Democratic decentralisation expands the space for political participation of the subordinated and the excluded. Scholars have cited it as a process of empowerment of the depressed classes to reach the mainstream of social, economic and political life. As Abdul Aziz, in his 1996 publication, ‘Decentralised governance in Asian countries’, by Sage; and Mathew George in his 1995 work ‘Status of panchayati raj in the states of India’, published by Concept, have pointed out, it becomes even more significant and critical for women who are politically excluded. In fact, the one notion that is gaining universal acceptance, even in the context of neo-liberalism, is that governance needs to be increasingly gendered through state intervention. Such a policy process must ensure political and statutory mandate to elected women representatives (EWRs) and empower them to stamp their collective political identity in society.
A silent revolution
The last two decades (1993 to 2014) witnessed a silent revolution towards decentralised governance in the country, especially after the 73rd and the 74th Amendments to the Constitution of India. One of the more radical and liberal aspects of these amendments is the provision of reservation to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (in proportion to their population) and reserving one-third of the seats and positions of authority (like president and vice-president) for women in all tiers of the panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). Incidentally, many states—Bihar, Uttarkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan and Tripura, are providing 50 per cent reservation.
This highly progressive measure brought more than one million women as elected representatives, including many from socially disadvantaged groups, into the political decision-making process of the panchayat.
Available literature on the participation and performance of women in rural governance presents both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, several micro-level studies, one such done by Bidyut Mohanty in her 2001 work, ‘The daughters of the 73rd Amendment’, published by the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS) point out that about 80-90 per cent of women now attend panchayat meetings. Given their sheer numbers, one might conclude that democracy has become more participatory, at least at the grassroots level. In fact, a 2001 study by Jos Chathuculam and M S John, on ‘Empowerment of women panchayat members: Learning from Kerala (India)’, for AJWS, notes that despite numerous problems, the performance of women as per qualitative and quantitative indicators is in no way inferior to that of men. A sizable segment of society, too, has come to accept that women are, perhaps, better at running the village panchayat than men. As Dharam Singh Pal has pointed out in his 2005 paper, ‘Women in grass-roots democracy in India: Experiences from selected states’, presented in the 3rd International Conference on Women and Politics in Asia in Islamabad, Pakistan; and Kot Lokendra Singh indicated in his published 2007 work, ‘Women in rural democracy: A changing scenario’, published by People’s College of Medical Science and Research Centre, women elected to the panchayat have shown startling results, particularly in the sectors of health, education, and basic services and ensured a significant change in the living conditions of their respective communities. Even in strong patriarchal cultures, reservation has encouraged women to demonstrate their leadership skills.
Notwithstanding these positive aspects, patriarchy and social strictures inhibit women’s participation in local governance through the panchayat. These include restrictions on freedom of movement, hegemonic inequalities like caste and patriarchal norms, all of which render them inaudible and invisible in the public sphere. Ample instances have been recorded by empirical studies of women being removed often from legitimate positions of power by deploying the ‘no-confidence’ motion. B S Baviskar, in a 2003 study, ‘Impact of women’s participation in local governance in rural India’, for the ISS indicates that the targeted women had challenged power centres; hence, the politics of conspiracy and co-option were used for petty political manipulations to bypass them. Thus, what is given by law and the Constitution is taken away by intrigue and chicanery. The experiences of elected women panchayat members since 1993 reveal a large number of problems in the course of their work, as pointed out by Mohanty in her 2001 study, cited above.
Thus, despite increased participation in decision-making bodies, women remain ineffective since their participation remains negligible in implementation mechanisms. Though people have now accepted women in politics, differences in power relations between men and women prevail with respect to ownership rights mainly since women’s intervention in political activities are perceived to be a threat to the male power centre.
However, many women are challenging the traditional/ patriarchal power centres. Some have confronted the systemic variables by entering the political domain and openly challenged the moralistic gaze women are subject to. Others have resorted to using male family members to enter the public domain giving rise to the notion of proxy governance. Unfortunately, a few have altogether shunned public domain and retreated to their private domains. These moves have also created myths about women’s passivity toward politics and about how female relatives of influential politicians from affluent sections merely occupy these seats, allowing men to carry out their tasks. Research, though, has disproved these myths. The work of younger, first time women entrants from economically weaker sections indicates a high level of participation and performance. Public patriarchy, of course, is hindering their progress, with women being included but not allowed to participate, hence undervaluing their work.
Obstacles to women’s participation
The rotation of reservations and especially, the mandatory rotation of the chairwoman’s post, is another obstacle in the effective delivery of services by EWRs. This hampers long-term interaction with the electorate and affects the confidence of EWRs. For effective and sustained women’s leadership at the grassroots level the concept of rotations needs to be revisited, as has been opined in the 2009 article of Nirmala Buch, ‘Reservations for women in panchayats: A sop in disguise?’ published in the Economic and Political Weekly. The Tamil Nadu government has opted for two terms per EWR to combat this issue, notwithstanding the continuation of this practice elsewhere in the country.
Women, one finds, are also unable to lobby with other members and officials, owing to lower levels of articulation and, perhaps, lack of sufficient and timely information. This could be overcome by organising training programmes that provide them with relevant information and impart skills in articulation and lobbying. Thus, for making the most of the Amendments to the Constitution that has brought women into the panchayat, it is important to diagnose the intricacies that prevent the real empowerment of women and plan likewise.