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Whither devolution of power in panchayats to women?

By Moin Qazi*
Pride and dignity would belong to women if only men would leave them alone. – Egyptian Proverb
During the last two decades the gender landscape in rural India has been slowly greening and women are now on the cusp of a powerful social and political revolution. The harbinger of this social and political change is a unique policy experiment in village-level governance \ has brought transformative results for its most oppressed class: the village women. India’s affirmative action, aimed at chipping away centuries of powerlessness, is one of the many watershed stories. Women have risen to participate in decision-making processes and play a role in public life.
In 1993, India introduced the Panchayati Raj (Village Government) Act, mandating a three-tiered structure of local governance at the village, block and district levels with reservation of one third of all posts in gram panchayats – village councils at the bottom tier of India’s decentralized governance system – for women. The vision was that these female-headed councils would bring greater transparency and better governance in their villages. It revitalized an age-old system of rural local government whose name is drawn from the Sanskrit for ”council of five wise men,”
These councils take decisions on every important subject in the rural political life. Councils have been the preserve of men because they chose which public goods to invest in — from drinking water facilities to roads — and where to put them. They now have women members and leaders, who are challenging feudal traditions and redefining the way councils are run. In this process, they are also learning some important political lessons.
This legislation has been the single-most substantial countrywide initiative for improving inclusion and facilitating devolution of powers. It has been called a watershed revolution, the greatest social experiment of our time, and one of the greatest innovations in grassroots democracy. It is one of the crown jewels in India’s democracy and, thanks to quotas reserving spots for female representatives; several women have been making their way up India’s governance ladder .
This new law was a step towards the fruition of Gandhi’s dream of village self-republics which would have local governance and gender justice. Gandhi believed that, if implemented correctly, the Panchayat Raj system would alleviate alienation of the common people and also preclude the external intervention of higher-level civic officials, who might not be familiar with or fully share the concerns of local people. 
The introduction of Panchayat Raj, and a strong space for women which it provides, has been a landmark signpost in global democracy. It is a very a big point of extending economic and political opportunity equally to women and has set in motion a massive exercise in social engineering unprecedented in today’s ‘world system’.
The conservative framework of rural India got an opportunity to break out of its shell of stagnation. Whereas in Western democracies it took long struggling years for a suffragette movement to win adult franchise for women, it was a shorter journey in India. Women are slowly overcoming deep seated cultural resistance and are trying to achieve developmental goals which were either unachievable or much harder to achieve.
This new law was the fruition of Gandhiji’s dream, to see local governance and gender justice being managed by village self-republics that have a purely localised approach. Gandhiji believed that the ‘Panchayat Raj’ system would obviate the feelings of alienation for locals and preclude the external intervention of higher-level urban civic officials. He strongly believed that those urban civic officers may not be familiar with the concerns of the local populace and may not share the same level of emotional attachment.
It was Gandhi’s endorsement of it that perhaps explains why the PRI system was partially accepted by the makers of our constitution. PRIs were mentioned in Article 40 only as a Directive Principle of State Policy in 1950. It stated that steps shall be taken to organise village panchayats, and endow them with the powers and authority necessary for them to act as units of self-government.
However, around the same time, the central government took a different route to facilitate local development, launching the Community Development Programme (CDP) as a pilot in 1952. The CDP tried to push an expert-driven, top-down development processes, moving away from the idea of organising village communities and self-government.
The CDP, however, was not very successful, despite strong government backing. The reason for this was that under CDP, people were did not involve nor did they participate in their own development. In fact, this was why the Balwant Rai Mehta Committee was formed five years later, in January 1957, to review both the CDP and the National Extension Service, and suggest measures for improvement.
The committee’s report recommended that, “the government should divest itself completely of certain duties and responsibilities and devolve them to a body which will have the entire charge of all development work within its jurisdiction, reserving to itself only the functions of guidance, supervision and higher planning”.
A three tier elected self-government known as the Panchayati Raj Institution was suggested—with specific duties and responsibilities outlined—thereby formalising what was earlier just a statement of intent in Article 40.
In a country that has a bad scorecard in matters of gender. India has set a stellar example by becoming a crucible for one of social democracy’s most innovative experiments in gender justice through local governance, fulfilling the twin aspirations of Gandhiji.
This policy experiment dramatically increased the political representation of women at the local government level and spurred one of the greatest successes globally for women’s empowerment and grass-roots democracy. The hope was that such a quota system, beyond its immediate impact on gender balance among leaders, will have long-term effects on women’s status in society by changing perceptions of their leadership capabilities and shaping beliefs about what they can achieve.
The transformation of women’s roles is the last great impediment to universal progress Even though India’s women enjoyed constitutional equality with men, deeply entrenched stereotypical norms, illiteracy and economic reality thwarted their freedom for long. They haven’t had much by way of social agency or political power whereby they could formulate strategic choices, and control resources and decisions that affect important life outcomes. They were hindered from playing an active role in the development of their community. Malnourished, suppressed, uneducated, violated, and discriminated against, Indian women had the odds badly stacked against them. Deeply entrenched stereotypical norms had relegated women to the domestic space and severely restricted their engagement in public affairs, an area largely dominated by men.
There were several initial reservations whether women would be able to handle their role. The contention was that politically inexperienced and otherwise disadvantaged women would simply be overruled or manipulated by their spouses or other powerful local interests. This is not the case. There is a perceptible opening in the political space for women: not the earthquake anticipated by activists, but a thousand tiny changes, each of which was inconceivable in the era before the quotas. It is truly remarkable that they are now setting aright Indian demographics and social indices. The reservations have created irrevocable change: Everyone has seen a woman run things, now, and there can be no questions about whether that is possible.
The immediate impact was less than revolutionary: Although a million women instantly entered electoral politics through the reservations, most of those elected were proxies for their husbands or fathers. They either sat mute beside the male family member who made the decisions at meetings, or did not even attend.
Through years of exposure and several new official policies later, most elected women don’t now seem to be tokens. Women, especially those from the Dalit or “untouchable” community, are able slowly to use the affirmative action quotas to attain power that would once have been unthinkable. They have removed the glass cliffs and they tend to be better educated and more knowledgeable than the average woman in their districts.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Panchayat Raj (Village Government) represents true democracy realized. We would regard the humblest and the lowest Indian as being equally the ruler of India with the tallest in the land”. Gandhi wanted to see each village a little republic, self-sufficient in its vital wants, organically and non-hierarchically linked with the larger spatial bodies and enjoying the maximum freedom of deciding the affairs of the locality.
Women have catalyzed change in large swathes of rural India .This is despite the fact that female leaders had low literacy levels and socio-economic status, and little experience, ambition or political prospects until they assume leadership positions.
The transition to female headed councils took much longer than expected, .The women rarely showed up at official meetings; their husbands stamped their initials on the paperwork .they almost universally faced “gossip and sexual slander,” and all said they would not have been able to participate in politics had their husbands and families been opposed. Sniggering men questioned her morals, says, and said terrible things; but she persisted and persevered.
There is abundant empirical evidence to confirm that the quality of governance in women headed councils is quite superior. It is not that women are purer than men or immune to the pull of greed. But there is almost a certainty that women will channel money into solving more fundamental issues and avoid grandiose schemes that may be for the good of just the elite. When men control all the levers of money there is more likelihood that it will be invested in big-ticket construction projects such as road building where corruption is rife, rather than in schools or clinics.
“Educate, agitate, and organize,” the main architect of India’s constitution Dr B R Ambedkar exhorted. Many more Indians will have to exercise these democratic rights if they wish to transform the profoundly damaging patriarchal character .The younger generation, which is more gender opaque, can tilt the scales of future political gender representation in a more equitable direction. Pessimists might worry that such gender-blindness could lead to more of the status quo, rather than growth in female political participation. But they can be assured that the powerful ripples of transformation cannot now be rolled back. Women’s empowerment is in a powerful mission mode.
It is clear that women’s leadership in panchayats is transforming India. The presence of a female leader in the village significantly increased the level of aspirations held by families for their daughters and female adolescents. They have also improved educational outcomes for adolescent girls, which will improve the labour market over time and help bridge the ratio of male-female working population. In India, the gender gap in education goals has disappeared because girls set higher goals for themselves. Parents were also more likely to report having more ambitious education goals for their daughters, significantly narrowing the gender gap. Conversely, in villages with only men leaders, they found a huge divide in expectations for girls and boys.
Evaluations of this affirmative action policy have found that in villages led by women, the preferences of female residents are better represented, and women are more confident in reporting crimes that earlier they may have considered too stigmatizing to bring to attention. Female leaders also serve as role models and raise educational and career aspirations for adolescent girls and their parents.
The experience in electoral office has also created a pipeline of diverse people who have gained representational experience and are combining it with their knowledge of local issues to potentially better represent the needs of people eventually these women are able to influence the delivery of public services
These women have slowly learned to climb the greasy pole of politics and actively exploring all the options available to them as citizens of a democracy. Some of the ways in which women, through Panchayat Raj, are changing governance are evident in the issues they choose to tackle; water, alcohol abuse, education, health and domestic violence. The functional level politics aims at maintaining law and order in society, resolving conflicts, achieving justice and providing good living conditions for all. Against this background, is there a nobler activity and profession than politics? But few women are using this opportunity to make politics benign.
What does the empowerment of women entail? At a basic level, it means gaining control over sources of power like material assets, self-assertion and ability to take part in taking decisions that affect their lives. For this, women must have equal opportunities, capabilities and access to resources. This would obviously mean a redistribution of the existing power relations and, finally, a challenge to the patriarchal ideology and male dominance as the concept of women empowerment is linked with gender equality.
Women began slowly but they are now no longer shaky about their place in the world. They started their work in benign areas and slowly broadened their agenda. Women are the care givers of the family — they understand commonly over-looked issues like health, nutrition and education. What these women have advocated seemed so simple: water, fuel and fodder. But it also led them to fight larger battles, such as drought and water collection issues, alcoholism and violence against them. They learned how to force change when it wasn’t given freely. Their anger came in waves: sometimes it was aimed at the primary health care staff, sometimes the bus station master or local officials for providing services to which they were entitled.
Panchayat raj provides heartening evidence of the ways institutional design can foster the slow progress of small things. Its lesson is clear: if the wisdom of women at the grassroots is to become policy, it will have to be by restructuring of a political system that brings their voice on the dialogue and negotiating table. Bringing women into power is thus not only a matter of equity but also of correcting an unjust and unrepresentative system.
Although a million women instantly entered electoral politics through reservations; many had to retreat. There were several others who held the ground but underwent great emotional and social hardship. Women have had to battle cultural dogmas, social codes and taboos that were passed on for several generations. But several gritty and tenacious women women persevered and they have come a long way from when they were proxies for their men, infamous sarpanchpatis (husbands of women sarpanchs) who fielded their wives as a front. The rough edges are slowly smoothening as women have learnt to coexist with men. They know that remaining on crossways with them would not be in the interest of their community’s development. Men have also conceded fair space to them.
These rural women are now heralding a new socio-economic and political revolution. They are ensuring that roads are repaired, schools are built, electricity is brought, toilets are installed, medical services are available, water sources are made safe, local savings groups are formed, and the list goes on. When put in charge, they have shown that they are better than men at ensuring public good which has greater priority for the community. They speak with clear-minded realism about opportunities and costs. For many women, attending a panchayat meeting means sacrificing a day’s wage. For several others, it means assuming leadership for the first time in their lives and then subsuming it at home to serve their in-laws and husbands.
*Development expert

Women have to cope with considerable handicaps while negotiating the complex world of politics; for example, inadequate education, the burden of reproductive and productive roles, a lack of self-confidence and the opposition and opposition stemming from entrenched patriarchal views. Granted, no one is perfect. There has been no let-up in resentment, skepticism over the abilities of these women who have gone through painful phases of genuine powerlessness and helplessness. But women have shown grit and survival instincts as they navigated the greasy labyrinthine of village politics. Several of them have successfully altered age old cultural patterns and emancipated their fellow women from menacing patriarchal taboos. There is a perceptible opening in the political space for women: not the earthquake anticipated by activists, but a thousand tiny changes, each of which was inconceivable in the era before the quotas.

These newly-minted female role models that the law created had a dramatic impact on families and younger women. Today in villages, there is a discernible opening in the political space for women: not the sort of earthquake anticipated by the government, but a thousand tiny changes, each of which was inconceivable in the era before the quotas. The biggest significance of women’s reservation was that it unlocked the power, talent and determination of millions of women for driving a new social change that would redefine the contours of rural society. The glass ceilings in India’s villages are slowly cracking as these women are steadily furrowing male bastions.

They are concentrating much more on women-centric issues such as clean water supply, sanitation and education than their male counterparts. Their major concerns include construction of toilets, cleanliness and hygiene of villages, education for women and the problem of alcoholism. Village councils with gender quotas for village chiefs have higher levels of safe drinking water, better roads, higher coverage of immunization, greater safety for females and less bribery.

However, this devolution of power has not been as seamless as it seems. Rural India is one of the world’s most diverse areas, constituting 833 million people who speak more than 700 different languages among them. To invoke cultural changes in these areas is no less than fighting for a revolution, but the restraining forces seem to be ebbing. Still, untouchability, feudalism, bonded labour, extreme caste, gender oppression; exploitation and land grab are few of the afflictions that must be eliminated completely if Indian women are to spend their lives fairly and peacefully.

The quotas have certainly been useful in ensuring that women are equally represented and have the opportunity to improve the quality of governance. Women have the potential to turn around the pyramid of their societies. Enabling them to participate in an active, informed, and meaningful manner in the governance of a village is the key to making each village, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, a “perfect democracy based upon individual freedom.”

Women have the potential to turn around the pyramid of their societies. Enabling them to participate in an active, informed, and meaningful manner in the governance of a village is the key to making each village, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, a “perfect democracy based upon individual freedom.”

India’s experience demonstrates that putting women in leadership positions can catalyse the change process. Although the first generation of women leaders had to cope with entrenched mores and traditions that left them locked into purely domestic roles, their presence in local organizations and committees has convinced the Indian masses of a woman’s ability and potential to lead.

There was a time when women were just titular heads, with their husbands, dubbed sarpanch patis who wore the crown and run the show. Most of those elected women were proxies for their husbands or fathers. They either sat mutely beside the male family member who made the decisions at meetings or they simply did not attend.

By increasing exposure to nontraditional leaders, the reservation system has changed the voter’s attitudes in regards to the ability of disadvantaged groups to lead. The quota system, beyond its immediate impact on gender balance among leaders, is now having long-term effects on the status and roles of women in the conservative Indian society by changing perceptions of their leadership capabilities and shaping beliefs about what they can achieve.

In the long term, the journey is going to be harder and tougher than any policy wonk can imagine. The wait could potentially be eternal. Legislation and policy pronouncements seldom penetrate the surface of social and political barriers and are ultimately impotent against the grid of the established power structures inherent in most rural Indian households and villages.

The vision is truly not as romantic as many would like us to believe, but as women have shown, they have all that is needed to ride out every storm. The men know this very well, but they don’t want to concede that women possess the ability to be the better halves because they are afraid of losing their last refuge—politics.

By creating empowered female role models, the new law led villagers to state more equal aspirations for their teenage sons and daughters and to reduce their daughters’ domestic chores and increase their schooling. When put in charge, women in India are better than men at providing clean water and adequate sanitation for their communities. It also led crimes against women being reported more often, and a jump in prosecution for those crimes.

The great strength of democracy, according to Amartya Sen lies in it that, “it gives people in need a voice and, by so doing, plays a protective role against so many different forms of political and economic abuse”. Panchayat Raj is just a beginning for transforming rural India by engendering a gender revolution. It is only one step on the way, but fortunately, it is the right step on the right ladder.

For this to happen, women need to actively compete in the present political game in the rural arena. It’s going to be a much harder, longer road than policy wonks may imagine. But if they can muster the will, they can succeed. They know from their past lessons that they have the tools and they need to back reforms that can engender greater empowerment for women.

To enter public life, women have to cross many barriers and the many constraints and challenges that are inherent in them.

First, the barrier of home and family, with the economic and sociocultural barriers and demands that exist.

The second barrier is access to knowledge and information. The education of girls has not been a priority for decades, and though this is changing, girls are still deprived. Moreover, literacy is not enough to enable a woman to access all the skills and knowledge required to govern.

Third, the new age of information technology has penetrated villages. Gram panchayats have become more technologically savvy thanks to the state governments’ attempt to computerize all data and communications of the Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRI) to introduce the concept of e-governance. Here again, the lack of access to education and training makes the prevalence of technology a barrier to women.

Women are soldiering on and using whatever their levers of authority provide, to bring about change in their societies. Women are using whatever their levers of authority provide to bring about change in their societies. They have demonstrated that, being a woman need not and should not be among the greatest challenges of life.

The quotas have certainly been useful in ensuring that women are equally represented and have the opportunity to improve the quality of governance. Enabling them to participate in an active, informed, and meaningful manner in the governance of a village is the key to making each village, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, a “perfect democracy based upon individual freedom”.

Experience has shown that women are not just equal to the task but orientate their public-goods provision more towards preference of women, namely more water and roads in West Bengal, and more water but fewer roads in Rajasthan. Though less politically savvy and several times semi illiterate, the women had an advantage in that the district bureaucracy mentored them and also facilitated them in their roles. Several NGOs also designed programmes for skilling them in governance .Women face a host of difficulties in gaining access to political power: cultural norms, gender roles, patriarchal practices, and lack of financial support — which together tend to favor and attract men and discriminate against and discourage the participation of women.

These women, who have successfully challenged the traditional village male elite by defying petrified social codes of female bias, are the aspirational symbols for new India. Several women who started their political careers as self-described “rubber stamp” are now asking questions about budget allocations. They stride about in government offices with polished informality sharing their concerns with officials in tones of supportiveness.

However, the path they have trodden after the initial euphoria of winning the elections has not been easy. There have been growing pains and many early entrants retreated, never to emerge again. The avalanche of social and cultural mores rained heavily on them .Although the resistance is whittling down, it is clear that achieving gender equality in leadership will require sustained policy actions that favor women over a long time.

Many of these women did start as ‘showpiece’ elected women representatives [EWR] but over time, they have developed into proactive people’s representatives who are keen to strive for local development based on their own unique understanding of the needs and aspirations of people.When these seats are coupled with new skills from public speaking to budget management, they are better prepared to negotiate within the political space that has opened for them. Being in the public sphere has given them the confidence to go beyond their arm chair role and really confront issues. .

Several women who started their political careers in India’s panchayats as self-described “rubber stamp” are now asking questions about budget allocations and priorities .These women, who have successfully challenged the traditional village male elite, are the aspirational symbols for new India. For them the posts of village heads offer the only real opportunity to bring change to their communities. When these seats are coupled with new skills – from public speaking to resource management – they are better prepared to negotiate the political space that has opened for them. It is clear that women’s leadership in panchayats is transforming India. The presence of a women leader in the village significantly increased parents’ aspirations for themselves, their daughters and also improved educational outcomes for girls, which can improve labor market outcomes for women over them

Women leaders today are now more than just mouthpieces for their politically savvy husband. For most women reserved posts offer the only real opportunity to bring change to their communities. When these seats are coupled with new skills – from public speaking to development planning to budget management-they are better prepared to deliver development to their societies.

The heroic stories of tenacious women scripting tales of success are great signs of a brighter tomorrow. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a step. Women’s empowerment is a journey, not a fixed point that yields to simple policies.

These elected women are now role models for the other women in their communities and are altering the development agenda to address issues critical to them. Their impact is now touching other areas, which may lead to enduring overall change. This role model effect can help close the gender gaps in other realms because higher aspirations translate into greater actual investments in girls by their parents and themselves.¬

They are reconfiguring gender and social dynamics and have started exploring their wider responsibilities as stakeholders and as citizens of a polity. However, decentralization is not easy. The skill levels in impoverished communities can be very low. And, in countries where democracy has been established in a top-down manner, a feudal mindset may still prevail; both the government and the people may not be aware that government should be accountable to the people – not the other way around.

But these positive improvements are just a drop in the bucket. Across India, tens of thousands of villages lack government support and access to banks. A lot of the positive changes are coming in the better-governed villages. There are still large swathes where discriminatory traditions still dominate. Several factors constrain the effective participation of women leaders. Some of these relate to a patriarchal culture, which neither sees women as political entities nor allows them to develop their potential. The same cultural standards also prohibit women from envisioning themselves as political entities. Other related factors that constrain participation are a lack of basic familiarity with political governance and legal skill. To enter public life, women have to cross many barriers and the many constraints and challenges that are inherent in them.

The social pecking order of villages cannot be overturned easily. Several challenges remain to fuller empowerment. Legitimately elected women representatives remain vulnerable to manipulation and harassment and are often reduced to mere proxies, while the real decision-making authority remains with their husbands or power brokers from higher castes. There are also instances where a woman belonging to a scheduled caste or tribe has been elected as head of a panchayat but is at the mercy of her upper caste landlord in the village for her livelihood. In such cases, too, the reins of power and decision-making clearly lie elsewhere.

For a country that has a poor record of its overall commitment to women’s rights, India has set a stellar example of reserved quotas for women in local governance. It is an example of how a country can indeed successfully empower women, politically, economically, and socially. As Chilean author and women’s advocate Isabel Aliened once said, “Giving women education, work, the ability to control their own income, inherit and own property, benefits the society. If a woman is empowered, her children and her family will be better off. If families prosper, the village prospers, and eventually so does the whole country.” Pearl Buck puts it more emphatically: “Men and women should own the world as a mutual possession.”

*Development expert, consultant with Niti Aayog, Government of India



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