Bihar: Women power

Women as agents of change

Print edition : November 13, 2015

Elected women representatives on the village road constructed under their supervision in Lagma panchayat in Sitamarhi district. Photo: Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

Women queueing up to cast their vote in Samastipur district on October 12. Photo: REUTERS

Women’s empowerment in Bihar gets a fillip thanks to the Nitish Kumar government’s Pahel project, which educates elected women representatives of panchayati raj institutions about their rights and responsibilities.

THE rise in the percentage of women voting in Bihar has been a notable phenomenon since the 2010 Assembly elections. Until then the percentage of women exercising their franchise was well below that of men. In 2010, however, 54.49 per cent of the women voters cast their votes compared with 51.12 per cent of the men. That marked a significant jump of 7.5 percentage points over the number of women voters in the preceding Assembly elections of October 2005. The first two rounds of polling in the current Assembly elections, too, have followed the 2010 pattern. In the first phase covering 49 seats, 59.5 per cent of the women voters came out to vote, whereas the turnout of men was only 54.5 per cent. In the second phase, in 32 seats, the figures are 57.5 per cent and 52.5 per cent.

By any yardstick, this commendable record of women voters in the past 10 years signifies their enhanced awareness of the democratic system, including in terms of their individual rights and responsibilities within the system. It is widely acknowledged that one of the key factors that has brought about this dynamic change is the meticulous implementation of 50 per cent reservation for women in all three tiers of panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) in Bihar. As a result, women leaders constitute 54.1 per cent of the total number of leaders elected to PRIs in the State. Of the 1,35,805 members across the PRIs in Bihar, 73,204 are women. Of this number, 4,535 hold the posts of mukhia (president) in gram panchayats.

Evidently, in the nine years after reservation for women in PRIs was introduced in 2006, the role of women representatives in local bodies has grown steadily in quantity and quality. “Many of them started as ‘showpiece’ elected women representatives [EWR] in panchayati raj institutions, but in the past nine years the majority of them have evolved into proactive people’s representatives who are keen to take up local development according to their own unique understanding of the needs and aspirations of people at the regional level,” said Shaibal Gupta, sociologist and political analyst.

The impact of this is felt across Bihar, but in varying degrees. While the overall awareness of their democratic rights and responsibilities has become a norm among a vast majority of the EWRs, a similar uniformity is not reflected in the efficiency with which they undertake concrete projects. A core element that enhances the efficiency of EWRs is their ability to understand details and assimilate the nitty-gritty of government systems and their roles in it. According to a number of bureaucrats, social activists and observers who have been associated with the implementation of reservation for women in PRIs, systematic training is an important factor that helps build better understanding of government systems and higher efficiency in implementing them. While the Bihar Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development (BIPARD) has trained some of these EWRs over the past nine years, its training has not been widespread or regular. Against this background, the initiatives of the Centre for Catalysing Change (C3) through its project termed Pahel (a Hindi word meaning “first move”) in the districts of Sitamarhi, Muzaffarpur and Aurangabad have made a difference. Interactions with scores of EWRs who have received consistent training through the Pahel project since 2011 in these three districts revealed higher levels of awareness and efficiency among them. The minute understanding of government programmes, mechanisms and systems that was imparted to these EWRs helped them not only to tackle existing issues and provide solutions but also to plan proactively for future requirements in many of these villages.

Pahel project

As Akhbari Khatun and Meera Devi, Ward Members of Gaighat village in Muzaffarpur district, told Frontline, the first and most tangible gain of training was the realisation of the authority that an elected political representative has in the administrative system. “In the initial days after being elected, we did not know that we could actually intervene in monitoring and channelising the various government programmes at the panchayat level, including in key areas like the public health centre, the midday meal scheme in schools, and even in proposing and raising funds for new educational institutions. It was the realisation of that authority which gave new strength and vigour to the forward march,” said the two women sitting on a bench and sharing their experiences. One of them belongs to the Muslim community, and the other is a Hindu.

In neighbouring Sitamarhi district, Pahel trainee Prabha Devi underscored the point on the realisation of political and administrative authority and stressed that it had also led to greater social liberation. “But for the reservation given by Nitish Kumar ji, I would still be sitting before you with my face covered and mumbling whatever the menfolk asked me to say. Reservation changed all that and showed us the first signs of social liberation, and the Pahel training took it to greater heights,” she said.

Prabha Devi, Meera Devi, Akhbari Khatun and the scores of other Pahel trainee EWRs told Frontline that the training had added to their skills so much that they could now analyse, monitor and take action on vital areas such as usage and disbursal of government funds, including old age and widow pensions, and schemes such as the Indira Awaas Yojana and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

They pointed out that the skills imparted and mechanisms taught to them had also made them capable of monitoring the public distribution system and in spreading awareness about taking proactive action to prevent child marriage.

In terms of concrete infrastructure projects, almost all the panchayats covered by Pahel recorded the construction of new roads. Nearly one-third of these panchayats had set up new schools, many of them high schools. Of course, using persuasive skills and ensuring that civic body meetings are held regularly according to norms in a body with 50 per cent men form part of the Pahel trainee’s tasks.

Checklist

Talking to Frontline separately in New Delhi, C3 Executive Director Dr Aparajita Gogoi said that the Pahel training had started off three years ago with joint conventions and workshops for the 1,200 odd EWRs from the three districts. “It has been followed up over the last three years with regular mentoring that is advanced through formats such as exposure visits to institutions and facilities, training to use tools to monitor health and education services and holding interactive Mahila Sabhas,” Aparajita Gogoi said. “Every woman has leadership qualities, but many, especially in resource-poor countries, do not have the opportunity to find out what their potential is because of economic and social demands. Pahel focusses on expanding women’s leadership by helping them to identify and value their own unique leadership skills and styles, hone their strengths and realise their potential. Our capacity-building efforts focus on helping EWRs examine, analyse and develop strategies to address the gender inequalities that inhibit or restrict their choices and impact negatively on their self-assurance.”

Pahel field officers Sanjay Ojha and Alok Kumar said the project was being taken forward in association with other social organisations like Daudnagar Organisation for Rural Development (DORD), Integrated Development Foundation (IDF), and NIRDESH, which have specific resources related to specific geographical areas. Ojha and Kumar pointed out that Pahel’s regular activities include training EWRs in the use of checklists to assess health facilities on six key indicators relating to maternal health, family planning and reproductive health services. “These include indicators like infrastructure, personnel, community participation, availability of equipment, drugs and other supplies, service provision, and quality of logistical arrangements. The tools are also used to track improvements in outreach as well as access, quality and availability of health services over time,” Kumar said.

Interestingly, the checklist is in a pictorial form so that even illiterate EWRs can use it. In fact, almost 90 per cent of the Pahel EWRs who interacted with Frontline were illiterate. But that, by itself, was no detriment to the EWRs in carrying out their tasks. Though the Pahel initiative was confined to about 150 selected panchayats in the three districts, a number of Pahel trainee EWRs claimed that they had imparted some of their skills and understanding to many other people’s representatives, including men, in several panchayats.

Travelling through three other districts—Gaya , Jehanabad and Nalanda—where the Pahel initiative was not operational, Frontline found that though EWRs here were by and large limited in terms of concrete interventions, their levels of pride at being a people’s representative and their aspiration to take up core issues at the panchayat level were no less than those of the trained. However, in the absence of sustained training the results on the ground were not comparable.

Clearly, the significant leaps of progress achieved by the women of Bihar in terms of imbibing the spirit of democracy as also their rights, becoming aware of privileges and responsibilities will indeed get a greater fillip if similar and sustained training programmes are carried out on a larger scale across the State. EWRs as a whole, both in panchayats covered by the Pahel project as well as those not covered by it, hope that this will be a priority with the new State government that comes to power in Bihar, whatever its political colour.

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