Kavita Devi first became the pradhan of Barabhari village by contesting a reserved seat in 2000. Within five years, she had won such trust that she defeated 13 male candidates to win another election, and on a general seat this time around. A far cry from the day when she had called a meeting of the women panchayat members, only to find it attended by their husbands instead. Her main achievements: educating panchayat representatives about their responsibilities and fighting corruption.
Combine women’s family commitments with the fact that a majority of the world’s poor who live on a dollar a day or less are women, and it is no surprise that they are harder hit by corruption in the social sector. What the story of Kavita Devi, forwarded by Kiran Sharma who is the PACS programme director, shows is that it is precisely women’s grassroots leadership that can best deliver India’s social sector needs.
A 2007 survey of OECD countries by the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, and various studies by the World Bank, find that women are more difficult to corrupt than men and that there is less corruption when there are more women in positions of responsibility. In the Indian context too, various researchers have shown that women representatives are not only less corrupt, they are also more responsive to community needs than men.
Sometimes this means they are seen as more inclined to focus on the “softer” issues. Rita Sarin, country director of the Hunger Project, argues that this is all to the good. When a woman holds the reins, she is more likely to invest government monies in providing better quality rations to the needy than in constructing a lamppost. When she decides to build a road rather than a school, it will be because the more urgent community need is perhaps to provide speedier access to a hospital. The catch is that when women approach the panchayat secretary or the block development officer to fund their projects, they are often told to think big instead. But women representatives’ strength lies precisely in prioritising the local over the global, which is what empowers them to resist cooption into deeply entrenched systems of corruption.
Some argue that quota systems for women simply worsen nepotism in the panchayats. Countering this charge, Sarin recounts the story of Gangabai, a pradhan from Rajasthan’s Pokhran district. She was all set to place the village handpump near her own house in compliance with her husband’s wishes, until she next went to fetch water. Then the women with whom Gangabai had laboured for years persuaded her to plant it in the middle of the village instead. It is common to see women representatives as being under their men’s thumbs, but their decision making is also powerfully influenced by female solidarity. Women leaders often end up prioritising the needs of women, which are also the needs of the family.
Villages headed by women pradhans possess 30 per cent more taps and hand pumps, and are 25 per cent less likely to pay bribes. And according to a PACS survey of selected panchayats in UP, women filed a high 39 and 41 per cent of the RTI applications relating to PDS and welfare schemes. This is despite the fact that women who are supposed to be in charge of village development for five years receive little training for this responsibility. With time and training, women’s quotas promise to yield sustainable results for India’s socials sector schemes.