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Making the 50-50 formula work for women

Sep 17, 2009

Hailing the Indian government’s move to reserve 50% quota for women in local bodies, Pamela Philipose, Director, Women’s Feature Service, says it is important to translate numerical strength into meaningful empowerment. The proposed amendment must create spheres of influence where women can act decisively.

New Delhi: The story of Fatima Bi is often told. An unknown, illiterate woman from Andhra Pradesh who found herself married at 14, she went on to transform the face of her small, nondescript village as its ‘sarpanch’ (village council head). She ensured by her hard work and powers of mobilisation that her village eventually got a road, check dams, a new school and livelihood opportunities.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recognised her achievements by bestowing upon her its Race Against Poverty award for the Asia-Pacific region.

If it were not for the 73rd amendment of 1993, which mandated that there be 33% reservations for women in local government, and which has brought over one million women into the political system, the energy and commitment of a woman like Fatima Bi would have been lost to her community.

“This is a richly deserved tribute to the women”


According to a study conducted by the Panchayati Raj Ministry in August 2008, of the 27.8 lakh panchayat representatives, around 10.41 lakh are women. What was also revealing was that only 20% of these women came to power on the basis of family networks, the rest were from non-political backgrounds.

A recent editorial in the Panchayati Raj Update, commending the “great determination and efficiency” of these women, maintained that the “sceptics have been proved wrong by women panchayat leaders... We salute them for propelling the movement which began 16 years back...”

Today, that movement seems poised to reach another milestone. The Indian government has now decided to raise the percentage of reservations for women at the panchayat raj level to 50%. This is not just a formal recognition that women, who constitute 50% of the population, must have adequate and equal representation in the public space, but is also a validation of the good work of women like Fatima.

As Mani Shankar Aiyar, former Union minister of Panchyati Raj put it, “This is a richly deserved tribute to the women who, under the 33% quota, got into panchayats and performed with such distinction that it forced a laggard Centre to join the ranks of the states, which had already granted 50% reservations to women.”

According to Aiyar, the social and political empowerment of women through the panchayati raj system is “without parallel in the world and without precedent in history” and it will mean that there will now be two million women leaders at the local level, with the number of women holding chairmanships rising from the present 80,000 to 1,20,000.

These are significant numbers, certainly, and have much symbolic value. But if the potential inherent in this policy decision is to translate into reality, a great deal more needs to be done.

Bidyut Mohanty of the Institute of Social Sciences, put it this way, “This move to increase the number of women panchayat leaders is to be welcomed - by mandating numerical equality, it would have achieved the first condition of equal representation. But in order to make the institutions of panchayati raj more effective, we would need to do much more than usher in mere numerical representation. We need to expand the scope and efficacy of such participation.”

“Laws and customs must be such that a woman really can go out and participate”

Numerical representation then is a necessary but not sufficient condition for women's political participation at the grassroots. It would need to be accompanied by at least three major changes on the ground. The first involves the creation of a public sphere that actually enhances women's participation.

Effective participation

Political philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in an essay on gender and governance, made the prescient observation that effective political participation would require “material and institutional empowerment”. Laws and customs must be such that “a woman really can go out and participate, her efforts to participate will not be thwarted by unequal, legal, or financial, or physical obstacles.”

The second major change is the nature of the intervention itself. It is well known that the much-hyped devolution that panchayati raj was supposed to have ushered in, has proved largely elusive. One of the reasons for this is that panchayats are still only seen as implementers of schemes and programmes designed either by the central or state governments. The top-down model remains as resilient as ever, exercises like Kerala’s participatory planning notwithstanding.

The reality in most of India is that financial and administrative powers are still jealously controlled by the higher tiers of government, and mostly by the men who constitute them. In fact, as many observers have pointed out, of the 29 subjects that are deemed the responsibility of the panchayats, under the Eleventh Schedule, only a few have actually devolved to the panchayats.

According to the Eleventh Schedule, the main responsibility of panchayati raj insitutions is to "accelerate the pace of development and involve all people in this process so that the felt needs of the people and their development aspirations are fulfilled".

At the village level, it expects panchayats to list out the felt needs of the village, prioritise local needs on the basis of resources available and prepare plans.At the Block level, panchayats are meant to aggregate all village plans, among other responsibilities. At the district level, they have to consolidate all Block plans, estimate costs and prepare final plans to be presented before the district planning committee.

Women panchayat leaders should be given full control over all 29 subjects under the Eleventh Schedule

Subjects that come under the purview of panchayats, include measures as far-reaching as land reforms, and sectors as important as minor irrigation, small-scale industries, education, roads and bridges, rural electrification, poverty alleviation programmes, Public Distribution Scheme (PDS), and so on. But in reality, the sphere of influence of panchayats - especially those headed by women - has been consciously narrowed, even as the more lucrative and corruption-prone sectors continue to be controlled from the top.

Experts like Mohanty believe that women panchayat leaders should be given full control over all 29 subjects under the Eleventh Schedule. And this would, in turn, demand a third important change: Capacity and awareness building.

Today, many women ‘sarpanchs’ and ‘pradhans’ just do not realise their real powers and, even if they do, they are ignorant about how they must exercise them. If women leaders at the grassroots are to fulfil their Constitutional role, this area of darkness must be addressed.

Unless numbers translate into actual participation and actual participation translates into an effective exercise of power, equality in numerical representation, despite its rich symbolism, would remain a hollow thing. 

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