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Women empowerment: Does patriarchy fear reservation in Gram Panchayats?

Since reservation for women is for 5 years per seat, the overwhelming majority of women do not continue as Pradhan once the seat becomes a general seat Photograph: (Others)

WION Kolkata, West Bengal, India Apr 24, 2017, 06.16 AM (IST) Debraj Bhattacharya

 

Three Women Pradhans

Recently, I had an opportunity to visit Gram Panchayats (GP) in the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The purpose was to understand how Gram Panchayats are making plans. Recently, the fourteenth Finance Commission has devolved a significant amount of fund to the Gram Panchayats of the country and, therefore, there is a renewed thrust on planning at the GP level. 

In course of our travels, we encountered three elected heads of GP who are women. Although, studying the impact of reservation for women was not the objective of our visit, I was curious to know how the reservation was working out in reality. I shall come to the debate and the data later, but let me tell the story first. 

In one Gram Panchayat in Jodhpur district of Rajasthan, I saw that a young lady, mid-twenties at the most, came and joined the discussion. She was wearing a sari and her veil covered her face. We were told that she was a master degree holder. She sat in the discussion but did not utter a word. She was surrounded by men, mostly village elders and some GP officials. I could see that she was curious but she did not speak a word. 

One of the village elders, we found out, was her sasur-ji (father-in-law). He and a few others did most of the talking. Midway through the conversation, the father-in-law left for some business and the woman Pradhan immediately removed her veil. She still kept quiet, but the veil was off. Half-an-hour later the sasur-ji returned and she promptly covered herself once more. 

From this GP, we moved to another GP in the same district. There the Pradhan is supposedly a woman, but she did not appear before us. It was clear that her husband, a dynamic young man and a Modi bhakt, was the real Sarpanch. He told us of the wonderful efforts their GP has taken to achieve Open Defecation Free status, the first in the district. His complaint was that in all the training that the state was giving, it was his wife who was getting the invitation and not him although he was the obvious head of the GP. We agreed that this is a big problem. 

In Indore district of Madhya Pradesh, we encountered a woman Pradhan who took us on (research team from Kolkata, no joke) with full confidence. She was middle-aged, she was educated and had been an LIC agent for some time. She was able to confidently answer most of our queries. After about an hour, her husband joined the conversation and it was clear that he was also an important informal player in the running of the GP. However, he was not able to dominate the process and talked more like a husband-wife team rather than like the de facto ruler. 

 

Romantics often like to pick up stories of this woman doing this amazing act...but the general reality is that most women who are getting elected to become Pradhans are not exactly challenging patriarchy.
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The Report

These three stories, in a way, reflects the present status of empowerment of women that is happening through the policy of reservation of seats in the panchayati raj. As tokenism, this looks great. Particularly, to the outside world, this looks like a progressive gesture, but it is doubtful whether the Indian patriarchal society is really shaken and stirred or not. Romantics often like to pick up stories of this woman doing this amazing act, that woman leaving MBA and becoming Pradhan, but the general reality is that most women who are getting elected to become Pradhans are not exactly challenging patriarchy. They are usually planted by their families to occupy the seat for five years. 

How can I come to such a conclusion on the basis of three anecdotes? No, I can’t. Fortunately, there was a large-scale study commissioned by Ministry of Panchayati Raj when Mani Shankar Aiyar was the Minister. This study was carried out by AC Nielsen and ORG Marg in 2008, under the supervision of a panel of reputed academicians. This is the only large-scale survey available which was carried out across the country. 

What did this report say? A snapshot from the concluding chapter:

•    Women Pradhans usually have very little or no political background unlike the male Pradhans (p157). In other words, those women who are becoming Pradhans are rarely coming through a process of doing politics in the public space which usually grooms a young person to become a political leader. 

•    Reservation of seat leads to entry into the political sphere as it allows women to contest from these seats and then become Pradhans. However, since reservation is for 5 years per seat, the overwhelming majority of women do not continue as Pradhan once the seat becomes a general seat (p.160). Only about 14 per cent got re-elected once the reservation was removed. In other words, most women are dummy candidates, planted by their families and removed once the reservation for that GP is removed after 5 years. Even if they contest, they usually lose. For most of these women, there ends their political career. 

News media usually loves to highlight the glorious exceptions. NGOs love to give awards to some of the exceptional cases. But the success of a policy depends not on the exceptions but on what is happening to the majority for whom the policy is framed. 

In other words, most women are dummy candidates, planted by their families and removed once the reservation for that GP is removed after 5 years.
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Policy Implications

Does this mean that I am opposing reservation for women? No, certainly not. But we need to understand that Indian patriarchy is much stronger than what is often imagined. It can co-opt progressive legislations. 

There is one suggestion, that the tenure for reservation should be for 2 terms per GP rather than one. This is a good suggestion but it will not solve the problem of an influential family planting their bahu-rani (daughter-in-law) as a dummy. It is possible, however, that if there is political will, training support to women who become head of GPs can be considerably improved. 

However, nothing can replace education as a mean of empowerment.   Social and political movements through which women come to power is what scares the patriarchy, not reservation. 

Coda

The large-scale study mentioned here was done in 2007-08. It is time for a repeat study to see whether the situation has changed or not. There have been studies with small sample sizes in different parts of the country, but they are not useful to understand whether the policy is working nationally or not. 

Debraj Bhattacharya

Debraj Bhattacharya is a historian and consultant with Riddhi Foundation, Kolkata. He is the author of the book ?Exploring Marxist Bengal?.

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