Success stories, some setbacks

Published : Jun 06, 2008 00:00 IST

A Musahar woman contestant campaigning for the panchayat elections at Jamsaut village in Bihar's Patna district in 2006.-PTI

A Musahar woman contestant campaigning for the panchayat elections at Jamsaut village in Bihar's Patna district in 2006.-PTI

Reservation for women in panchayati raj institutions has yielded excellent results.

THE strongest argument in favour of reservation for women in State legislatures and Parliament is its success at grass roots-level local governing bodies. The 33 per cent reservation for women in panchayati raj institutions (PRIs), provided on the basis of the provisions in the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, changed the lives of thousands of women in the countryside and created conditions for their equal participation in local government. Creating a law that ensured a quota for women was an important step in encouraging womens participation in the political process.

Making womens representation effective was altogether another matter and became a task fraught with unforseen challenges. More than a decade later, there is no going back on the gains women have made and passed on to the societies in which they live and work.

As these inputs on the reservation experience for women in the five States of Kerala, West Bengal, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra show, there could have been no other way to ensure conditions for gender equality in the political sphere other than through reservation. Patriarchal attitudes in the social and family spheres and womens lack of formal education and general awareness were among the biggest deterrents to their political participation.

These still are, but the panchayat members and office-bearers of today are far ahead of the first generation of women panchayat members and office-bearers in respect of confidence and quality of leadership.

Illiteracy continues to be a formidable stumbling block for women to realise their full leadership potential as the experience in Andhra Pradesh shows. Kerala, which has perhaps taken womens participation to qualitatively new levels, continues to grapple with the problem of persistent male domination, which appears to reinvent itself as more and more women enter the public sphere. Kerala has just 5 per cent representation of women in the State legislature, a figure that speaks forcefully of the forces opposed to womens participation even in a State that boasts a progressive political environment. In Maharashtra and Karnataka, the representation of women in PRIs is far greater than the mandated 33 per cent.

The expansion of the democratic process, consequent to the constitutional provisions for womens representation at the panchayat level, nevertheless, provides the strongest impetus for the womens reservation Bill, and its experience provides a foretaste of the challenges that face women if and when the Bill is passed.

PIVOTAL ROLE OF SHGsSuhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay in Kolkata

Although women in West Bengal have been active in politics from the time of the independence movement, it cannot be denied that for long there was no institutional arrangement for their active participation in the political process, in development activities and in policy formulation. This opportunity finally came in 1993 with the 73rd and 74th Constitution amendments, which prescribed that one-third of the seats in the panchayat bodies must be reserved for women.

In 1998, in another major step forward, women came to occupy 33 per cent of the posts of office-bearers in the panchayat bodies. In fact, seven gram panchayats in West Bengal are run exclusively by women. Cynics have raised the suspicion that this increasing participation of women in panchayat activities has not been spontaneous and that many women members are only proxies for their husbands or fathers. But even a casual inspection will give the lie to this canard. The social and economic indicators speak for themselves.

Between 1981 and 2001, there was a reduction in the below poverty line (BPL) population by close to 51 per cent in rural West Bengal. The birth rate came down by 42.7 per cent and the death rate by 48.36 per cent. The Infant Mortality Rate fell by 59.18 per cent. The average marriageable age of girls increased from 14.3 years to 19.6 years, and the literacy rate among women went up from 30.25 to 60.22 per cent.

All these achievements have been possible because of the concerted activities of women in panchayats, not only individually, but also through the collective efforts of self-help groups (SHGs), which have played a pivotal role in the empowerment and socio-economic upliftment of women.

According to a study titled On Self-help Groups and Panchayats, brought out in 2007, about four lakh SHGs have come into existence, and because of their operations between 40 and 60 lakh women have been able to raise their per capita income by 20.25 per cent. These women cut across all strata of rural society ranging from the destitute landless to the orthodox Muslim.

The performance of women in West Bengals panchayats is, if anything, better than that of their male counterparts, and the rapid strides made by the SHGs bear testimony to this. Rekha Goswami, Minister for Self-help Group and Self-Employment, recently described how the SHGs were coordinating among themselves for access to markets, availability of infrastructure and uninterrupted provision of essential inputs. This has led to the formation of sub-clusters (upa sangha), clusters (sangha) and federations (maha sangha) at the village, gram panchayat and block levels.

The pace at which the SHGs are expanding is staggering. There are about 7.4 lakh SHGs with a membership of 60 lakh women. About 3.13 lakh SHGs get financial assistance from the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development and 64,298 from the Small Industries Development Bank of India. In addition, departments such as Social Welfare, Tribal Welfare and Urban Development have also set up SHGs. The groups that get aid from the governments poverty alleviation programme, the Swarna Jayanti Gram Swarojgar Yojana, had collective savings totalling Rs.182 crore as on February 2008. Those assisted by NABARD had Rs.166 crore.

Their activities range from making items such as papad and pickles on a small scale to weaving, catering, selling groceries and vegetables and operating micro banks. The State government has a programme to set up a corporation for the procurement of paddy and rice through the SHGs.

Women at the panchayat level have also taken an active part in social programmes such as mass literacy drives, pulse polio administration and midday meal schemes, and they even visit buildings for electricity meter reading. Elderly women distributing contraceptives among young wives and offering counselling is not an uncommon sight in rural Bengal. Outdated social taboos are being challenged silently.

Where the SHGs are active, young girls are going to school in larger numbers than elsewhere; their dropout rate is coming down: public health and hygiene are improving; and attendance of women at literacy centres is going up.

RISING TO THE OCCASIONAnupama Katakam in Mumbai

If numbers are indicative of progress, Maharashtra does not seem to fare badly in respect of womens representation in panchayats. The 33 per cent reservation has been largely successful in this State. Reservation appears to have given women an opportunity to prove their capabilities in governance. The confidence they have inspired in their constituency has encouraged more women to enter the political arena.

The numbers are not that much above the 33 per cent norm, but the commendable part is that women have contested general category seats and won, says Sunil Chavan, Officer-in-Charge of Panchayati Raj. The elected women make sure funds are used properly and that their villages and districts actually benefit from their leadership, says Chavan. He says an interesting aspect of having women leaders is that they give a lot of importance to womens literacy and care of the girl child. The literacy rate among women has improved significantly. This, in turn, has increased awareness and independence among women. Literacy is a big reason why there is much more womens participation in panchayat polls, he says.

By and large reservation has been beneficial for women in Maharashtra, says Mariam Dhawale of the All India Democratic Womens Association. Not only should it be extended but the percentage should be raised.

Dhawale, who has worked extensively in the field, says that instances of women office-bearers being used as proxies by men are bound to occur in a largely patriarchal society. In many cases, upper-caste men refuse to accept or take directions from a lower-caste woman leader. Yet in the 15 years since it was first introduced, the explosive reactions have decreased. In fact, you hardly hear of any violent or disrespectful incident towards elected women members nowadays.

Raseela Dhodi, a member of the gram panchayat and an ex-sarpanch of Dongari village of Thallassery taluk in Thane districts tribal belt, says: It is we women who understand the basic needs of the village. We are the ones who know the problems relating to water, health of women and children, facilities in schools, ration cards, roads, and so on. When a woman is the sarpanch, more often than not these problems are addressed. When a male is elected, he is invariably involved only in politics and fails to look at real problems.

Dhodi says that her village has had both male and female sarpanches in recent times and that the village has begun to realise that women are more effective.

For Suman Patil, a member of the panchayat samiti from Bokadvira village in Uran taluk in Raigad district, it has been a long journey to leadership. She came to the village 20 years ago as a daughter-in-law. I could hardly go out of the house, and sitting next to a man who is not your husband was unthinkable. It took some time, but eventually she decided to contest the elections.

In the beginning I found it very difficult to address men. Then I thought, what is there to be afraid of? People have voted for me, they have confidence in me, so I should prove that I am capable of helping them. I used to stand at the site of road works through the day to make sure the work was completed. The men used to laugh, but then they got used to it.

Bokadvira sarpanch Hemlatha Patil says SHGs in rural areas and the setting up of cottage industries have also played a role in making women in villages independent.


In spite of the positive stories, there are still many areas that are extremely backward, says Hemlatha Patil. In Marathwada, many of the women sarpanches have no role in decision making. They attend the meetings but do not even sit. When we went to those areas, we realised how poor, illiterate and unaware they were. Furthermore, caste continues to play an ugly role in politics.

Vibhuti Patel, an economist at the Centre for Womens Studies, University of Mumbai, was part of a gender audit of the budget. She says, We have repeatedly seen that elected women leaders look into issues such as construction of schools, area development, immunisation, garbage collection, marriages anything that affects the family and daily life. In most cases, there was no corruption, and funds were used wisely and not diverted to irrelevant activities.

Even before reservation for women was enforced in 1993, Maharashtra had initiated a 30 per cent quota for women in municipal councils. It was among the first few States to have an all-women panchayat body. There are 13 such in existence today. Seemingly, the State is among the progressive ones, yet there are areas untouched by this progress.

EXPLOITED AND IGNOREDS. Nagesh Kumar in Hyderabad

In a State that has made rapid strides in the thrift movement with the highest number of SHGs successfully managing their day-to-day affairs, women representatives of PRIs continue to struggle to gain control over the offices they occupy. The absence of awareness among the women about their role and responsibilities is largely owing to the lack of formal education.

The 33 per cent reservation extends to 21,934 gram panchayats, 2.20 lakh wards in gram panchayats, 1,104 mandal parishas and zilla parishad territorial constituencies, 16,161 mandal parishad territorial constituencies and 22 zilla parishads.

The Parliamentary Committee on Empowerment of Women headed by Margaret Alva, in its report in 2002, noted that it was the absence of training programmes for women that was largely responsible for the poor participation of women in panchayats.

It recommended continuous, participatory and interactive training for women. Notwithstanding the panels observations, illiteracy among women representatives continues to fetter their performance.

G. Anitha, Nizamabad Zilla Parishad chairperson, says, There have been instances when officials made sarpanches, mandal parishad chiefs or members append their signatures to some document. Having no clue about the purpose, the elected members sign and often land in trouble. Y. Babu Rajendra Prasad, the president of Andhra Pradesh Panchayati Raj Chamber, cites the case of the sarpanch of Mylavaram Major gram panchayat, O. Hemalatha, who was sacked by the Krishna District Collector after a complaint was lodged that a road levelling work was done without the passage of a resolution by the panchayat. The fact is that the sarpanchs husband had undertaken the work without approval, he said.

Even officials acknowledge this problem. Adilabad Zilla Parishad chief executive officer Puli Devaram said illiteracy was high among women at the grass roots. The husband dominates the scene because of the wifes illiteracy, making a mockery of womens reservation and defeating the purpose of empowerment of women.

A senior official of the Rural Development Department concurred with this view: We have seen instances of husbands chairing the gram panchayat or mandal parishad meetings in the presence of officials.

Nagubandi Satyanarayana, chairman of the Andhra Pradesh Congress Panchayati Raj Abhiyan, cited an incident in Srikakulam district where a poor, tribal sarpanch was in tears because the village secretary asked her to sign certain files and told her to take Rs.2,000 every month. She lamented that she did not understand the secretarys language and felt helpless as she was in the dark about the funding for development works in her village.

Women representatives in Adilabad are even less aware of government programmes, according to Puli Devaram. Women belonging to the S.C. [Scheduled Castes] and S.T. [Scheduled Tribes] communities are the most exploited as officials completely ignore them and the village elders look upon them with contempt, said Rajendra Prasad, a Member of the Legislative Council.

Mallepalli Laxmaiah, coordinator, Centre for Dalit Studies, said gender and caste discrimination was visible in PRIs. There have been instances when elected representatives joined hands to oust Dalit sarpanches and mandal presidents, he said. The president of Elkathurthy mandal in Karimnagar district was ousted after a no-confidence motion was moved by members who were irked by her outspokenness and eagerness to undertake public works, he said.

D. Sujatha, a research scholar in Hyderabad Central University who has done a study on Dalit women sarpanches in East Godavari district through the Anveshi Centre for Women Studies, Hyderabad, agrees that women are still dependent on their families to carry out their responsibilities. However, in East Godavari disof women representatives. When they have to meet officials or elected representatives in the town, women representatives are forced to take their family members along, which makes them appear dependent on others to get their work done, she observed.

But there are notable exceptions. D. Gowri, sarpanch of Iluru village in Totlavalluru mandal of Krishna district, for instance, has often taken on local revenue officials for failure to redress peoples grievances.

Gowri has been demanding that the public distribution system be extended to islands on the river Krishna falling under the Iluru gram panchayats jurisdiction. She caught the local ration shop dealer charging Rs.3 a kg for rice supplied under the subsidised Rs.2-a-kg scheme. She lodged a formal complaint against the dealer but the tahsildar did not act. The dealer started exerting pressure through politicians and even threatened ration card holders that they would lose their quota if the complaint was not withdrawn. Although a senior official has directed the tahsildar to take action against the dealer, he continues to threaten the card holders, she said.

Officials point out that there have been exceptional cases where even illiterate or semi-literate women representatives excelled in their duties. Panchayati Raj Minister J.C. Diwakar Reddy suggested fixing a minimum qualification for candidates, but the move received little political support.

FEMINISATION OF PANCHAYATSR. Krishnakumar in Thiruvananathapuram

An early lead in education, health and social welfare helped women in Kerala attain a better quality of life than their counterparts in other regions of the country. Gender relations as they exist today have evolved over a century and a half as a result of social and religious reform movements, class struggles and administrative measures taken by governments that came in the wake of these. But even such a progressive State has failed to create an acceptance of gender equality or of women in leadership roles.

It was in this context in Kerala that the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments set the agenda for a considerable degree of feminisation of political leadership at the local level. The newly elected Left Democratic Front government in 1996 set out to implement it as part of a mass mobilisation movement for democratic decentralisation (what was called a Peoples Campaign for the Ninth Plan) that had womens empowerment and the creation of a new democratic civic culture at the local level as its important objectives.

For the first time in India, a government set apart 35 to 40 per cent of a States (Ninth) Plan outlay for projects and programmes to be implemented exclusively by the local bodies (where women were to get a major role in decision making) and launched a mass movement to equip the local self-governments and its new leaders to deal with this big-bang devolution.

The goal was to integrate gender issues at each stage of the campaign, from the convening of the gram sabhas (where womens neighbourhood groups and their leaders soon began to play a major role) to the implementation of the popular plans that almost always were sensitive to the aspirations of local women (as espoused by the agency of neighbourhood thrift and credit womens collectives).

Thus, within a year of their election in 1995, nearly 6,000 women, the majority of whom were reluctant new entrants (and of whom 75 per cent were in the gram panchayats) and their male colleagues were subjected to continuous training exercises that eased them into public office. Today, two elections later (in 2000 and 2005), many of those who received training have left office, but the training exercises have been institutionalised and Kerala has surged ahead of most other States in continuing to empower women at the local level. The crux of this achievement, unlike in other States, is the placement of the exclusively women-run neighbourhood groups and their federated structures at the heart of the decentralised governance structure. They include the ward-level Area Development Societies and the local self-government (LSG)-level Community Development Societies, all of them highly effective leadership training camps for women, and their apex organisation, Kudumbashree, the State Poverty Eradication Mission.


Kerala has once again shown the way for womens empowerment at the grass roots through its far-sighted move to integrate the Kudumbashree SHG movement (including its intensive leadership and skills training programmes) with the local bodies, creating leaders out of ordinary women. At every local body in the State, thus, there is today an exclusive female community organisation giving strength to the elected women representatives in their fight against established political and patriarchal power structures. According to official sources, of the women leaders elected in the last local body elections, for instance, over 20 per cent had come up through the Kudumbashree neighbourhood groups.

Results from nearly a hundred gender status studies indicate that such a feminisation of panchayats is perhaps the most important achievement of the decentralisation programme in Kerala, Jos Chattukkulam, director of the Kottayam-based Centre for Rural Management, said.

The Kudumbashree organisational structure and the local bodies are a source of strength to each other now. You will not see gender discrimination of the traditional kind as a factor limiting womens advancement at the local level. A second important result of women coming into local leadership in such a big way is the noticeable reduction in corruption in local bodies, Local Administration Principal Secretary S.M. Vijayanand told Frontline.

Now, while many States in India struggle with the first generation problems following reservation of seats for women, Kerala is facing a different set of issues of empowerment at the local level.

Rather surprisingly for a State that has achieved so much, the three elections since 1995 have shown that women candidates winning elections continue to be only around 35 per cent, a little more than the mandatory 33 per cent. Very few women win seats outside their reservation quota. Since local body elections are fought on political lines, it shows traditional patriarchal values still hold sway in the decisions of political parties in Kerala.

Moreover, because of the rotation of reserved seats for women every five years, women representatives lose interest in their constituency after the initial few years and shadow candidates, mostly party colleagues, begin to take charge.

Despite such an influx of women into panchayat bodies in the State, it is a moot point whether the local bodies and even their women representatives are adequately gender sensitive when it comes to planning and implementing programmes or dealing with day-to-day issues, says T.N. Seema, State president of the All India Democratic Womens Association.

Ultimately, it seems, despite the reservation for women in local bodies, the most important decisions are taken purely on political lines. Women members often are forced to implement the decisions of their male-dominated political parties, even though there is also a trend, in Kudumbashree meetings, of womens group dynamics blurring political identities of the participants.

However, it is important not to lose sight of the larger context of male domination in the State,which offers a nagging counter trend to womens enhanced role in the public domain.

Kerala has a mere 5 per cent representation of women in its 140-member State Assembly and just two women among its 20 Lok Sabha members. The State has never sent a woman representative to the Rajya Sabha. At no time has the number of women Members of Legislative Assemblies in the State crossed 10 in the 13 Assemblies from 1957 to 2006. No woman has become the Chief Minister, Opposition Leader, or Speaker of the Assembly. Kerala never had more than one woman Minister in the State Cabinet at a time. No wonder, scholars say that women may do more things in Kerala than elsewhere in India, but they do not enjoy equality with men [in the public sphere].

ROBUST PARTICIPATIONS. Bageshree in Bangalore

Karnataka has 42.9 per cent (as on December 2006) elected women representatives in the three tiers of the panchayati raj system, far above the national average of 36.7 per cent and second only to Bihar, which has 54.1 per cent. This large presence of women in grass-roots governance is partly owing to Karnatakas early initiation into the system. Karnataka was the first State in the country to implement the Panchayat Raj Act, which mandated 25 per cent reservation for women, in 1987, even before it was constitutionalised. As many as 14,000 women were elected in the first elections held to the PRIs in 1987.

Activists and experts believe that despite stark regional variations, there are clear signs that over the past 20 years rural women of Karnataka have learnt to translate political representation into real empowerment by taking control of decision making. D. Rajasekhar from the Centre for Decentralisation and Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change, says that this was palpable in the district-level workshops the centre conducted for women in Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Karnataka.

The participation of Karnataka women and their articulation were remarkably more robust, he observes. He however believes that empowerment is not uniform and that women representatives of Bangalore and its surrounding areas and the coastal and Malnad belts are more confident than their counterparts in the rest of the State.

Another significant part of the panchayati raj experience in Karnataka is the large presence of Dalit women in the system. During a visit to the State in August 2007, Union Minister for Panchayati Raj Mani Shankar Aiyar said Karnataka was able to make rapid strides in the PRIs mainly owing to the increasing representation of Dalit women in the system.

There is one line of argument that says womens entry into the bad world of politics will corrupt them and render theie empowerment counterproductive. While it would be fallacious to think women are beyond the pervasive corruption of realpolitik, there are indications that a womans presence can inject a sense of accountability into the system. An interesting study titled Community lighting at what cost? by Dr. Rajasekhar and R. Majula on streetlight services by gram panchayats in Karnataka corroborates this argument. Data collected from 5,212 gram panchayats showed that if a woman president headed a gram panchayat, the expenditure on streetlights came down by six paise for every rupee of expenditure. In other words, women bring down the expenditure by 6 per cent. This suggests that the GPs [gram panchayats] headed by women tend to be efficient. The policy implication is, therefore, to provide more encouragement to women to contest for GP [gram panchayat] executive positions, and review the current policy of rotation of GP [gram panchayat] presidents once in 20 months, the study says.

In an effort to curtail the powers of panchayat representatives (and thereby the large number of women who are part of it), a Bill was passed in 2006 by the State legislature to empower legislators in the distribution of Ashraya sites and houses to the beneficiaries, thus taking away the power given to the panchayats. However, owing to enormous civil society pressure, the then Governor T.N. Chaturvedi returned it for reconsideration. The Bills quiet burial has been a victory of sorts for the panchayati raj system.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment