The 73rd amendment in the Indian Constitution mandates reservation for women candidates in local governance. It directs the state governments to reserve a minimum of 33% seats at all levels, village, block, and district, in the Panchayati Raj Institutions. This was done in order to promote gender equality and provide women with an opportunity to be decision makers in a traditionally patriarchal society.
The amendment is a first of its kind in India to ensure the participation of women in political positions by reserving seats for them.
This has paved the way for women to take up leadership roles in the historically male-dominated field of politics.
Unfortunately, reality stays far away.
The involvement of women sarpanches and women at local governance positions in the working of panchayats is however, negligible. With ground research and report abstracts, it is not very difficult to find out that the sarpanchpatis or pratinidhis, i.e, the husband or other male relatives of the women sarpanches, are often working as proxy members in the reserved gram panchayats. This is where the basic purpose of granting ‘reservation to females’ is defeated.
Low involvement of the women sarpanches in roles related to monitoring of physical development works, implementation of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), handling of panchayat’s funds, and other responsibilities is a clear indicator of limited access of resources that women have at their own jobs in the State Panchayati Raj.
Ground realities however are unfortunate; revealing pictures of the gram sachivs interacting with the sarpanchpatis directly for their work. Their interaction with the women sarpanches is strictly limited because the only way they connect them is through their male counterparts.
Every election year,
- 33% of the gram panchayats at the district-level are reserved for women. As of now, Haryana has 41 per cent elected women representatives as sarpanch (acc. to Sangwan 2016), which speaks volumes as it is much greater than the required mandate of 33 per cent.
- At 41 per cent, the gender balance looks great but the ground research suggests that increased participation of women representatives fail to convert into higher involvement of women in functioning of the panchayat’s affairs and performance.
The issue of proxy women sarpanches is still a big challenge in Haryana as it is not yet addressed by the government seriously.
The existence of an unofficial, self-proclaimed position known as the “sarpanch pati” or the “sarpanch pratinidhi” defeats the purpose of empowerment single handedly.
Ground reports reveal a disturbing scenario with regard to the awareness levels of the women sarpanches about government departments.
- In a recent study conducted in Karnal about the educational qualifications of women sarpanches 33.33 per cent of the respondents claimed that they had completed high school, 16.67 per cent were graduates and 13.33 per cent respondents were post graduates, respectively.
- It was observed that 58.62 per cent women sarpanches has not interacted with the patwari even once.
The harsh truth is that the involvement of sarpanches’ husbands and representatives will not bring about any significant changes in making local governance truly representative in character.
Women sarpanches often struggle to manage work and family duties and step back because the limited knowledge of their job profile as a sarpanch complicates their functioning.
They also handover their jobs to their husbands because they consider that experience matters in this field and that they do not have any prior experience.
- Lack of Political Awareness and Affiliations is one of the major factors affecting the performance of female sarpanches. Local governance in Haryana is influenced by political affiliations of the sarpanch. The MLA and the members of parliament (MP) have the power to grant funds to gram panchayats for different projects. Hence, building a relationship with them and their affiliates becomes significant. These funds are sometimes granted based on party inclination of the sarpanch and not the needs of the village. If the sarpanch is well connected he/she can get the funds. Women lack these political connections probably because of the vicious circle they are trapped in. Not participating in politics as a sarpanch leaves them with no political connections which further leads them to distance themselves from the functionalities of their jobs.
- Another factor that keeps women from participating and playing active role as a sarpanch is that most of them do not campaign for their candidature and that the other members of their family do the campaigning on their behalf. Practically, the women do not have any role to play while in the papers it is she who managed and conducted the campaigns.
- The lifestyle of women in the villages of Haryana also has a major impact on their functional selves. Women in rural areas don’t have the kind of support the women sarpanches should have from their families. They perform all household chores, take care of children, and look after the cattle of the house. This leaves them with little to no time to perform their duties while on the other hand her representative who is not supposed to proxy her, performs all the functions.
- It is also of great importance that a sarpanch communicates with the government officials since the panchayat is an elected body and their role is to serve the people of the gram panchayat. In a job like this, there is a desperate need for a sarpanch to establish a communication channel with the villagers as well as the government officials. Male counterparts of these sarpanches do not give them the authority to establish these community communication channels. They rather do it themselves.
Most of the women sarpanches decision to stand for the election is not even their own. Since there is a reservation for women in local governance, often the families, predominantly the male members, ask the female members of the family, who qualify, to participate. After which she never deals with the working and acts only as a proxy member.
These scenarios are often call for action. It shows that the introduction of reservation policy is not sufficient to empower women and strengthen their role as key stakeholders in local governance. Creating more awareness among these women is clearly the need of the hour. Effective participation of women in local governance will rely on creating an environment conducive for their participation, building their capacity through training, and strengthening administration in order to communicate with women sarpanches and support them.