A silent revolution

Print edition : June 06, 2008

Mani Shankar Aiyar: The credit must go to Bihar for being the first State to have legislated that reservation for women will go up from 33 per cent to 50 per cent.-R. RAGU

Interview with Union Panchayati Raj Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar.

IT is significant that while the womens reservation Bill providing for reservation in Parliament and State legislatures had to wait for over a decade to get introduced in Parliament, one-third reservation for women has been in vogue for nearly 12 years in panchayati raj institutions.

The tremendous response that the reservation system has received from women and also large sections of men has enabled some States to raise the percentage of reservation. This apart, women in significant numbers are getting re-elected to posts in several villages across the country. Election of women from general constituencies in substantial numbers has also been reported from many States.

Union Panchayati Raj Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar told Frontline in an interview in Chennai on May 9 that a comprehensive and scientific study of the functioning of the panchayati raj institutions had shown that there was no inherent gender-related reason that could stand in the way of women occupying at least 50 per cent of posts of members and office-holders in these institutions. And so, he said, there was no reason why at least 50 per cent of the seats in State Assemblies and Parliament could not be reserved for women, reflecting their real share in the population. And therefore, his [Rajiv Gandhis] introduction of reservation for women can justifiably be taken as a precursor for the revolutionary step that has been taken in the Rajya Sabha to introduce reservation for women in Parliament and State Assemblies, he said. Excerpts:

As one associated right from the beginning with the shaping of the panchayati raj institutions under the amended Panchayats Act and as the Union Minister of Panchayati Raj, what do you think of the prospects of the womens reservation Bill in the light of the panchayati raj experience?

We have approximately 12 lakh women in the panchayats alone. As against the reserved quota of 33 per cent, their actual presence ranges around 38 per cent. This means that not only are we easily able to find women candidates to contest some 12 lakh posts but also there is on an average three or four contestants for a post. This means that approximately 50 lakh or 5 million women have been liberated from the kitchen and the courtyard and brought into the public domain. This is an extraordinary act of social and political empowerment.

I stress social empowerment, for political empowerment goes only to the women who win, while social empowerment goes not only to all the women who contest but also to all the women who find that people of their own gender can be candidates. Moreover, in the gram sabha the women of the village are enabled to directly contact women of their own kind who hold elected authority.

What is even more amazing, in my view, is that this extraordinary social revolution has taken place in conservative India, in the most tradition-bound rural society, with no tension and no tangible opposition from men. There may be individual male politicians who have attempted to subvert the process, for example, by putting up women relatives as their proxies. But, apart from this effort at the margin, there has been no social tension of any kind.

Today, India can honestly boast that there are more elected women representatives in India alone than in the rest of the world put together. This revolution is without precedent in history and without parallel in the world, and yet remains a completely silent revolution, largely because the male population has either been acquiescent or wholeheartedly accepted this process. Therefore, this empowerment of women reflects a deep sense of social justice in the processes of social engineering going on in contemporary India, and it also reflects the very deep democratic spirit that prevails in our social, political and economic ethos.

What made it possible?

The person singularly responsible for bringing about this unprecedented gender revolution is Rajiv Gandhi. I had the privilege of being associated with Sri Rajiv Gandhi, as his Joint Secretary in charge of this project in the Prime Ministers Office. And I was present when very senior political leaders told him from the depths of their experience that he would not be able to find sufficient number of women candidates even to contest the polls. Indeed, there was one Chief Minister of a border State who, perhaps in an excess of rhetoric, threatened me that if we brought in womens reservation in his State, his State might be obliged to secede from the Union.

When this was the wise counsel coming from very senior political leaders, it took a certain element of deep conviction on Rajiv Gandhis part as well as deep commitment to gender justice to persist and say that we must have a minimum of one-third reservation for women in our panchayats. And I think I must give the credit to Sri V.P. Singh for having added the concept of one-third reservation for posts in the panchayati raj system.

What has happened in consequence of this is perhaps best illustrated by the example of Karnataka. In the village panchayats of Karnataka, we have one-third reservations for S.T. [Scheduled Tribe] women in reserved S.T. positions. The actual share of S.T. women in those positions is 65 per cent. Among S.C. women the share in actuality is 54 per cent. So, this shows that, typically, social and economic empowerment is most effective among the most oppressed gender of the most depressed classes.

What was the response from men in general as also from administrators to this process of empowerment of women?

I want to give you an example of what this means for the empowerment of women among the minorities, specifically Muslims. I give you the example of Neem Kheda village, which is in a heavily minority-dominated area in Mehwat district of Haryana. Here, in the process of rotation, the panchayat presidents post was reserved for a woman. The men of the village got together and decided that none of them would contest the polls because none of them could bear the thought of having to necessarily serve under a woman, with the result that for this very bad reason India got its first all-woman panchayat.

The men, however, had conspired with the local administration, and the local administration would only listen to the men and ignore the fact that there was an elected all-woman panchayat. But what the men had not reckoned with was that the women of the village would certainly converse with the elected women representatives and that they would keep telling them, Oh, what is the point of our having wasted our votes on you? You are doing nothing for us. So, these women decided in May last year to resort to Gandhigiri. They jointly submitted their resignation letter. Then, inevitably, the story hit the headlines.

Mani Shankar Aiyar with participants at a workshop for women presidents and vice-presidents of zilla, taluk and grama panchayats in Karnataka, in Bangalore in August 2007.-G.P SAMPATH KUMAR

I then brought it to Sreemathi Sonia Gandhis attention, who immediately ordered me to send an investigative team to the village and check with the local administration. I did it. The team talked with the local authorities, and I had a word with the Chief Minister. The net result was that the women withdrew their resignation. The administration started cooperating with them.

If this can happen in the wink of an eye in one of the economically and socially most backward parts of India, then clearly the degree of effective empowerment all over the country is much greater than the episodic instances of discrimination against women panchayat members reported in the media.

Let me give another example. The Constitution says that reservations for women must be not less than 33 per cent. Which means it can be more. Usually, Bihar is spoken of as a very feudal, traditional, socially backward backwater. But the credit must go to Bihar for being the very first State to have legislated that reservation for women will go up to 50 per cent. In the last elections, 55 per cent of the candidates elected to the panchayats were women. Not only had the percentage increased but the actual number of women elected was larger than the reserved quota in a State like Bihar.

So, it is not surprising that the example set by Bihar has now been picked up by Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. All these States have raised their reservation quota to 50 per cent. Sikkim has raised it to 40 per cent.

Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are States with very low human development indices and a very high S.T. population. Rajasthan has various economic and social problems. The same Rajasthan that was associated with sati is today associated with 50 per cent reservation for women [in panchayats]. Himachal Pradesh, which probably had the lowest female literacy rate at Independence, now has one of the highest and has become the State that has moved forward the most. And the latest State to join the Indian Union, Sikkim, whose experience of democracy is only 33 years compared with 61 years for the rest of the country, has moved ahead of many other States. If this is so, we must recognise that there is a very positive angle to the reservation story in the panchayats. This is not a negative story at all.

But there have also been stories of vested interests manipulating things to suit their needs and trying to undermine the system in several ways

Finding a negative story is not too difficult and there is a mixing up in the public mind of the caste panchayats, called khap-panchayats, in parts of northern India and the katta-panchayats in Tamil Nadu with the constitutionally sanctioned panchayati raj system. Khap-panchayats and katta-panchayats have nothing to do with the panchayati raj system. But even so, there are many instances of illiterate women being elected and holding office and women acting as proxies for their husbands, of discrimination by male members of the panchayat against women holding office, of misuse of the no-confidence and right-to-recall provisions and of the two-child norm in some States to get rid of women representatives.

Since there is a lot of episodic reporting of these negative features, I thought we should do an objective and scientific survey of the status of women in our States. And, to this end, we commissioned the polling survey company A.C. Nielsen Company-ORG Marg to undertake a survey on a sample of nearly 20,000 women in panchayats in different States. We put together an academic advisory committee headed by the Nehru scholar Professor Niraja Gopal Jayal of Jawaharlal Nehru University to analyse and write the results of the survey. This study was unveiled by Sreemathi Sonia Gandhi on Panchayati Raj Day, April 24, at the national convention of district and intermediate panchayat presidents held in Delhi.

What has this study found?

The first of the main conclusions one can draw from this is that there is no inherent gender-related reason to stand in the way of at least 50 per cent of all panchayat members and office-holders being women. And, for that reason, there should be no grounds for standing in the way of at least 50 per cent of the seats in the State Assemblies and Parliament being reserved for them. Their share in the population is 50 per cent. Panchayats have already shown that the 33 per cent of reservation for women can be taken to 50 per cent.

And so the womens reservation Bill now introduced is a positive move in the direction of building at higher levels on the empowerment path that has been indicated by Rajiv Gandhis panchayati raj. I say Rajiv Gandhis panchayat raj because reservation for women was not part of the panchayat system that was envisaged by even Gandhiji or Pandit Nehru.

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