Meeting on Women and Political Participation:

21st Century Challenges

United Nations Development Programme

24-26 March 1999

New Delhi, India

Background Paper No. 4

Women in Panchayati Raj: Grassroots Democracy in India

Experience from Malgudi


Poornima and Vinod Vyasulu¨

© Copyright reserved for the Management Development and Governance Division, United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Office of Project Services.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of UNDP and UNOPS.

Women in Panchayati Raj: Grassroots Democracy in India

Experience from Malgudi



I. Introduction

It has now become clear that, for sustainable economic and social development to take place in any country, it is necessary that people participate in the political process. The process of participation is complex—and it is by no means clear that it is comprehensively inclusive. By this, we mean that it is not possible to assume that all sections of the population take part effectively in the political and democratic processes of society. There are many reasons why people may not participate—from apathy to a sense of helplessness.

In particular, unless specific conditions are met, women face multiple hurdles and find it difficult to participate in the political process that has hitherto been a male bastion. The reasons for this are gender specific. Women are less mobile than men are. They have domestic responsibilities, which puts limits on the time they can spend in such processes. There are historical prejudices. Consistent efforts will have to be made over a period of time to engender the political process and institutions and issues that are critical to this process. This paper explores some aspects of this process in the context of decentralised governance ushered in by the 73rd Constitutional amendment in India in the last five years.

Recognising this limitation where gender is concerned, India has passed laws that make it mandatory for local governments to include women. [These laws do not apply to state and national level legislatures.] One third of the seats in local bodies—gram or village panchayats, municipalities, city corporations and district bodies—are "reserved" for women. This means the contests can only be between women in these constituencies. The first step in enabling women to participate has been taken. This reservation of seats, in the 1993-94 elections, has brought in about 800,000 women into the political process in a single election. They are now just about completing their first term [of five years] in elected office. Elections for the second round will soon have to be held. What has been the experience with this experiment in social engineering?

This paper is organised as follows. Section II presents the overall picture of women in panchayati raj institutions--PRIs. This section also discusses the structure of the system as it has evolved so far, and why this paper is limited to discussing the experience of one state—Karnataka. Section III then discusses some specific experiences of women in PRIs. This brings out in concrete form the field level reality. This is something that may be appreciated intellectually by lawmakers and scholars. But this local reality has to be built into institutions and processes in an essential way if the system is to be made to work as intended. Since these can be sensitive issues, and our intention is to learn from such experience, not cause local turbulence, we are locating all the specific cases we present in the mythical district of Malgudi, immortalised by R.K. Narayan in his novels. Everybody knows Malgudi is in Karnataka! Section IV then tries to identify the barriers or impediments to the full participation of women in the political process.


II. A Minimum of Background

Grassroots democracy has been ushered in by an amendment to the Constitution from the "top". This was not because of a mass movement by the people. This is also true of the 1/3rd reservation for women: it was not because women who were consentised demanded their due share in power, or contested in large numbers to capture seats in these bodies. It happened, and women [as a group] were caught quite unprepared by this development.

For a number of reasons, the Indian State felt that the implementation of development programmes, like the IRDP, for example, would be most effective if local people were involved. The strident debate on Centre-State relations, the poor targeting of poverty alleviation programmes and the like led to the realisation that local involvement—participation—is essential if such programmes are to succeed. This is specially so for beneficiary identification, and to a smaller extent, for decisions on how to spend the limited amount available locally on different local projects. And given the lack of interest in devolving such power in most of the states, coercion through a Constitutional amendment was the chosen route for introducing such decentralisation. The amendment prescribed a three-tier system of local governance for the entire country. This has been effective since 1993.

A. The Three Tiers of PRIs

These bodies, which are legally local government, have a pyramidal structure. At the base is the gram sabha—the entire body of citizens in a village or "grama". This is the general body that elects the local government and charges it with specific responsibilities. This body is expected to meet at specific times and approve major decisions taken by the elected body. Above this basic unit of democracy, is the gram panchayat or GP, which is the first level elected body, covering a population of around five thousand people. This may include more than one village. It is not uncommon to find several villages coming under one GP. This has implications for women’s participation, as women have limited mobility.

At the district level is a zilla panchayat, which is the link with the state government. In between the two is an intermediate body called, in Karnataka, the taluk panchayat, which is expected to play a co-ordinating role among the GPs in its jurisdiction and the ZP in planning and administration. While the levels are common across the country, states have passed laws that are not necessarily similar with respect to roles functions and responsibilities. There is thus much variation and it is essential we learn from this. But that is another question.

In this system, the gram sabha has to play a crucial role— in ensuring downward accountability, transparency and voice to the people. In reality, this is far from being the case. There is even some confusion about the gram sabha—for example, has the electorate of an entire gram panchayat to meet together for the gram sabha, or do smaller habitations have their own gram sabhas in their own area? Are the members of the GPs to be present in all such gram sabhas? If not, what is the mechanism to co-ordinate the decision making and conveying the constituent villages’ views upward to the elected body? Who does this, and how is it done?

This is basically an empirical question and the answer will lie in what is happening in the villages. Factors that aid or abet women’s participation can be identified in "process" issues like these—when are meetings held? Is the hour and place convenient to women members? Will 2 to 3 elected women’s representatives coming in from neighbouring habitations feel free enough to participate in gram sabha meetings? Are all communications [meeting notice, agenda, and minutes of proceedings…] in written form? Who writes them and who has access to read what has been written and recorded? Our impression is that much needs to be done to make gram sabhas effective. This will be crucial to the success of thus entire system. At the moment it is enough if we note these concerns as they clearly place constraints on women’s full and effective participation in the system.

B.	The Impetus for PRIs

The word "panchayat" is a traditional one, referring to the five elders in a village who mediated conflict and spoke on behalf of all the residents of a village in pre-modern times. In these traditional bodies, the lower castes—and women—had no representation. The question did not arise!

The word Panchayat has been retained for use after the 73rd amendment to the Constitution. The meaning is now a formal one referring to a body - not of five persons - elected according to law. Further the same word is used for the three tiers of local administration brought in by the 73rd amendment - the highest being the district or zilla panchayat. The lowest is the gram panchayat that may consist of several traditional villages. All citizens of these villages constitute the gram sabha, which then becomes the basic unit of democracy. In between is a co-ordinating level - the taluka panchayat. The powers that these panchayats enjoy are enshrined in the laws enacted by each state, and, in India, there is considerable variation across states. Thus, this traditional word must now be understood in a thoroughly modern context. And this is quite recent. But this does not mean the traditional bodies had disappeared. What influence they wield at an informal level in the rural society, is another matter that merits careful study.

The Constitution provided, [in Part 4, The Directive Principles of State Policy, Article 40] for the setting up of village panchayats. But this is non-justiciable, and there was no pressure on any state to set up such a system. Many saw this article as a concession to Gandhi, rather than as a serious matter to be immediately implemented. The reason for this was the powerful voice of Dr Ambedkar. Drawing on his own experience of rural India as it then was, he argued that local elite and upper castes were so well entrenched that any local self government only meant the continuing exploitation of the downtrodden masses of Indian society. Nehru shared this view. Thus, in addition to affirmative action enshrined in the Constitution, the distribution of powers was deliberately made to favour the Union as against the local, even state governments. The Union, being far away from the squalid battles of rural India, and being looked after by an educated and urban strata of society, would, it was felt, be more just - or at least more impartial - in its dealings with the downtrodden. Historical experience would tend, we suspect, to justify this early expectation. But is this still true after 50 years of gradual change? Has not the power of the upper castes in the rural areas declined? To what extent have things changed for the SC/STs--for the better?

The Union in those early days took up what was called the Community Development Programme. This was meant for all round social and economic development, and it was an important ministry headed for long by S.K. Dey. It was this programme that brought in such functionaries as the Village Level Worker and the Block Development Officer. After the 1960s this programme declined, as centrifugal forces led to the gradual dominance of the Union. Finally, the Ministry of Community Development ceased to exist. That philosophy became a thing of the past. But the bureaucracy it created remained. Whether this helps the new PRIs is still an open question.

This is not the place to trace the experience of this ambitious programme. Suffice it to say that, when it was being reviewed, the Balwant Rai Mehta Committee in the late 1960s came up with the idea of local governments, which was given the traditional name of panchayat. Later, in another context, the Ashok Mehta Committee in the late 1970s too made recommendations for the setting up of local governments. As we shall see, these had an important impact many years down the line. It is from the Union’s experience of development programmes that the idea/need for local governments came to be pushed. It has been a top-level initiative for local development and decentralised administration. And, we might add, it continues to be so.

Given the overall centralising trends in the Indian polity, the States too developed an authoritarian system of governance. States almost became subservient to the Union. Art 356 was used to keep a firm check on the behaviour of state governments. This ensured that strong hierarchical systems developed. All this was further strengthened during the Emergency. The states behaved in the same dominating way with lower tiers of governance - or, more correctly, administration. Strong line departments of the state governments took over development programmes. This is true, perhaps in varying degrees, of all the states. Indian democracy lost the grass roots link: it became a top down system. At the same time the bureaucracy grew in influence. Women were suddenly brought into this system as one dimension of this complex process—and it defines the context in which they have to function.

Yet, and this is the Indian paradox, several state governments conducted their own experiments with local self-government. This is the result of the shift in power from the traditional upper castes to the OBCs or intermediate castes—certainly in states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The changes that occurred over the last 50 years of planned development also resulted in pressures from below, to which political forces have had to respond. How this impacted on the SCs and STs that Ambedkar was concerned about is another question. Caste and class are not overlapping categories. Grabbing political power from the brahmin and other upper castes does not mean that SC/STs will automatically be empowered—and the same applies to women as well. An interesting point missed out in all debates on reservations is that there are women in all castes, class and religions!

C.	PRIs in Other States

This brief review of experience will be incomplete without some reference to the realty in the different states. This is a subject that has been extensively studied by many, in particular the Institute of Social Sciences, the National Institute of Rural Development and the Institute of Social Studies Trust. We can just note some major points that emerge from our general reading, meant only to give a flavour for further discussions in this conference.

It is only a few states that have experience over several electoral cycles with panchayati raj. For one thing, after the 73rd amendment, it is only now that the second round of election has become due. Thus, when we speak of such experience, it is that of states which experimented with PRIs before this amendment. Among them, West Bengal, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharastra are the major ones. Kerala has much to offer in recent years, especially in involving people in the planning process. But Kerala is exceptional in several ways—for example, in the high levels of literacy, in the history of political mobilisation, etc. In Kerala, the role of the party is critical, and there is apparently an overlap between party functioning and patriarchal attitudes. A recent study has shown that, in this state with high literacy, women who have held positions in the PRIs are not keen on contesting again. But it is still a new experiment.

West Bengal has gone through several cycles of elections since 1978, when this system was introduced. A major reason for success here was the commitment of the Left Front government to these bodies. It has been argued that their strength comes from the fact that the cadres of these parties have now entrenched themselves in the PRI institutions. This is the charge made by the breakaway faction of the Congress, the Trinamool Congress led by Mamta Banerji. Be that as it may, the fact remains that these bodies have taken root, and work at the local level in this state is done through these bodies—and there has been an improvement over the centralised administration of the past. But this has also a flip side. For one thing, it has not meant that corruption has been eliminated—there are charges of much corruption. For another, NGOs have little space in West Bengal. They work in a hostile environment where PRIs are pitted against them. This can have a political base, but it is the reality. Overall though, West Bengal scores high on implementing Panchayati raj. About the role of women in PRIs, it is more difficult to say—but we would be inclined to hypothesise that the situation is better than most other states.

Andhra Pradesh is another state that took to PRIs in the 1980s, when N.T. Rama Rao was the Chief Minister. Here also the system started with hope. 9% of the seats were reserved for women but not the chairman positions. But the most important struggle that Andhra is known for—the anti-arrack agitation—came, not from women in the PRIs, but from women in the literacy programme in Nellore district. As a result of increasing literacy, and analysis stemming from the praxis methodology of Paulo Freire, women began to organise against the evils of drinking alcohol, and pushed for a policy of prohibition. This was, however, hijacked by the Telugu Desam Party, which rode on this slogan to power in AP. Once the state took over the demand of these women they became curiously disempowered. Prohibition became the hotbed of corruption. Women got trapped into a situation in which they had no control. Their organisation broke up. Little remains of the excitement of the literacy campaign days today.

Also, in more recent development, while the PRI system continues to exist, NTR’s successor, Chandrababu Naidu, taking a leaf out of South Korean experience, introduced the Janmabhoomi programme for rural development. This is a programme run efficiently from the Chief Minister’s office, by creating a bureaucratic edifice that is clearly accountable to him. The programme calls for contributions from local people for taking up projects that are of importance to them. This is done by selecting projects through discussions with the people in well organised meetings, attended by all the concerned officials, who have with them the authority to take decisions. Clear guidelines have been given for the patter of financing—how much will be matched in funds by the state government and for what purpose. Often shramdaan—free labour—is called for. The programme explicitly seeks to involve women in this process—in deciding upon what is to be done, how, and in monitoring the work. By all accounts, the programme has made a big difference to the implementation of projects in rural Andhra Pradesh. Even critics of the programme agree that it has made a big difference. Corruption has not been eliminated, but the percentages, we are told, are smaller. However, more work is being done, and so volumes make up for the difference.

The interesting thing about this programme is that it has many of the good points that are used for justifying local governance. But it achieves this end by marginalising the elected system of PRIs. That this is true is seen from the fact that elected Pradhans have recently gone on a fast in front of the Chief Minister’s house.

What is the lesson from Andhra Pradesh? Good work can be done outside of PRIs. But PRIs are a value we stand for—and so the managerial techniques of Janmabhoomi need to be welded into the PRIs. How this can be done is still an open question.

Madhya Pradesh is another interesting case. The Chief Minister realised its potential and decided to gamble his political career on it. He had two advantages. None of the major parties in MP were looking at decentralised governance—their attention was fixed firmly on urban areas and large contracts. He left these issues to his Cabinet. Two, the 73rd amendment had just been passed, elections had been held, and a large number of local elected representatives were looking for work and responsibility.

The state had just brought out the first state level Human Development Report in 1995. Among the finding was the paradox that, in a state where every village had a school, literacy levels were abysmally low. So were health and other social indicators. The Chief Minister made these his priority—he set up the Rajiv Gandhi Missions, which were co-ordinated from his office.

Putting together the expertise in his office with the energies of the local representatives, a Lok Sampark Abhiyan was organised. Each elected representative, accompanied by the local schoolteacher, conducted a survey of education and other conditions in his/her constituency. The Mission Office provided the technical support. As a result, each representative developed a good idea of what his/her constituency needed, and priorities were set which would be met through the Rajiv Gandhi Missions.

The finding for education was interesting. It was true that each revenue village had a school. But in MP, a revenue village consisted of several habitations—sometimes four or five, called tolas, which would be quite remote from it. Children in these tolas did not have access to school. Hence the low literacy was more due to problems of access than anything else.

The response was the Education Guarantee Scheme. Consider a village which had 40 children [25 in tribal areas] who wanted to go to school. If the panchayat met, decided to offer space where the school could be run, and to identify a "guruji" from the panchayat—or a neighbouring one—who had finished 12th standard, then the government undertook to set up a school within 90 days. In this time, the guruji would be trained in pedagogy, and materials would be provided. The power to sanction the school was vested in the janpad panchayat. Funds were transferred directly to the panchayat, which would supervise the functioning of the school. Within 2 years, over 20,000 such schools were set up—access to school is no longer a problem in MP.

Madhya Pradesh has made use of the panchayat system in an innovative way to meet social sector demands. Several of the Rajiv Gandhi Missions—all implemented through the PRIs—have done well, on an independent reckoning. Today, perhaps, it has the most progressive PRI system in the country. But here too, the support of the Chief Minister has been critical. It is not power that has been demanded, but power that has been given. For all that, it is a positive development that must be built upon.

D.	PRIs in Karnataka

Karnataka has been something of an exception when it comes to decentralisation and panchayati raj. For various extraneous reasons, the state legislature passed a law in 1983 setting up a system of panchayati raj. That system was a two tier one—of the zilla parishad at the district level and the mandal panchayat for a cluster of villages at the local level. Already at that time the progressive step of reserving 25% of the seats for women had been taken. This system went through one electoral cycle before it was abandoned. But this experience was important to those who drafted the 73rd amendment. And after the amendment, Karnataka brought in a new law, and that too has just about completed one electoral round. Elections are due sometime after February 1999.

As a result of this historical background, women in Karnataka have gained valuable political experience. Between the two rounds of [different] local government systems, thousands have stood for elections. Hundreds have held elective office because of reservations of important positions. Since the reservations were in favour of the hitherto oppressed sections of the population. Women from the poorest sections have gained this experience. Most are not literate, yet have held office. Such an opportunity is bound to have had an impact, not only on the women themselves, but also on the whole of rural society. It would be useful to try and understand the nature of this change—even if this is rather early to do so.

	In local parlance, the word "member" is used for the President of the GP. The other members—men or women--are known as "numbers". This is how they refer to themselves in rural Karnataka.

The question of oppressed castes is an old one in India—often called the anti-brahmin movement. In Karnataka, the Miller Commission [in 1918] was of the opinion that, except for Brahmins and Christians, everyone else was backward in Mysore. Policies were made on this basis—and in all fairness, they led to improvements in the situation of many castes. Many who till then had little exposure to modern education and professions moved into them. This however, directly benefited the men of these castes. Women probably benefited indirectly. The anti-brahmin movement of the time did bring about change, and a shift in power equations.

In this background, political power moved from the upper castes—largely brahmins—to what are today variously called socially and culturally backward castes [SCBs], or other backward castes [OBCs]. It is not clear that it benefited the SCs and STs as much. For one thing, SC/ST reservation is more recent, stemming as it does from the Constitution. For another, they fall below the OBCs in the caste hierarchy. It is far from clear that they were the beneficiaries of the anti-brahmin movements in the South. There is antagonism between them and the OBCs. Whether the ascendancy of the OBCs to political power has helped them has to be seen. The hostility of the Bahujan Samaj Party to both the upper caste Congress and BJP on the one hand, and the "mandal" Janata Dal and its offshoots on the other, suggests that this is a complex matter. We have an anti-brahmin movement still, but are the brahmins still the major exploiters? Have other castes now taken over the dominant role that the brahmins previously had? Who is the target of the anti-brahmin movement today—brahmins. Or those who behave like the brahmins of old? There is much that needs to be clarified. We leave it there.

While there is some overlap between caste and class, it is far from complete. Some of the backward caste people were not poor in an economic sense. More accurately, there were affluent groups among them. And, among the upper castes, including brahmins, there were those who were below the poverty line. But they were not traditionally exploited, and their exposure to, and access to, education, was always much better. This is not true of the SCs and STs, who had limited productive assets, could only sell their physical labour. They were systematically exploited, denied access to opportunities of education, facilities like drinking water etc. But then, this is well known.

The reservation for backward groups then had two distinct meanings. When used by the Union of India [under the inspiration of thinkers like Dr B.R. Ambedkar], it referred to today’s Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe categories. These are definitely the most deprived of Indian society. But when state level authorities use the term, it refers to the OBCs—the intermediate castes. While many who belong to these castes are poor, they are not necessarily the most wretched of the earth.

The legislation reflected this duality. Because of the Constitutional requirement, there has been a reservation for the SCs and STs. But in addition there has been a reservation for the OBCs. If one looks at the figures in the panchayati raj system, this comes out clearly. In the current system, where the reservation for women is one-third, in a three-tier system, the reservation is as follows

In 5,640 GPs in the state, there are a total of 80,627 seats. Of these 17,906 are reserved for SCs; 7,575 for STs; and 26,828 for BCs. The open seats number 28,306. Many who contest on the open seats are OBCs.

While the SCs and STs undoubtedly enjoy representation on a scale unheard of in the past, the largest group is the OBC group—it is this, which today wields effective power. And in recent years, caste has been gaining in importance in political matters. Caste and class are often used interchangeably. And there are so many classifications we have to deal with: advanced, backward, forward, dominant, scheduled, dalit Christian...


To the extent that there is an overlap between caste and gender, the representation given to women has done little to change the caste hold on power. For example, in a given situation, do women align themselves with their caste or along gender lines? Experience has shown that it is often on caste lines. Thus, while the representation of women in these bodies is a welcome move, it is not reasonable to expect that it will change the caste balance of power in favour of the most disadvantaged groups. This matter requires more careful analysis. This paper is only a preliminary effort.

	In the context of a drinking water problem, an upper caste woman member took up the cause of harijans when the pipe leading to their basti was broken. She was asked why she was bothered when she had water—it was, after all, "their" problem, not "ours". The issue has been discussed in the gramsat training tapes.


What has been the impact on women of two different kinds of panchayati raj system? We have a longer time span to study. We have a state in which progressive legislation led to a backlash—and more restrictive new legislation. We have what many would call a "PRI friendly state". What is possible and what has been achieved in Karnataka will probably tell of what is the most we can expect. If other states achieve as much, we would probably have made the best use of this system. How much of the experience is of a generic nature and which should hold in essence in any Indian state is a separate question. This paper, then, draws its lessons mainly from Karnataka.

In the rural areas, Karnataka began experimenting with panchayats in 1960 - and this was based on the experience of Princely Mysore. Other states, like Gujarat and West Bengal too have valuable experience to learn from. It is also true that in some other states, there has been little positive change.

Some case studies may help us to understand issues that may have a more general validity. Karnataka is a middle ranking state, and the district we will use to illustrate our points, Malgudi, is a middle-ranking district, typical in essence. The focus is on gender issues: other factors are frozen under the "ceteris paribus" assumption. How far one can generalise is a matter we will leave open at this time.

After the 1960 experiment with decentralisation, the next major change in Karnataka was a new law passed in 1983 — and implemented from 1987. This had a two-tier system of Zilla Parishads and Mandal Panchayats, created on the basis of population size. A notable feature of this system was that it gave the President of the Zilla Panchayat the status of a Minister of State. It vested in him the control of the senior officer [of about 15 years experience in the IAS] who was posted as the Chief Secretary of the district. This gave the zilla parishad importance in the eyes of both the public and the civil servants. It became an important political forum.

This experiment was aborted for several reasons to do with state politics. But this experience was important in giving shape to the 73rd amendment to the Constitution. Ironically, the same party that was busy demolishing it in the state passed this amendment, which drew much inspiration from the 1983 Karnataka Act, in the Lok Sabha. We mention this only to show that, for all the stated agreement on these issues, there is in many quarters hostility to local self-government. This fact must be factored in if any new policies meant to strengthen the system are to succeed.

The Karnataka Act which followed the 73rd amendment is less liberal to local stakeholders than the 1983 one. It has brought about obvious changes. In Karnataka, for example, although the reservation for women is 1/3rd, as in the rest of the country. At the gram panchayat level well over 40% of the elected representatives are women. Many are into politics for the first time. If they lack in experience, they also have not been spoiled by past practices. Many are young, and look forward to a long career in politics. The prospects for participation by women in framing and implementing social sector programmes are therefore bright. A start has been made. This has now to be taken forward and the question is How can this best be done?

It is therefore possible to learn from the Karnataka experience. In Shimoga district, there is even an all women panchayat in one grama. The conditions under which this came about are peculiar. Reports have it that the inspiration for this came from an influential local man. We understand that these women are not enthusiastic about contesting for elections again. Since we have not yet personally studied it, we do no more than mention this oddity here. There are many such cases that have yet to be carefully studied. We are not as far advanced as we should be in our research and documentation in this field—a lot more has to be done.


III.	Experiences from Malgudi

As may be expected, the experience of women in panchayati raj has been varied. Many are surrogates for husbands and fathers who could not contest because of the reservation. Some were put in place by the wealthy and powerful, for their malleability—a kind of puppet to serve the vested interest while appearing to be an elected representative. This has led to many problems that have been extensively discussed in the literature and form the basis for an excellent film, sponsored by UNICEF, called Shansodhan.

There have also been many efforts to train the women who have been elected. Interestingly enough, the state government has undertaken some of these. In Karnataka, the Department of Women and Child Development co-operated with professionals in what has come to be known as the Gramsat Programme. This had two parts. The first was an interactive session, using satellite technology to link the different district headquarters to Bangalore. This session used material generated through meetings of women elected to gram panchayats. The impact was immediately visible, and even today, its role in giving these women self-confidence to face a big challenge cannot be underestimated.

As a part of this programme, these women were taken to visit the Vidhana Soudha, the seat of the state government, and to the Legislative Assembly. They were awed by the Council chamber. They saw where the Speaker sat and conducted the proceedings. They saw where the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition sat for the debates.

Later, we found this was an immensely empowering experience. In meetings in their GPs, they often ended an argument, especially with men, with—"What do you know? Have you seen the Vidhana Soudha? I have!".

The second part was training material developed as an extension of the first, including issues of concern to women—nutrition, water, primary education, basic health services, immunisations, common property resources, etc, which were used in training programmes across the state. The objective here was two fold—to raise certain questions in their minds on these issues and also to provide them with some basic information that would enable them to play their roles in the GPs. The impact of this so far as we know, has yet to be assessed.

Yet, it must not be forgotten that this experiment in local self-government is being undertaken in a society that is predominantly illiterate. Many of the people elected, especially those in the reserved categories are very poor. In attending meetings of the GP, they often have to give up a day’s wages. To use terms popularised by Amartya Sen, the entitlements of the actors in this great drama of democracy are way below what they should be. As a result, their capabilities to play these roles are low as these are in uncharted territory.

All the training programmes referred to above can only mitigate this to a small extent. These are people who have not been supported by society so far to play any formal leadership roles or achieve their full functionings. Yet they have embarked on this great experiment. To expect too much would be unfair on our part; not to recognise what they have achieved, despite all these constraints, would be boorish. We have to make haste slowly.

We present below some field level experiences of women in panchayati raj. These are cases of which we have direct knowledge having observed them in the course of our work. They relate to a restricted area, yet, we feel they throw up questions that have a general validity for many parts of India. It is these matters that we feel can be usefully discussed. To facilitate this, we raise a few issues after each case is presented.



Case 1

Haleuru gram panchayat is located between Malgudi, the district headquarters, and Balgudi, the taluk HQ—it is 17 km from each on the main highway. The total population is over 4000. There are 490 houses and 580 families. The GP is divided into 7 wards, and has 8 members. Two positions are reserved for SCs and one for STs. Out of the 8, 4—four—are women.

When the elections to the GP were held in 1993, there was considerable discussion in the village. Under the guidance of the elders of the village, it was decided that only one candidates’ name would be proposed for each post. So each member was declared elected without a contest.

After the election, the post of GP President was reserved for an ST woman. Smt Gangamma Jayakar, the only eligible candidate, thus became the President. She has passed her 4th standard.

The other members who did not mind her being an `ordinary member’, could not accept her in the role of the President of the GP. They asked her to resign, so that one of the others could take over as President. This she was not willing to do. The others refused to co-operate with her.


She sought the advice of the officials at the taluk and zilla levels. She was told that she need not resign: the post was hers by right. She was also told that the quorum for meetings was 3 members, and that she and two other members could take decisions. With the help of the two SC members, she conducted the meetings. When the others protested against this, as advised by the officials she went to the High Court in Bangalore, which ruled in her favour. After that, the three members have been conducting meetings for the village. The others attend every third meeting, sign the register and leave (just to retain their membership]. They refuse to co-operate in the running of the panchayat so long as she remains President. She can be a "number", but not a "member"!

These members also argue with the GP secretary, who therefore seeks an excuse to ask for a transfer. The present Secretary is the third one in this term. Gangamma is not happy with him.

Ms Jayakar feels that she could have achieved a lot more if the others co-operated. As it is, in getting works like gutters dug, she has effectively to work alone. But she is proud that she could get a bus stand constructed. She could do all this because of the support of officials at the TP and ZP levels.

Several questions arise. Does a mere reservation for women bring in social change? What is the relation between caste and class? Here, reservation has brought to prominence a person who would never have attained such a position under "normal" conditions. Would a man have fared differently in this situation? Can officials make the difference to the functioning of local governments to this extent? If so, under what conditions will they play a positive role, as in this case?

Case 2

	There has been a public protest, early in January 1999, by the women members of the Malgudi zilla panchayat. Located in the capital of the state, this should be a "model" of sorts. It is. The women, who we noticed in the course of our visits, always sat in one group on one side of the chamber, have now said there is no point reserving seats for them if there is no intention of the ZP listening to what they have to say. They have pointed out that the current President is a woman. Yet when Ms Ganga Bai was present in the chamber and presiding over the meeting, the Vice President, a man, was answering the questions that were being raised. The President was not allowed to answer! They have pointed out that when the President in the house, the Vice President cannot usurp her powers and functions.

	We tried very hard to interview Ms Ganga Bai. She has been elected from a remote part of Malgudi—a very backward area with poor roads, no electricity and little drinking water. We had to walk a long way to get to her place. When we got there we were told she did not live there; she has been living for long in Malgudi. We could not find her in Malgudi either. The phone number given to us as a contact number turned out to be that of an STD booth that did not know her. Yet, one day, she became the President of the zilla panchayat.

	It is not surprising this matter has come to the fore. It is surprising it has taken so long to do so. And we do not know how the issue will be resolved. It clearly shows the situation in which women have to work after getting elected.

	The Chief Executive Officer of this ZP is also a woman—an IAS officer. But she seems to have no difficulty in doing her job. We have seen her differing on many matters with the earlier President, a powerful male politician.


What questions does this protest raise? Ms Ganga Bai is clearly a "dummy" member, there because a male relative could not contest due to the reservation for women. What is she to do? In a traditional society, it is difficult for men to accept women in positions of authority. These is not only a loss of face, but of power that has been exercised without gender controls till now. What kind of orientation do men need in this situation? Has this question been addressed in any way in training them? And if it is ignored then what will be the consequences for women? Also, why is it the CEO does not seem to face such problems? Does belonging to the IAS give her a special status? Or is it the fact that she is highly educated? If so, is this a gender question at all?


Case 3

Is Gangavva Bai President of Hosahalli Gram Panchayat? The question is not an idle one.

Hosahalli gram panchayat is located in Malgudi district, about 55 Km from the district HQ. It is on the main road to Bhimeshwar, about 10 Km from Balgudi—the taluk HQ. In 1991 it had a population of 10,991, of which 707 were SC and 365 ST. The area grows chilly, and the village has 100 small farmers, 498 medium farmers and 410 large farmers. The GP consists of Hosahalli village and Nayahalli hamlet. It is a relatively prosperous village, with a railway station and 6 primary schools. 80% of the houses have tap water facility.

Elections for the gram panchayat, which has 28 members, were held in 1993. 9 seats are reserved for women. The post of President was reserved for an SC woman—and Jamunavva became the President. She had the support of two other members who were also SCs. The rest of the panchayat members did not like the fact that her associate—a man who they said was her lover—began to dictate events in the panchayat. They moved a no confidence motion against Jamunavva and she was voted out of office in 1995. The presidency, however, was reserved for an SC woman, and the other woman, who supported Jamunavva, refused to accept the Presidency. Since she was an SC, and a friend of Jamunavva, the others also did not really want her as President.

	Now comes the astounding part. All the other members [except Jamunavva and her friend] resigned, and the panchayat got dissolved. For one year this state of affairs continued. An administrator was appointed to look after routine matters.

	When no work could be done, the elders in the village decided to act. New elections were scheduled, and a new panchayat was elected without contest. They took the officials into confidence, and effectively "selected" 27 members to the GP—on the 16th of July 1997. Most of them were people who had lost the election in 1993. This group elected Gangavva, who is an SC, "selected" into the panchayat, President. Since then, panchayat matters have been running smoothly—the panchayat’s tax collection is about 3 lakhs!

Is this a situation we purists can be happy with? Was this situation due to gender effects, or not? What was the basis of objection – that it was Jamunavva’s lover who was dictating terms? Would it have been acceptable if her husband was doing so?! Are reservations for women alone enough to bring in democratic change in our society? And, if the local people have accepted this situation, and it is performing well, then is opposition on merely ethical grounds correct in a democracy?

Case 4

Ms Gangamma Jayker has just completed her 20-month term as President of the Malgudi zilla panchayat. She now plans to contest the election to the Legislative Assembly of Karnataka when elections come around later in 1999.

	Gangamma is a product of reservations in the PRI system. She comes from a small village called Haleuru in Malgudi taluk, and belongs to the SC category. Her childhood story is typical [in several respects] to women born into that strata of society. She was married at the age of 10 had a son at 13, and struggled to get a primary education—walking 7Km to go to school. She was the only girl from the area going to school. She completed her primary education, and attended school till the 8th standard.

	Being educated she felt she should do something for the women in her village, and started a mahila mandal. Growing to strength of 100 members this mandal was successful in accessing govt loans meant for poor women—like sewing machines under TRYSEM. This was the beginning of her political career. When the PRI institutions were set up in 1987, the mandal became her base, and she was elected to the mandal panchayat—the second tier in the earlier Karnataka system. She completed her five-year term, and learned a great deal about the functioning of local government in the process. She established good links with politicians from the area—in particular the local MLA, X.Y. Patel, who later became a minister in the J.H. Patel ministry in Karnataka.

These panchayats were abolished by the Bangarappa government, and later, after the 73rd amendment, when elections were held for the new gram panchayats in 1993, she was elected once again—and offered the presidency of the GP. She did not accept this. She wanted to fight elections to the zilla panchayat and did so by resigning from the GP when elections were called. In the ZP, the post of President was reserved for a woman from the SC category—and she fought for this position. With the support of X.Y. Patel, who was powerful in Bangalore, she won the position. Although she had the usual problems, she completed her term, and at the end of it, she brought out a pamphlet on her achievements.

In Gangamma’s view, the earlier two-tier system was better than the current three-tier system. It is a matter of local autonomy, she says. In the current system, there is greater delay built in.

	Gangamma Jayker is an example of the new politician emerging from the PRI system in Karnataka. Women like her would have found it impossible to make a mark in the system without the reservations. Yet, she argues that this is only a first step. Without educational improvements, women will find it difficult to work the system.

Gangamma shows the system of reservations for women and for depressed sections of society working at its best. How many such cases are there? Do cases that show genuine growth of new political players, like Gangamma, outnumber the cases of "proxy" members and so on? Under what conditions will such reservations lead to positive results, especially where women are concerned? How will established politicians react to the emergence of politicians like Gangamma? We do not know.



Case 5

Gangamma Jayaker is a sarpanch. She had been active in her village, and, after the panchayat elections, had been elected sarpanch. She is very keen on promoting education. An educated person herself, she has been running literacy classes for women in her village – and continues to do even after her election. On hearing of the government program for girl’s education, she got the details of the scheme, and followed the procedures to get a school opened in her village. When she heard that we were visiting schools in the area, she made sure that we visited her school

Her activities did not go unnoticed in the village. She was going against age-old traditions and customs. Some of the panchs got together, and got her defeated in a no-confidence motion. She was forced out of office. She was not discouraged. She fought back, organised, made her political deals, and got re-elected sarpanch when the post came up for re-election. She is the kind of person from whom the political leaders of the future will emerge. While there are people like her around, there is little doubt that panchayati raj will succeed – and not be male dominated either! People like her can be relied upon to develop their areas responsibly.

How many persons like Gangamma Jayakar are there in our rural areas? How many of them are capable of fighting as she did? What gave her the confidence, and strength to fight as she did? Would it be very surprising if many of them did not relish such fights and opted for "softer" solutions? What can we do so that the system supports the Gangamma Jayakers?

Case 6

Ms Gangamma and Ms Jamunavva were elected President and Vice President of Malgudi District panchayat, defeating Shri Honappa and Shri Siddappa respectively, when elections became due after the earlier incumbents had completed their 20-month term of office. Is this a cause for celebration by women?

	Ms Gangamma was elected from Haleouru constituency in Balgudi taluk on a party A ticket. Ms Jamunavva was elected from Hosaouru in Malgudi taluk on a party B ticket.

	Four hours prior to the election for the ZP President and Vice President, Ms Gangamma joined party B along with 5 "rebel" members of party A. A former President of the ZP, Shri Ayaram, who had joined party C after being expelled from party A some time ago, accompanied her in this. He too joined party B. As a result of this re-alignment, party B’s strength in the ZP rose to 11 from 4 previously.

	In the election, Ms Gangamma and Ms Jamunavva, as party B’s candidates, secured 11 votes against 8 for the party A’s candidates.

	Ms Gangamma is 45 years old and is a graduate. She has worked in literacy programmes and organised women in different ways in Balgudi taluk. She said she joined her new party to end political uncertainly and to work with others for the development of the district.

Ms Gangamma has shown considerable political dexterity. The realignment of party loyalty of a few persons has changed the fortunes of major political parties in the district. Few men could match these political skills. But has this in anyway improved the status of women in Malgudi? Has this in anyway improved political ethics? Has Ms Gangamma stuck a blow for gender, or for personal gain? If women behave in this manner, what benefits does reservation bring?

These cases, of which we have direct knowledge, raise a number of issues for discussion. We are not clear about the direct positive gender impact from them. Except for the fact that women are fully into the political process, what specific gains have women made in Malgudi?


IV.	In Lieu of A Conclusion


What can we say then about the factors that influence the effective participation of women in the new panchayati raj institutions? We will try to put all this together.

One, the grinding poverty in which most of the people live makes abstract notions of democracy and ethics rather distant concepts. Exploitation of different sorts is a reality. Corruption is a matter of routine, where payment of a bribe is at best seen as a minor nuisance to getting something, never mind that it is a right, done. It is into this situation that local self-government has been introduced from the top. If one goes by the spirit of the Balwant Rai Mehta Committee report, nothing loftier than an efficient local tier of development administration was intended. This is what the higher level would like to see. It is important to remind ourselves of this basic truth.

Added to this is the fact that the women who have come in under caste reservation have come in `with their social and economic disadvantages’ – mostly non-literate, with little productive assets, largely dependent on wage labour and into a rural society that has fixed places for various castes and gender. These cannot be changed by a wave of the constitutional amendment wand!

What can we reasonably expect of this system? Are we expecting too much?


Two, while people have a clear sense of survival, they are prepared to cope in a feudal type system in which direct action does not work. Rural reality is complex—being freed from bondage has often not meant freedom as many expected it to. Experience has taught them to go slow, to approach their goal indirectly. They have to decide if attending PR meetings is sometimes worth missing their daily wage. This is even more so in the case of women, who have to worry about crying babies and hungry husbands.

This is how they see the new system of PRIs. Thus, it is unrealistic to expect much in terms of their response. It has first to be demonstrated that the system is indeed here to stay. In West Bengal, it is only after one or two rounds of elections had been held that the system settled down as a permanent part of the rural countryside. In Karnataka, the constant tinkering with the system has meant that people are still cautious about this system. No one is sure it will not be overturned tomorrow! Why then should anyone take a risk?

Three, the new system co-exists with traditional institutions. The elders wield power in a way the Constitution may not have foreseen. If the PRIs are to succeed in their main goals, then they must work in harmony with these traditional institutions, not confront them head-on. This is easier said than done.

The traditional institutions have not given space for women. The pros and cons of this are beyond the scope of this paper. It is enough to note that many of the factors that hindered women in the earlier systems continue to exist and operate in rural areas—and legal changes cannot change them. 	

Four, giving women positions in the panchayats is good in itself. But it would be naïve to believe that it would address social injustice or issues of poverty. Women have class and caste identities, not just a gender identity. In fact gender as a phenomenon hardly ever appears in a pure form. It is almost always alloyed with caste, class and religious factors. In matters where there is a clash between gender and caste or class, we cannot expect women to align themselves with other women, going against their caste or class loyalties.

Some women have developed political ambitions too, especially when it is seen as a quick means for upward mobility. And political survival will be difficult if they "betray" class and caste interests. This is why the reservation of the posts of President to the SC/ST category is so resented. They can be members of the panchayat, but not its President or Vice President. And if they are in such posts then a conflict between their different roles is inevitable. Different individuals will cope in different ways. The problem is in society, not in the panchayat that only reflects social reality.

Five, it is essential that the panchayat system be stable. In Karnataka, the state began well in the 1980s. But since then the spirit of local democracy has taken several steps backward. The state Act passed after the 73rd amendment is far less progressive than the earlier one. Given that both were imposed from the top, the withdrawal can be seen as a response of politicians at the higher level to the backlash on the ground—from politicians and the civil servants. But the continuing tinkering with this Act has done little to convince people that the system is here to stay. In this situation, women in particular will choose to play safe. What is the point of risking one’s local position with powerful people if the system itself is likely to undergo changes? The experience of West Bengal provides a strong contrast to Karnataka.

Six, the power enjoyed, and exercised by line departments of the state government, will have to be reduced. Today, it is they who decide major matters. And officials, who belong to these departments, treat district postings—and panchayat authorities—as minor nuisances. This administration is quite gender insensitive. It is just not enough that there are women in the civil service—the service has to be sensitised. While an effort has been made in Karnataka to reduce diarchy in administration by giving the Chief Executive Officer a co-ordinating role in the ZP, much more needs to be done. Capabilities have to be developed at this level. It is only when ZPs develop their own [gender sensitive] expertise that they can begin to chart their own path. Important in this will be co-ordination amongst themselves. For example, they could get together to form an Inter-District Council on the lines of the Inter-State Council. It is important that, in such a body, the Chief Minister remains one among equals, not a superior. This kind of body does not exist at all at the moment. Much needs to be done.

Seven, what is the relationship between NGOs and PRIs? NGOs work in the social sector, and have strong links at the grassroots. They do not have a very positive experience of government at this level. In fact, many of them came on the scene because government was unable to deliver the goods. There are NGOs that resent the emergence of PRIs because they now have to vacate space for these new bodies. There are some who argue that panchayats are NGOs. There are NGOs that see PRIs as rivals and competitors for implementing government programmes and believe they are superior because they are not "political". NGOs have been involved in training those elected to PRIs. But there are also other NGOs that have welcomed the emergence of these local governments. It will be essential to reduce the hostility of some of these NGOs to PRIs in the coming years. How is this to be done?

The involvement of NGOs with the grass-roots democracy arises out of their activities in the following areas -


1.Organisation of the disadvantaged sections of rural society - e.g. the dalits, minorities, landless, SC/STs, agricultural/plantation labour, labour of the unorganised sectors etc. It is these sections that have been provided a 'space' in the PRIs under the reservation policy.

2.In addition to organising, most NGOs run training programmes - leadership development, capacity building, group dynamics and management and so on. Some of the NGOs have organised training specifically for PRI members (E.g.- SEARCH & UMA in Karnataka, FRCH in Maharastra, CINI in West Bengal, YIP in Andhra name a few).

3.The most valuable area of contribution of NGOs to engendering the PRIs has been in the organising of women (whatever sector the NGO works with - health, IGPs, SHGs, housing, water & sanitation, education, watershed...) The opportunities provided in small groups dealing with the above issues has been a kind of 'testing ground' for women to enter a larger arena, having been empowered in the smaller arena. Further, it has also been reported that women in PRIs who have been supported and nurtured by NGOs and those who have been involved in larger people's movements have gained a more 'assertive' stance which gives them an edge over other women in the PRI process. The best examples of this can be seen the 'Right to Information' movement in Rajasthan and the Anti-Arrack movement in Andhra Pradesh.

Inspite of these very positive aspects, many NGOs seem vary of getting directly or closely involved with the PRIs. An often heard comment is 'we are working in development; politics is not our cup of tea'! But, if PRIs, especially GPs, are the forum where development and politics has to be wedded, it is difficult to see how NGOs can keep non-aligned in the process. Perhaps some of them are bound by donor conditionalities or wise enough to avoid working against the 'establishment'... But, sooner or later NGOs will get entangled in the politics of power transfer in the PRIs; the clearer their perspective on gender, the greater will be their contribution to the process.

Eight, what has been the impact of PRIs on women individually? Why is it that so many of them say they do not wish to contest elections again, in spite of the fact that it has given them power and status? Is it that they have only male role models that they do not wish to follow? Is it that this experience has taught them they cannot change the system without joining it, in all its corruption? This needs deeper probing.

The experiences of women in the PRIs has been so varied, across the three levels of the PRIs and the different states that except for some 'tautological' statements little can be said.

We need to distinguish between women who hail from families with political background and those who can be termed 'first generation political aspirants' - women who drifted into PRIs due to the 73rd amendment. Even though the amendment made the 'space' for both these to enter the PRIs, the alacrity with which they take to the new role will vary.

The point to be noted is that hitherto, space for women to participate in institutions like the PRI which are in the 'public sphere' were negligible. Consequently, the early entrants have had only 'male role models' of political leadership.(Some of us will recall the paradoxical statement made on Mrs. Gandhi being 'the only one wearing the pants in the parliament!). Thus, we have had women in a double blind - to be seen as effective, they have to take to masculine ways and when they do that they cease representing women's interests!

From everywhere, an often-heard comment is that many of these women would not like to contest in the next round of elections! Why is that so? Is it a pointer to their 'unsuitability' to assume leadership? Or an inability to cope with multiple and conflicting role demands? Or Is it time we ask ourselves what is it about PRIs (and politics) that makes it unpalatable to half of humanity, even when it can determine the quality of life?


Nine, What is the constituency for panchayati raj? Is it women as a gender? Is it the local electorate? We have seen that the changes that have so far been brought about have come from the "top"—the union of India, for a number of reasons. At the local level, there is a great deal of opposition—from the bureaucracy, from the established politician like the MLA. If they have little interest in PRIs, then who, other than a small number from the urban elite—like us—is interested in promoting the cause of PRIs—and of women within them. Is it not a coincidence that researchers, women’s groups and international organisations are more excited about the PRI experiment than the politicians? How else can we explain the backward steps that Karnataka has been taking? And if the system provokes such opposition, then what can we do to support women within that system? It is a difficult problem.

Ten, there is an ethical problem for people like us. We have reported in this paper from our direct knowledge of the field. All are real situations. We have spoken of situations that would call for official action if the "authorities" were aware of the identities of those we are talking of. But this would mean administrative and legal intervention in local situations, resulting not from local events, but from our observation of them. What is our goal—to learn from what we have seen, or to [inadvertently] intervene, and cause changes of a type over which we have no control, and in which there will be few winners and many losers? We of course will be far away from the local havoc. Clarity is needed in this matter. We would not like to cause trouble for those who have trusted us with information, with their confidence. This matter merits discussion too.

In conclusion, for fundamental changes in society, much more than PRIs are required; but that does not mean PRIs are not important. That the PRIs as they are now are limited does not mean that they cannot be improved. PRIs as grassroots democratic governance institutions are a necessary, but not sufficient condition in the transformation to a better social order. And in that transformation, enabling women's participation through reservations is a first and important step.

In this process of social transformation, there may be some negative unintended consequences - sub-optimal utilisation of resources, weakening of other bodies of governance...not all these will automatically mean empowerment of women or engendering of the PRIs.

Much more will be needed if gender justice is to become the norm. And it will take time. We must not be impatient. But it is important to support this fledgling experiment in every way we can—if we believe in democracy at the grassroots.