Do you think inducting a large number of women as leaders in the panchayat would make a substantive difference to rural India? Are you aware that women remain leaders on paper in the majority of cases and decisions are taken by the men?
Mr V Kishore Chandra Deo : You see, one third seats and offices of chairpersons in the panchayat are reserved for women. Today, women members in the panchayat constitute 42.3 per cent of the total elected representatives! In fact, fifteen states have already passed a legislation reserving at least 50 per cent seats for women. I am positive that the presence of women in such large numbers will have a deep and lasting impact on our rural society.
It is true that challenges persist—less education, less experience, social constraints, family pressure and more. But, women panchayat leaders have performed and achieved. I have personally interacted with so many women leaders on my recent visit to nine states and seen numerous cases where women leaders have been decisive and effective. Did you know that many elected women representatives assert that even if seats are de-reserved in rotation, they would still contest for the post of sarpanch? From my experience I find women more likely to take up issues related to water, sanitation, health and education of children. I know that supporting women leaders would bring about a change that right now would perhaps seem utopian to you. Well, it doesn’t seem too much now, but change is palpable to politicians such as us, who are in constant communication with the grass root in their constituencies.
In your recent visit to rural areas of nine states what were your impressions about women in panchayat?
Mr V Kishore Chandra Deo : I saw that a sizeable proportion—I am told that in percentage terms it would work out to about 94—of women are raising issues of domestic violence and child marriage apart from other things during panchayat meetings. Elected representatives walked up to me and reported that the attendance of women in the gram sabha has increased. Elected women representatives’ efforts to encourage girl’s school enrolment are also significant. More importantly, they have become role models for the village sisterhood. We are also promoting the mahila sabha, and are ensuring that issues raised in the mahila sabha should be subsequently raised in the gram sabha. It was heartwarming to see that elected women representatives of panchayati raj institutions assert their identity as capable and motivated leaders, notwithstanding the challenges of caste, class, patriarchyand power.
The Ministry of Panchayati Raj and UN Women have partnered to implement capacity building programmes for women. What do you think was the prime achievement?
Mr V Kishore Chandra Deo : The programme enabled us to make inroads into states where foeticide is high. I have visited some of these places. When such issues are raised in the gram sabha, which is the most effective body, they percolate into the minds of the people, especially the women. The area where khap diktats are followed was our first target under the UN Women programme. There was a positive response to our efforts, which was reflected in the significant improvement in the gender ratio (at birth) within two to three years.
In areas where tribal councils work at village levels what role do you envisage for women leaders, knowing that these societies are largely matriarchal?
Mr V Kishore Chandra Deo : Tribes are oriented towards natural resources. You will find women here have more authority, respect, and have a forceful role to play as compared to women in sedentary farming societies. Under the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), enacted by the government in 1996 to cover ‘scheduled areas’, the gram sabha has been given a special role to self-govern its resources. Thus all women leaders can take up issues related to forest rights in these areas.
Do you think decentralised governance needs to be upgraded?
Mr V Kishore Chandra Deo : Strengthening of panchayat is the key—it is imperative to enhance the devolution of powers and funds to the grass root. Being a federation, the power to make amendments lies with the state governments. But only Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra have devolved significant powers to the panchayat. We have linked 20 per cent funds under the Rajiv Gandhi Panchayat Sashaktikaran Abhiyan (RGPSA) to various parameters. But, I must add here that it is important to systematically build the capacity of the panchayat to formulate plans and ensure delivery. And, decentralised governance entails making the panchayat more accountable through social audit, voluntary disclosure before gram sabha and regular conduct of gram sabha. The extent to which states support such accountability will be part of the performance linked to funding under RGPSA.
The gram sabha should be convened at least twice a year, but it isn’t. Also recording of proceedings would bring in transparency. Please comment.
Mr V Kishore Chandra Deo : When I took charge of the ministry two years ago, we issued a circular saying that the gram sabha should be conducted at least four times in a year. We issued written directives to the states that the gram sabha proceedings should be video recorded. In fact if I have my way I would like to convene 14 gram sabha in a year—why two. Also, every gram sabha should be preceded by the mahila sabha. Whatever resolution is passed by the mahila sabha should be taken up by the gram sabha. This has begun in some states—I have seen it being done in my constituency, Araku, Andhra Pradesh. Karnataka and Odisha have also begun recording meetings. You must understand that we can issue policy guidelines, but it is the responsibility of the states to implement them.
What is your vision of panchayat in the next 20 years, since villages still lack basic infrastructure viz. motorable roads connecting to a city, electricity, safe drinking water, warehouses etc.?
Mr V Kishore Chandra Deo : It is obvious that good governance and expenditure on developmental and social welfare programmes needs to fall in place with an effective panchayat. The panchayat must ensure that the benefits of governmental programmes reach the people. I have overseen the launching of the centrally sponsored scheme of RGPSA in March 2013 with great pride. It is my understanding from years of working at the grass root that this programme is bound to strengthen and empower the panchayat. We have observed a significant increase in the outlay for the Twelfth Five Year Plan for this MoPR and I expect that the funds will be progressively increased during the subsequent plan periods. I am confident that with all these initiatives the capacity of the panchayat will be enhanced and its role in governance and socio-economic development will become more important. This will surely improve rural governance.