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Panchayat women no longer need sarpanch patis

A recent all-India A C Neilsen ORG MARG survey evaluating the impact of 10.5 lakh women in panchayati raj reveals that a large number of women decided to contest elections after having joined self-help groups that gave them the confidence and exposure to take on more challenging assignments

The first-ever all-India A C Neilsen ORG MARG survey evaluating the impact of 10.5 lakh women in panchayati raj highlights the fact that these women have become extremely empowered and no longer depend on their sarpanch patis, as their husbands used to be called, to take all the key decisions.

The survey, conducted across 24 states and likely to be tabled in Parliament in early April, also emphasises that of the overall 28 lakh male and female panchayat members across the country, 80,000 women sarpanchs (chairpersons) have been elected to positions of responsibility.

A few women continue to depend on their husbands while taking important decisions but this is often because they belong to backward regions and are illiterate.

These facts are backed by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, in its mid-term appraisal of ‘State of the Panchayats 2006-07’: “No less than 10 lakh women are in our panchayati raj institutions, comprising 37% of all those elected and rising as high as 54% in Bihar, which has 50% reservation for women.”

Indeed, “there are more women elected representatives in India than the rest of the world,” claimed Minister for Panchayati Raj, Mani Shankar Aiyar, at an event in New Delhi. Hunger Project, an organisation committed to ending hunger and starvation across the world, has called this transfer of power the “greatest social experiment of our time”.

The A C Neilsen ORG MARG survey says that whereas women panchayat members are concerned about issues dealing with the effective functioning of the midday meal programme, health and sanitation issues, and potable drinking water, their male counterparts are more concerned with road and building construction, cleaning tanks and other such issues.

The success of the women has led the Bihar Assembly to pass the Bihar Panchayat Amendment Bill, 2006, whereby Bihar has extended reservation for women in the three-tier panchayati raj system to 50%. Elections in the state have seen 54% of the seats being won by women panchayats. The state boasts 2 lakh women panchayat members.

The Sikkim state government too has extended panchayati raj reservations for women to 40%. Other states that have passed similar amendments are Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh.

The survey also reveals that a large number of these women decided to contest elections after having joined self-help groups that gave them the confidence and exposure to take on more challenging assignments.

This is not to say that women members have not overcome huge obstacles to achieve this success. The survey cites the case of 48-year-old Dhoolla Ratnam who was burnt to death along with her grandson in the village of Srungavruksham in Andhra Pradesh on July 14, 2007. She had dared contest the elections against the upper caste Kapu community whose members distributed saris and even gold and silver idols to the villagers in order to win their votes.

One of Dhoolla’s first assignments, after winning, was to fight corruption by making sure that the fair price dealer in her village did not divert grain rations meant for the poor to the open market. The Kapus retaliated by burning her paddy fields. When this threat failed to deter her, she was killed.

R Sandhu, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, says: “Initially, many of these women receive support from their family members. But once they get involved in executing different projects their family members complain that they are spending too much time away from the home.”

Illiteracy remains another major problem with women panchayat members. Take the example of Munna Bai, a village council leader in Raisa district. Munna Bai found herself jailed on charges of embezzling Rs 5,000 from the panchayat family welfare fund. She claims she does not know why she has been arrested as she only put her thumb impression on documents prepared by a block-level officer.

Her financial condition can be gauged by the fact that she continued to work as a daily labourer right through her tenure as leader of the village council.

Sandhu points out that while the central government does not make a direct financial allocation to panchayats, they receive money under various schemes. These include the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), Indira Awas Yojana, old age pension scheme, midday meal scheme, Rural Health Mission and other development projects.

The central government has, however, allocated Rs 4,600 crore as a Backward Region Governance Fund. This is a “completely untied fund” to be used to assist the panchayati raj programme across 250 backward regions of which 101 are Hindi-speaking districts.

-- Rashme Sehgal

(Rashme Sehgal is a Delhi-based writer and journalist)

InfoChange News & Features, March 2008