Being the change that is desired
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Being the change that is desired

In spite of systemic imperfections, women sarpanchs must rise to the challenge instead of quitting the field, Satya Prakash writes.

india Updated: May 09, 2012 01:05 IST
Satya Prakash
Satya Prakash
Hindustan Times

As India celebrates the 19th anniversary of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, which contains provisions for devolution of power and responsibilities to the panchayats, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday emphasised the need to strengthen panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) to achieve inclusive development in rural and tribal areas, particularly those affected by Maoism.

His comment comes close on the heels of India's first MBA woman sarpanch Chhavi Rajawat's remark that panchayats are a 'farce' and that the system should be scrapped. Rajawat, who was elected sarpanch of Soda village in Tonk district of Rajasthan in 2010, is reported to be frustrated because 'petty government officers' are not allowing elected representatives to work properly.

Coming from a woman who represented India at the 11th Info-Poverty World Conference at the United Nations last year, the statement surprised many. So what makes Rajawat so cynical about the PRIs?

As a means of conflict resolution, panchayats have existed in India for centuries and have enjoyed people's faith. Gram swaraj - one of the goals of India's freedom struggle - was the Mahatma's dream. But attempts made by policymakers to use panchayats for the implementation of rural development schemes could not yield the desired results due to excessive bureaucratic control.

The 73rd Constitutional Amendment which came into force on April 23, 1993, revived PRIs in a big way by creating a three-tier system of rural local self-governance with gram panchayats at the village, panchayat samitis at the block and zila parishads at the district level, with elections every five years.

It empowers the rural population, including weaker sections of society and women, by devolving the control of resources and responsibilities of planning and implementation of programmes relating to agriculture, drinking water, education, health and sanitation, minor irrigation and social forestry etc on the PRIs.

Significantly, despite dithering for decades on the issue of reservation for women in Parliament and assemblies, political parties displayed a great vision in passing the 93rd Amendment providing for 33% reservation for women. Rural women, who suffered in silence for centuries due to poverty, illiteracy and gender bias, are now fighting for their rightful position in society. Many states have given 50% reservation to women in PRIs.

Despite such strides, PRIs are not problem-free. The government spends about R90,000 crore every year through 2.3 lakh gram panchayats on social sector schemes. But increasing corruption in the implementation of these schemes is a matter of concern. In fact, recently, the Supreme Court was forced to order a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in Orissa.

This is due to an unholy nexus among the local bureaucracy, criminals/contractors and the elected representatives. After their successful foray into Parliament and assemblies, criminals are targeting panchayats because huge amounts of money are spent through the PRIs.

Moreover, rural Indian society is in a state of transition where institutions of the formal State structure are yet to replace the existing feudal ones. After the implementation of reservation for women in panchayats, many local strongmen have used women from their families to retain power. With the implementation of the 13th Finance Commission's recommendation of giving a share in taxes to panchayats, criminals will find them much more attractive.

To ensure that elective representatives are well-equipped to handle the situation, which forced Rajawat to make such a desperate statement, we need to build the capacity of the PRIs. Further, an effective monitoring and evaluation system must be put in place to check the siphoning of funds.

The role of woman sarpanchs like Rajawat is important during this transition. They are role models for the change India aspires to achieve. Instead of quitting at the first hurdle, Rajawat must pick up the gauntlet to change the system.

First Published: Apr 26, 2012 23:49 IST