documentation of processes of Balika Panchayat which shall be advocated as a policy at the state and national levels