Slowly but steadly, women elected to panchayats are asserting themselves and, in the process, giving a new thrust to grassroot governance

-- (Credit: CREDIT)Decentralising power at the grassroots; level was on the national agenda for many years. It became a reality through the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution in April 1993. The 73rd amendment, among other things, handed over the reins of power to the people at the panchayat level with a 33 per cent reservation of certain seats and key positions within the panchayat to women. The amendment also made it mandatory for all states to hold gram panchayat and municipal elections and empowered these bodies to undertake development activities at the local level.

About three years after women started occupying the seats of power, changes can already be seen. Many panchayats have performed well despite financial constraints. On an average, around Rs 200 per person reaches every gram panchayat (Rs 1.5 lakh per gram panchayat in Haryana, Rs 2.3 lakh in Himachal Pradesh Rs 90,000 in Uttar Pradesh, Rs 6.5 lakh in Madhya Pradesh, Rs 66 lakh in Kerala) to undertake development work in the village. Since most of this money to panchayats is already tied and committed for certain infrastructure and other development activities, panchayats do not have much autonomy in defining the programme priorities. However, the Kerala's People's Plan (KPP) allots, on an average, Rs 30 lakh per gram panchayat for unlisted projects giving scope for local initiative.

While the 73rd amendment has opened the way for women to exercise their right to be involved in village governance, it does not let them define programme priorities and develop and manage natural resources. Nor is there an integrated approach to environmental planing at a microlevel because each department has its own plan. The KPP attempts to rectify this.

Now that women's participation in panchayats is slowly and surely making an impact on grassroots governance, it can be said that the foundations have been laid to extend this social revolution to all levels of decision - making. Women constitute only 6.7 per cent of the total seats in Parliament. The emerging feedback from women-ruled panchayats should hopefully help evolve a consensus in favour of reserving seats for women in Parliament.

Women in panchayats: the Impact Perhaps the most significant aspect of the entry of women into provincial politics is that many social myths are beginning to be shattered. Those who were initially cynical about the induction of women into the roles of power had argued that women would be forced to serve as dummies for their husbands. They felt that, one way or other, women would be unable to exercise powers as administrators either because of her own ignorance or other limitations imposed on her by domestic duties. Even in states like West Bengal and Kerala, where politicisation of the lower levels had already taken place, the general impression was that women would be mere rubber stamps.

"By and large, women sarpanchs or members attend panchayat or block level meetings by themselves and are not represented by their male relatives," says Chandan Dutta of the Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), Participatory Research in Asia. There has also been a perceptible improvement in administration at the gram panchayat level mainly because women sarpanchs hold meetings during the day and no dubious deals are struck late at night. They are also more accessible than men who are often not around. Due to these factors there is much more honesty and transparency in local administrative matters.

Vignettes obtained from villages across the country about the way these women are functioning in are quite encouraging. In Kanthipad village in West Bengal's Midnapore district, Uma Maiti stood up against corruption in allocation of funds under the Indira Abasan Programme. A handicapped person, Ratna Roy Choudhury of the same village fought for and obtained funds under the same scheme. "Can you call a woman like Tahmina Bibi, who has hardly any formal education, a rubber stamp when she stood against the men in her panchayat of Barogharia village in north Bengal and insisted on the construction of a culvert?" asks Seema Chatterjee who works for an NGO. At a gram panchayat meeting in Kolar district of Karnataka, a woman member suggested some measures on where to buy land and this helped the panchayat save Rs 20,000.

Women are also making substantial contributions in giving suggestions for raising educational standards, addressing water sanitation and fuel problems - areas which were generally not discussed by men. A woman panchayat member from Yavatal district of Maharastra organised a camp for women to discuss issues like dowry and also convinced women to implement improved stove and biogas systems.

Though issues relating to natural resources are not getting the attention they deserve, due mainly to the fact that most of the issues are outside the ambit of the panchayats, there are exceptions. The women pradhan of Kashlog near Darlaghat in Himachal Pradesh, for instance, has opposed limestone mining by Ambuja Cements in the area. According to L B j V Subrahmanyam, director, panchayats, in Hamirpur, the programme of planting fodder plants is picking up in Himachal villages with the help of funds diverted from the Employment Assurance Scheme. Says Kulbhushan Upmanyu, an activist in Chamba, "Mahila mandals all over Himachal have responded to the scarcity by planting and protecting small patches of forests near villages."

Because of the increasing awareness amoing women of their potential, they are slowly gaining the confidence to overcome social stigmas. Kantibai Dhurve, a disabled adivasi (tribal) woman in the Savalkheda gram panchayat of Madhya Pradesh, was elected as president by 273 votes even though seven men had opposed her. In the last four years, Kantibai has been instrumental in the construction of a road in the village apart from setting up many handpumps. "If the government helps us we can do much more." Kantibai says.

That is a perennial problem. But many women are not offering any such excuses. Saroj Rana, the first woman pradhan of the Siyoni block panchayat of Uttarkashi district, has constructed a school and a road for her block panchayat. More important, Rana stopped the long established tradition by which the money the panchayat got under the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana was given to the contractor who built substandard structures. This way both the pradhan and the contractor stashed away part of the funds. Rana, however, has changed all this. Whenever money is allotted, Rana calls all the villagers and announces her plans openly. She has also developed a new way of distributing money meant for development activities. The panchayat block has six villages and Rana has decided to give the whole amount allotted to one particular village, instead of breaking it into six segments for six villages. This way a substantial amount is available for every village in turn. A major impact of women on local politics has been the role they have played in controlling the stranglehold of liquor in most village communities. "We have been successful in closing down two thekas (liquor vends) during the last year. Both these thekas were in panchayats led by women. The pradhans were with us in the struggle," says Soma Devi president of the informal federation of mahila mandals in Chamba, Himachal Pradesh. In many states were women led anti-liquor movements, the support for these can be traced back directly to panchayati raj institution where women held key positions.

Initial reports from women-run panchayats seem to sug- gest that they are more convincing and effective than men in the fight to check corruption at the grassroots level. Majah Wankhede, sarpanch of the village Metikhede in Maharashtra's Yavatmal district, says: "Getting elected was not difficult, what was difficult was what we had to deal with after get- ting elected, particularly dealing with government officials." According to her, the block development officer demanded one tin sheet from each one of the 40 boxes they bought. In spite of facing such demands at every level of her dealings with the government, Wankhede built toilets in the school building, 40 biogas plants and provide smokeless chullahs (stoves) to many houses. She suspended two gramsevaks on charges of corruption in spite of a warning from the block development officer that she would get a terrible reputation if she insisted on suspending workers. "I retorted that the next person I would suspend would be him," says Wankhede.

The obstacles
Yet, like any major social transformation, women who have shown the courage to take their destiny into their own hands have bad to surmount hindrances at every stage. Fatima Suhra, a primary school teacher who was elected as president of the Puthige panchayat of Kasargode district in Kerala, was not allowed to function by the local unit of Communist Party of India-Marxist (cpm) which in fact had sponsored her as their candidate. The party put up a sub-committee to oversee pan chayat affairs and started dictating terms to Subra who rightly refused. The local unit of the cpm ordered social ostracism against her, a lethal strategy in the Muslim-dominated region of Malabar in north Kerala. Suhra finally resigned. "I was on the side of justice," she said after she was forced to resign.

If it is not ostracism imposed by political parties it could be caste-based oppression that women have had to bear. Muktiben Patel, a backward caste woman who became sarpanch of Nitaya village of Hoshangabad district, had to face several no-confidence motions against her by the thakurs (a higher caste) of the village but continues her work like repair- ing school buildings and getting a pukka road for her village. Kesarbai, a chamar (a scheduled caste) sarpanch of the Sona Savri gram panchayat also of Hoshangabad district, had to suffer threats from men belonging to higher castes who even sent hooligans to attack her house. Professor Abdul Aziz of the Institute of Socio-economic Change, Bangalore, feels that priorities have changed at the gram panchayat level to issues like water, anganwadis (creches) and public conveniences. While it is too early to jump to any sweeping conclusion as the panchayats are yet to complete its first full term, there are enough reasons for optimism like this countrywide survey of women-run panchayats show. With inputs from P R I Pradeep in Kerala, Ranjita Biswas in West Bengal, Vinita Balikundri in Maharashtra, fitendra Verma in Uttar Pradesh, Ashwini Chatre in Himachal Pradesh, Niti Diwan in Madhya Pradesh and Keya Acharya in Karnataka

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