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The road to Revolution

Even as the country debates the proposed one-third reservation for women in state Assemblies and the Lok Sabha, women are quietly assuming the cudgels of power in rural India, reports Sanjib Kr Baruah.

india Updated: Mar 13, 2010 23:45 IST

Don’t you know
They’re talkin’ about a revolution
It sounds like whisper
Don’t you know…

African-American singer Tracy Chapman could well be singing about the stirrings of a consciousness akin to a revolution in the Indian political landscape. And particularly, in the rural swathes.

Even as the country debates the proposed one-third reservation for women in state Assemblies and the Lok Sabha, women are quietly assuming the cudgels of power in rural India.

“Of the 36 lakh posts in local self-government bodies in India, we have more than 10 lakh women who have been elected to all the local self-government bodies in India,” says Professor B.S. Baviskar, who has done seminal work on women’s empowerment.

And studies show that for every seat for women, there are at least five contestants, of whom just one will win. “Which means at least 50 lakh women file nominations. It’s not about winning or losing. What we actually have are at least 50 lakh ignited minds who are women. And that is an incredible number,” says Baviskar.

In a landmark development with deep implications, the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments were passed in 1993 providing for 33 per cent reservation for women in all local self-government bodies.

And since then, there has been no looking back for members of the fairer sex.

First among men

“If you travel across rural India, unimaginable changes are taking place. I went for a study in Challisgaon, a village in Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district. A Dalit woman sarpanch had the men — mostly from the intermediate and upper castes — at her beck and call. Her husband watches discreetly from a distance... It would have been unthinkable just some decades ago in a village where Dalits are in a minority,” says Baviskar who is also a senior fellow at the Delhi-based Institute of Social Sciences.

The Panchayati Raj form of local self-government, India’s traditional form of local governance, has been dubbed the greatest experiment of democracy ever, with no close second anywhere in the world.

The figures are quite mind-boggling. There are over 2,50,000 gram panchayats at the village level, about 15,000-18,000 Taluka Parishad Samitis at the intermediate level and about 600 Zila Parishads at the district level.

Alongwith Nagarpalika members, the number of persons elected toall tiers of all local self-government bodies would be about 36 lakh, which is more than the population of Norway.

Working women

Meet Uma Sao. Demure and shy, there is no mistaking the steely resolve in her eyes. A 36-year-old mother of two and a member of the Scheduled Caste community of Telis, she is the sarpanch from Seher, a backward village in Chattisgarh’s Raigad district, about 250 km from Raipur.

“Reserving one-third of the total seats in local government bodies has been a boon for us,” she says. “The men in the villages are given to petty quarrels and while away their time without doing anything substantial. But now when we women deliberate, it is with a sincerity of purpose and with a commitment to perform.”

Geeta Devi, sarpanch of Baiyapur Khurd village near Haryana’s Sonepat, was recently part of a women’s delegation to meet President Pratibha Patil. “My joy knew no bounds when I got selected to be a part of the delegation. Even an illiterate woman like me can rise if there is sincerity of purpose and sense of selfless dedication,” she says.

The challenges

There is, however, no paucity of problems and resistance to the ascendancy of women to positions of political power. There is also a criticism that women panchayat members turn puppets in the hands of their husbands and other male members.

“Even before seats were reserved for women, a lot of doubts were voiced and in a body no lesser than the Parliament where someone asked ‘where would one million women come from to occupy these positions?’ Problems will be there but without reservation, things would have continued as in the past,” says Baviskar.

“What does a man do? He just goes to office or works in the fields. A woman does work both inside and outside the house. I doubt if my husband can work like I do,” says Devi keeping a plate of sweetmeats on the table.

“Please have some. They are in celebration of the passage of the Women's reservation bill in Rajya Sabha. You might not get it again if we fail in the Lok Sabha.”