Women councillors reduced to rubber stamps in Punjab civic bodies
A reality check reveals that most of the existing women councillors in the state are either fielded as dummy candidates by their male relatives or made it to the House because of the latter’s political influence. This is despite the fact that women constitute 49% of the total number of voters, and even outperformed men when it came to exercising their franchise in the recently held assembly polls.punjab Updated: Apr 02, 2017 08:37 IST
The Amarinder Singh government has decided to increase the representation of women in urban local bodies from 33% to 50%. The move aims at involving more women in governance at the grassroots in the state.
A reality check, however, reveals that most of the existing women councillors in the state are either fielded as dummy candidates by their male relatives or made it to the House because of the latter’s political influence.
This is despite the fact that women constitute 49% of the total number of voters, and even outperformed men when it came to exercising their franchise in the recently held assembly polls.
The rationale behind quota for women in local bodies is to mainstream gender concerns in decision-making process, and bring to the forefront issues such as water supply, sanitation, solid waste management, health and education, which are traditionally associated with women.
But with proxy politics in full sway, it seems there is a long way to go before these issues are taken up.
HER MASTER’S VOICE
When HT tried to speak to some of the 25 women councillors in Ludhiana from different political parties, including Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), besides Independents, their phone was answered by either their spouse or other relatives.
“Sanu dasso ki kam hai, councillor tan kite gaye hoye ne (Tell us, what is the matter? The councillor has gone somewhere),” was the common reply. Some of them even claimed that the councillor will remain out of town for a long time. The locals corroborate this phenomenon. Residents of ward 14 say the councillor, Megha Aggarwal, rarely visits their area, as all her work is handled by her father-in-law, Prem Sagar Aggarwal. When contacted, Aggarwal said: “Megha is not available. Tell me what is the issue? I look after her work.”
Former councillor Ashok Kumar, whose wife Kashmir Kaur represents ward 26, said: “She handles the household chores. I look after ward-related works. There is nothing wrong with this practice. It’s common all over India.”
Interestingly, two Lok Insaaf Party (LIP) leaders — Ranjit Singh Bittu, husband of ward 66 councillor Manjit Kaur, and Arjun Singh Cheema, husband of ward 71 councillor Sarbjit Kaur — set quite an example of proxy governance when they inaugurated a road-carpeting work last month.
UNSEEN AND UNHEARD
Similarly, SAD leader Harpreet Singh Bedi is generally seen at inaugurations of various development projects instead of his wife, Veeran Bedi, the councillor from ward 57.
Ninderjit Kaur Dhillon, councillor from ward 2, has given the contact number of her husband, former MLA Ranjit Singh Dhillon, in the official diary of the MC.
In ward 62, Congress block president from Ludhiana South Jarnail Singh Shimlapuri meets people on behalf of his councillor wife, Sarbjit Kaur.
In ward 73, many people claim to have not even seen councillor Baby Singh as her husband Thakur Vishwanath Singh meets people and attends to her phone calls.
These spouses are active not just outside the House, but inside it as well. Things came to such a pass three years ago that Ludhiana mayor Harcharan Singh Gohalwaria banned the entry of spouses or kin of women councillors during House meetings.
But later on February 24, 2014, a group of women councillors sought permission from the mayor to allow their husband or kin to attend the meetings on the plea that the latter had proper updates regarding development in their respective wards, and the ban was revoked.
MEN AT WORK
It’s not just in Ludhiana, this trend is visible in other urban bodies across the state as well. In Bathinda, husbands of some of the members sit behind them in the House and can be seen guiding them. In Jalandhar, out of 26 women councillors, representing 43% of the MC House, only three take part in House debates actively. They include deputy mayor Arvinder Kaur Oberoi of the Aam Aadmi Party, Congress councillor Surinder Kaur and BJP’s Kanchan Sharma.
Many women councillors seem to have made it to the House due to the influence wielded by their politically powerful husbands. Jalandhar councillor Uma Beri is the wife of Rajinder Beri, Congress MLA from Jalandhar Central constituency, Hoshiarpur councillor Rakesh Sud is the wife of former BJP minister Tikshan Sud, Ludhiana councillor Mamta Ashu is married to MLA Bharat Bhushan Ashu, while her fellow councillor Paramjit Kaur Shivalik is the wife of former MLA Darshan Singh Shivalik.
In most cases, women jump into the fray when the seats held by their spouses are reserved for women during delimitation. In Bathinda, for instance, five of the women councillors are wives of former councillors. In Moga, the 17 women councillors entered the House only because the seats were reserved for women in the 50-ward MC.
The 25 councillors in the Amritsar MC, too, have some political connection or the other. It’s true in the case of the Phagwara MC as well. “My family is in politics since 1992. I contested my first poll in 2012 after my father-in-law, a former councilor, motivated me to do so. Since then I have not lost any election,” says Sarabjeet Kaur, a three-time councillor in Phagwara.
The narrative of political connection is playing out in Hoshiarpur as well. Neeti Talwar is the better half of former Rajya Sabha member Avinash Rai Khanna’s political secretary Sanjiv Talwar, Monica Katna is daughterin-law of former MC vice-president Khraiti Lal Katna, Meenu Sethi is daughter-in-law of former councillor Rambha Sethi, while Sunita Dua is the wife of former councillor Sanjiv Dua.
WOMEN WITH A VOICE
The women councillors who are active in the House say they have to work very hard to be taken seriously. Mandeep Kaur Sandhu recalls how she encountered ridicule when she suggested that the Ludhiana councillors contribute one-month salary to organise marriages of poor girls. Ludhiana senior deputy mayor Sunita Aggarwal, who has been in politics for the past 20 years, says she sees a glimmer of hope in the new councillors. “They are more active and voice their opinion more frequently.”
(With inputs from Surjit Singh in Amritsar, Parampreet Singh Narula in Moga, Harpreet Kaur in Hoshiarpur, Navrajdeep Singh in Bathinda, Jatinder Mahal in Phagwara, Harvinder Kaur in Jalandhar)