Maharashtra was awarded the first position for incremental devolution of power under the Panchayat Empowerment and Accountability Incentive Scheme (PEAIS); third position in Cumulative Devolution; and the e-Panchayat Award for its effective village-oriented computer programme— ‘SANGRAM’ for the year 2011-12. These achievements may be alluded to the presence of 50 per cent elected women representatives in the panchayat, as opposed to the mandated 33 per cent.
This progress in Maharashtra has been enabled by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working at the grass root. The Mahila Rajsatta Andolan (MRA), a campaign started in 2000 with support from the Resource and Support Centre for Development (RSCD), aims to empower women and strengthen their participation in governance processes through panchayati raj institutions (PRIs).
Inspired by Savitri Bai Phule, who dedicated her life to the education and empowerment of deprived women, the MRA began in 500 villages, through 5 regional networks in 25 districts of Maharashtra. Newly elected 841 women leaders are registered for the distance education programme while a team of 125 women leaders are facilitating the process of local self-governance in 75 blocks of 25 districts in Maharashtra. The MRA has been working on consolidating an association of elected women leaders and potential women leaders in order to strengthen governance.
Women leaders in the Ratnagiri region first voiced their demands during the Pani Parishad conducted in May 2004, which was attended by 400 people of the Madangarh tehsil. Since then, women have climbed the echelons of power and are now at the forefront of the fight against social malaises at the village level. The NGO Parivartan started working with the women leaders and members of four tehsil (blocks) in Ratnagiri district—Mandangarh, Chiplun, Dapoli and Guhaghar, in 2003. So far they have conducted several successful programmes with the EWRs in these areas. Parivartan is currently working with 71 sarpanch, nine upsarpanch and 219 women members in 100 panchayats in the region.
The women led campaigns
Women in Ratnagiri have led the campaign to eradicate alcoholism by working with the police at both the village and district level and have also been involved in helping authorities curb sand mining. EWRs are working to end alcohol induced violence with the support of the female electorate in the region. Moreover, women leaders have been involved in development works like road construction, cleanliness drives, pension for senior citizens, etc.
The MRA experience suggests that when one focuses on activating existing structures and ensuring proper service delivery, rather than in initiating parallel governance systems, people’s ownership is strengthened. Supporting EWRs addresses several issues through the panchayat as women’s leadership is more inclusive, collaborative, consultative, more tolerant of different points of view, more people-oriented and uses more democratic and facilitative forms of decision-making.
Emerging good practices
During district workshops in Maharashtra a set of ten good practices emerged that have been replicated more than 50 times. These are Savitrigatha ‑ which encourages women to lead by example by building a connection with dedicated grass root workers; mahila gram sabha – organising an all female forum before the gram sabha to voice needs related to women issues; Yuvatisunvai – open hearing of the problems of adolescent girls; pre-assembly session workshop – where current issues that ought to be placed in the legislative assembly when in session are discussed; joint house ownership – a campaign to operationalise the government’s directive that all houses are to be in the joint ownership of husband and wife. The other activities that gave good results are flag hoisting by woman sarpanch – to combat prejudices in the raising of the flag on ceremonial occasions; saksham me – an inspiring series of news reports on the successes of women elected representatives published in the Loksatta newspaper; sap shidi – a governance programme patterned on snakes and ladders, that makes it easy for women to understand simple dos and don’ts in government; and gram panchayat darshan – organised visit to the panchayat offices for women, to rid them of the fear of visiting a government office.
There are several activities that would go a long way in strengthening the EWRs. Mahila sabha before every gram sabha need to be evolved statutorily as a national policy. Every state may open a toll free helpline and a cell for elected women at the state and district levels to attend to emergent needs (adverse or otherwise) in terms of police assistance, information dissemination, legal assistance, counselling, etc., with a view to strengthen women’s participation. An EWRs protection law to deal with proxy mukhiya violence against women candidates during and after elections, needs to be put in place. It is important to provide right to land and housing in joint names of spouses; for single, deserted, dalit, tribal, widowed and battered women and for those rendered homeless in caste or communal riots and due to displacement.
The women leaders can further be strengthened by imparting knowledge about government schemes for the development of the village, as well as about the government’s programmes on women’s issues. Another successful way of empowering the EWRs, and the other women in the village, is by making them economically independent; this can be done by assisting them to set up small businesses and stalls in the local market.