The story of Fatima Bi — an illiterate woman from Andhra Pradesh who found herself married at 14 and went on to transform the face of her small village as its ‘sarpanch’ — is often told. The United Nations Development Programme recognised her achievements by bestowing upon her its Race Against Poverty award for the Asia-Pacific region.
<b1>If it were not for the 73rd amendment of 1993, which mandated that there be 33 per cent reservations for women in local government, the commitment of a woman like Fatima Bi would have been lost on her community. According to a study by the Panchayati Raj Ministry, in August 2008, of the 27.8 lakh panchayat representatives, around 10.41 lakh were women. About 80 per cent of them did not have a political background.
Today, the movement has reached another milestone. The government has increased the percentage of reservations for women at the panchayati raj level to 50 per cent. It’s a formal recognition of women’s equal representation in the public space and a validation of their good work. We will now have two million women leaders at the local level, with the number of women at chairman-level rising from the present 80,000 to 120,000.
But numerical representation alone is an insufficient condition for women’s political participation at the grassroots. It needs to be accompanied by at least three major changes. The first involves the creation of a public sphere that enhances women’s participation. Political philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in an essay on gender and governance, made the prescient observation that effective political participation would require “material and institutional empowerment”. Laws and customs must be such that “a woman really can go out and participate, her efforts to participate will not be thwarted by unequal, legal, or financial, or physical obstacles”.
The second change deals with the nature of the intervention itself. It’s known that the devolution that panchayati raj was supposed to have ushered in has proved largely elusive. It’s because panchayats are still seen as only the implementers of schemes and programmes designed either by the central or state governments.
The reality is that financial and administrative powers are still controlled by the higher tiers of government and mostly by men. In fact, of the 29 subjects the panchayats are responsible for under the Eleventh Schedule, only a few have actually devolved to the panchayats.
At the village level, the Eleventh Schedule expects the panchayats to list out the felt needs of the village, prioritise local needs on the basis of available resources and prepare plans. At the Block level, they should aggregate all village plans, among other responsibilities. At the district level, they have to consolidate all Block plans, estimate costs and prepare final plans to be presented before the district planning committee.
Subjects that come under the purview of panchayats include measures as far-reaching as land reforms and important sectors like minor irrigation, education, roads and bridges, rural electrification etc. But in reality, the sphere of influence of panchayats — especially those headed by women — has been consciously narrowed.
Experts like Bidyut Mohanty from the Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi, believe that women panchayat leaders should be given complete control over all 29 subjects under the Eleventh Schedule. This would, in turn, demand a third important change: Capacity and awareness building. Today, many women sarpanchs and pradhans don’t realise their real powers. Even if they do, they remain ignorant about how to exercise them. If women leaders at the grassroots are to fulfil their constitutional role, this area of darkness must be addressed.
Unless numbers translate into actual participation equality in numerical representation would remain a hollow thing.
Pamela Philipose is Director, Women’s Feature Service