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Triple oppression of dalit women panchayat members

By Subhash Gatade

Affirmative action might get dalit women into panchayats, but caste compounds the gender discrimination they face and stymies real empowerment, says Subhash Gatade 20 years after panchayati raj in India

Women in panchayats

Meet Jharana Kapali (38), the pradhan of Lankamura panchayat in Tripura. She has won acclaim for the role she played in levelling barren mounds of earth and turning the area into arable land.

Anyone familiar with Tripura politics will claim that Kapali is not exceptional. With 50% of seats reserved for women in all tiers of the panchayat system, many women have used the opportunity to rise up as leaders and administrators (Livemint, April 23, 2013).

Could it be said then that the emergence of these women vindicates what Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's first prime minister, said at the introduction of the panchayati raj system in India in 1960? That it was ‘the most revolutionary development in India because behind it are all the forces which, when released, will change the structure of the country’.

Twenty years after this historic project of decentralisation of power began (April 24), it would be interesting to look at its trajectory.

Today, 2.5 lakh panchayats and 32 lakh representatives, including 12 lakh women, are democratically elected in India. But a lot undoubtedly remains to be done as far as further devolution of power, removing bottlenecks in bureaucracy or targeting iniquitous relations in our society are concerned. Only last year, a six-member expert committee, headed by MP Mani Shankar Aiyar, was set up by the panchayati raj ministry to examine how panchayats could be leveraged for more efficient delivery of public goods and services. The committee was also asked to suggest ways to incentivise states to devolve the three Fs -- funds, functions and functionaries -- to panchayats.

The committee report attempts to partially address the situation by recommending decentralisation of planning to reflect local priorities so that panchayats can ensure 'last mile' delivery. It also underlines pitfalls still inherent in its implementation, and points out that although the central government has increased its spending on centrally sponsored schemes by 25%, India hasn't progressed proportionately in the Human Development Index. In fact, the country’s position has been more or less stagnant, ranked 136 out of 186 countries, much as it was two decades ago.

How does one explain this predicament?

A logical explanation seems to be that internal incongruities arising out of a societal setup mapped by caste, gender, community and class indices have stayed the same. Despite many instances of growing empowerment at the grassroots level, this is a sad commentary on the current state of affairs.

It remains a persistent fact that women who generally have a secondary status in our society face discrimination whenever they are able to attain seats of power and privilege. And panchayats are no exception. Apart from sexual harassment and physical assault, attempts are made to delegitimise their leadership by levelling false charges or filing fictitious complaints against them. The problem is further aggravated if the woman belongs to a socially oppressed section of society.

Some time ago, there was a public hearing in the capital where the focus was on understanding the atrocities and discrimination faced by dalit women representatives of panchayats. The hearing offered a glimpse of the real situation on the ground. Dalit women panchayat leaders and their counterparts in local councils from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan shared their experiences with the audience. Nortibai, sarpanch of Harmara village in Rajasthan, explained how she had to fight the dominance of the upper castes and how they retaliated by declaring her daughter-in-law Rampyari a dayan (witch) and calling for a social boycott of her family. When Sunita Bairwa from Bahekhada, Alwar district in Rajasthan, became sarpanch, members of the dominant castes attacked her family as they did not approve of a dalit assuming the top post. Ranjoo Devi, president of the district council in Aurangabad, Bihar, narrated how everyday information was not shared with her as she belonged to the dalit community. In a resolution passed at the end of the hearing, it was demanded that a special office be formed in every district to act as a support/advisory centre for dalit, tribal and women representatives.

This is not the first time we have heard about the difficulties faced by representatives belonging to socially oppressed sections of society. On the 15th anniversary of the implementation of panchayati raj, a study titled 'The State of Panchayats: 2007-2008', carried out by the Anand-based Institute for Rural Management (IRMA), highlighted the issue. It brought out the fact that sexual harassment and physical violence against women panchayat leaders from scheduled caste households was 'widespread'. Emphasising the continuing subjugation of dalits in social and economic spheres, despite constitutional and legal provisions, it recorded the discrimination and harassment faced by women panchayat leaders from scheduled castes whilst discharging their public roles (‘Bias Runs Deep, Says Study’ Hindustan Times, April 27, 2008).

The IRMA team’s observations brought back memories of the tragic suicide of Urmila, an ex-panchayat dalit woman leader from Dularia village, Betul district, Madhya Pradesh (November 2007). In her suicide note, Urmila revealed how she had been raped twice by the son of the panchayat head for raising her voice over misappropriation of funds meant for village development. She further explained how, despite repeated complaints to the police, no action was taken against the perpetrators. Forget invoking the SC-ST Act 1989, even a first information report was not registered. In fact it took six long years for a report to be filed at the police station. It was a different matter that nobody was arrested for the crime. Frustrated over continued denial of justice and the connivance of the panchayat head with the local police, Urmila decided to end her life. The first arrest in this case came only after her death.

In 2001, NGOs working with women’s issues and concerned activists organised a public hearing for dalit women heading panchayats in different parts of Rajasthan. The activists later compiled their presentations into a booklet titled Dalit Mahila Sarpanchon ki Kahani: Unaki Jubaani (Stories of Dalit Women Panchayat Heads: In Their Own Words). It was specifically noted that dalit women panchayat leaders have to face triple exploitation/oppression -- being women, being dalit and being poor. Their experiences demonstrated that while dalit women may get elected to different posts in the panchayat system because of the policy of affirmative action, the real goals of decentralisation of power and empowerment still eluded them.

Women panchayat leaders face discrimination at the level of the panchayat, at the hands of fellow members belonging to dominant castes, and they are also subjected to humiliating treatment by government officials dealing with the department of rural development. The report states: ‘Provision of no-confidence motions are very deviously used to further dominate elected panchayat representatives from the SC category.’

Chhagibai from Rasoolpura, Ajmer, a panchayat head, was the first woman to depose before the jury at the public hearing. She explained how dominant caste members ganged up against her and removed her by bringing a no-confidence motion against her. They alleged that Chhagibai was not interested in development work despite there being enough proof of the initiatives she began. The administration remained a mute spectator.

Kesanbai from Shergarh panchayat was not even allowed to enter the panchayat office when she got elected as head of the panchayat. When she did manage to get in, she was not permitted to occupy the chair. Panchayat members belonging to the dominant castes tried to bring a no-confidence motion against her four times; they were unsuccessful only because representatives belonging to the scheduled categories were in a majority in the panchayat.

The IRMA report suggests certain measures to rectify the situation. According to it, social justice committees should be formed at various levels of the panchayati raj system. All panchayats headed by scheduled caste representatives should be given special grants by the union ministry. Finally, provisions for a no-confidence motion should be suitably amended so that they are not misused.

(Subhash Gatade is a social activist, translator and writer whose writings appear regularly in Hindi and English publications and occasionally in Urdu publications. He edits a Hindi journal  Sandhan)

Infochange News & Features, May 2013