Skip to main content

PRIs just a beginning for transforming rural India via gender revolution

By Moin Qazi*
Not long after Nirmala Geghate took over as sarpanch in Wanoja, a remote hamlet in northern Maharashtra, groups of young men stopped hanging out in front of the shop at the village square, where they used to ogle and catcall female laborers who walked by in dusty saris.
There were several ripple effects of the new found women power in the village .Enrollment of girls in the local school increased. A mother asked for and received a mobile phone from her husband, which is a rare luxury for rural females. Other women who had been confined to their homes were suddenly allowed to venture outside the village boundaries for the first time.
A unique policy experiment in village-level governance that mandates one-third representation of women in positions of local leadership has revolutionised gender status across millions of villages in India. In 1993, the government brought in an epochal legislation called the ‘Panchayati Raj Act’ which reserves seats for women on panchayats (councils) that take decisions on every important subject in the rural political life. Once the sole preserve of men, panchayats now have women members and leaders, who are challenging feudal traditions and redefining the way councils are run. In this process, they are also learning some important political lessons.
This new law was the fruition of Gandhiji’s dream, to see local governance and gender justice being managed by village self-republics that have a purely localised approach. Gandhiji believed that the ‘Panchayat Raj’ system would obviate the feelings of alienation for locals and preclude the external intervention of higher-level urban civic officials. He strongly believed that those urban civic officers may not be familiar with the concerns of the local populace and may not share the same level of emotional attachment.
The new female role models that the law created had a dramatic impact on families and younger women. Today, these newly-minted panchayat leaders are concentrating much more on women-centric issues such as clean water supply, sanitation and education than their male counterparts. Their major concerns include construction of toilets, cleanliness and hygiene of villages, education for women and the problem of alcoholism. A higher share of funds is being allocated to public goods and services that benefit women as the well-being of women strongly influences the well-being of all others, especially the children.
However, this devolution of power has not been as seamless as it seems. Rural India is one of the world’s most diverse areas, constituting 833 million people who speak more than 700 different languages among them. To invoke cultural changes in these areas is no less than fighting for a revolution, but the restraining forces seem to be ebbing. Still, untouchability, feudalism, bonded labour, extreme caste, gender oppression; exploitation and land grab are few of the afflictions that must be eliminated completely if Indian women are to spend their lives fairly and peacefully.
Many of these leaders started as ‘showpiece’ elected women representatives (EWR), but over time, they have developed into proactive people’s representatives who are keen to strive for local development based on their own unique understanding of the needs and aspirations of people. When these seats are coupled with new skills from public speaking to budget management, they are better prepared to negotiate within the political space that has opened for them.
The most important feature of good local governance is participation. People not only vote every few years; they have a direct voice in decision-making and governance through public forums, citizen committees and voluntary action campaigns. However, in large swathes of rural India, representation has not necessarily translated into active engagement in the political space. Women still face a number of challenges including inadequate education, the burdens of productive and reproductive roles, financial dependence and an entrenched belief system that sees them as inferior to men.
India’s experience demonstrates that putting women in leadership positions can catalyse the change process. Although the first generation of women leaders had to cope with entrenched mores and traditions that left them locked into purely domestic roles, their presence in local organizations and committees has convinced the Indian masses of a woman’s ability and potential to lead.
There was a time when women were just titular heads, with their husbands, dubbed sarpanch patis who wore the crown and run the show. Most of those elected women were proxies for their husbands or fathers. They either sat mutely beside the male family member who made the decisions at meetings or they simply did not attend.
By increasing exposure to nontraditional leaders, the reservation system has changed the voter’s attitudes in regards to the ability of disadvantaged groups to lead. The quota system, beyond its immediate impact on gender balance among leaders, is now having long-term effects on the status and roles of women in the conservative Indian society by changing perceptions of their leadership capabilities and shaping beliefs about what they can achieve.
Women panchayat leaders are focusing on building separate bathrooms for girls. As studies have shown, this will directly reduce the number of female drop-outs after puberty. They ensure the delivery of safe drinking water to all students. Even though these may sound like simple palliatives, in reality, they are necessary developments in rural education.
It is clear that women’s leadership in panchayats is transforming India. The presence of a female leader in the village significantly increased the level of aspirations held by families for their daughters and female adolescents. They have also improved educational outcomes for adolescent girls, which will improve the labour market over time and help bridge the ratio of male-female working population in India.
Rohini Pande, a professor of public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, finds that the quota system results in big aspirational gains for girls in those locations. Her research showed that compared with places that did not have a quota, the gender gap in aspirations closed by 25 percent in parents, and 32 percent in teenagers in villages assigned to a female leader for two election cycles. In Professor Pande’s own words “It’s not that they put women on the council and attitudes changed overnight; these attitudinal changes were gradual. But our research shows that perceptions of women as leaders improve. Seeing a woman in the village meeting has a big effect”.
The great strength of democracy, according to Amartya Sen lies in it that, “it gives people in need a voice and, by so doing, plays a protective role against so many different forms of political and economic abuse”. PRI is just a beginning for transforming rural India by engendering a gender revolution. It is only one step on the way, but fortunately, it is the right step on the right ladder.
In the long term, the journey is going to be harder and tougher than any policy wonk can imagine. The wait could potentially be eternal. Legislation and policy pronouncements seldom penetrate the surface of social and political barriers and are ultimately impotent against the grid of the established power structures inherent in most rural Indian households and villages.
The vision is truly not as romantic as many would like us to believe, but as women have shown, they have all that is needed to ride out every storm. The men know this very well, but they don’t want to concede that women possess the ability to be the better halves because they are afraid of losing their last refuge—politics.

*Author of “Village Diary of a Heretic Banker”, was for more than three decades in the development sector

Comments

TRENDING

A Hindu alternative to Valentine's Day? 'Shiv-Parvati was first love marriage in Universe'

By Rajiv Shah*   The other day, I was searching on Google a quote on Maha Shivratri which I wanted to send to someone, a confirmed Shiv Bhakt, quite close to me -- with an underlying message to act positively instead of being negative. On top of the search, I chanced upon an article in, imagine!, a Nashik Corporation site which offered me something very unusual. 

'Anti-poor stand': Even British wouldn't reduce Railways' sleeper and general coaches

By Anandi Pandey, Sandeep Pandey*  Probably even the British, who introduced railways in India, would not have done what the Bhartiya Janata Party government is doing. The number of Sleeper and General class coaches in various trains are surreptitiously and ominously disappearing accompanied by a simultaneous increase in Air Conditioned coaches. In the characteristic style of BJP government there was no discussion or debate on this move by the Indian Railways either in the Parliament or outside of it. 

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

How embracing diversity enriched my life, brought profound sense of joy

By Mike Ghouse*  If you can shed the bias towards others, you'll love the connections with every human that God or his systems have created. This gives a sense of freedom and brings meaning and joy to life. Embracing and respecting how people dress, eat, and practice their beliefs becomes an enriching experience.

Banned Maoist party protests in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, claims support across globe

By Harsh Thakor*  Despite being a banned and designated as terrorist organisation under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act since 2009, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) is said to have successfully implemented a one-day bandh across Kolhan division in Jharkhand on July 10th, with repurcussions in the neighbouring Chhattisgarh. The bandh was called to protest against alleged police brutality in the Kolhan-Saranda region.

'28% rise in sedition cases': Top global NGO alliance rates India's civil space 'repressed'

By Rajiv Shah Rating India's civic space as repressed , Civicus, a global civil society alliance, in its new report submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) on the state of civic space in the country has said that the use of sedition law against the Modi government’s critics continues. "Under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sedition cases have increased by 28 per cent with over 500 cases against more than 7,000 people", it says.

Why convert growing badminton popularity into an 'inclusive sports opportunity'

By Sudhansu R Das  Over the years badminton has become the second most popular game in the world after soccer.  Today, nearly 220 million people across the world play badminton.  The game has become very popular in urban India after India won medals in various international badminton tournaments.  One will come across a badminton court in every one kilometer radius of Hyderabad.  

Post-poll mob lynching spree, bulldozer justice: NAPM seeks united resistance

Counterview Desk  Condemning what it calls "the horrific spree of mob lynchings across the country after the Lok Sabha election results", India's premier civil society network, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), has called for "united resistance" against "hateful communal politics, mob lynching of religious minorities and caste-based oppression".

Faith leaders agree: All religious places should display ‘anti-child marriage’ messages

By Jitendra Parmar*  As many as 17 faith leaders, together for an interfaith dialogue on child marriage in New Delhi, unanimously have agreed that no faith allows or endorses child marriage. The faith leaders advocated that all religious places should display information on child marriage.