Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two of India’s largest states, remain under constant focus for their struggling development indicators. While Uttar Pradesh is in the middle of the Gram Panchayat election, Bihar will choose its local representatives in the months to come.
Of the total 1.3 lakh Panchayati Raj Institution (PRI) representatives in Bihar, over 71,000 are women. In Uttar Pradesh, out of the 9.1 lakh representatives, 3, 04,638 are women. Panchayat elections with gender quotas were instituted in 1992 with the passage of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, mandating 33.3 per cent reservation for women and marginalised communities in PRIs across India. Yet, as we commemorate the passage of this amendment on the National Panchayati Raj Day, 24 April, the tangible and transformative contribution of grassroots women leaders remains sidelined, in favour of stories around failure and co-option. On 1 April this year, the story of a man in Uttar Pradesh breaking his vow of celibacy to make his wife contest in the Panchayat election went viral.
The 1992 amendment proved to be catalytic, bringing more than 14.5 lakh women into leadership positions in India’s local governance. Today, as many as 20 states – Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura, Uttarakhand and West Bengal – have increased reservations for women in their PRIs to 50 per cent. Many states such as Karnataka have more than 50 per cent women representatives in PRIs, which indicates that women are now winning in wards that were not reserved for them.
Politics and governance, for ages considered the prerogative of men, are now changing at the grassroots. India has been a frontrunner in some dimensions of women’s political participation with several success stories of women’s leadership — as prime minister, cabinet ministers, and chief ministers. Today, in the era of Covid-19, women leaders in PRIs have come to their role as independent achievers, making their way in a domain in which they have historically been excluded.
Women lead from the frontlines in Covid-19 response
While the Covid crisis has had a disproportionate impact on women, in terms of increased vulnerability to job and income losses, and enhanced burden of care work, it has shone the spotlight on women as first responders, in their roles as frontline health workers, as local leaders in PRIs and in Self-Help Groups. In a recent tele-survey with women ward members from Gram Panchayats in Bihar, 46 per cent of the respondents said their workload increased significantly since the start of the pandemic and lockdown – signalling the key role elected women representatives (EWRs) played as first responders. More than half of EWRs were engaged in identifying returning migrants and spreading awareness about the Covid-19 disease and associated precautions. Arranging ration, isolation or hospital beds for the Covid-19 patients, providing urgent medical support for pregnant women also gained their attention. In recognition of this reality and the work of women leaders, this year’s International Women’s Day, 8 March 2021, was globally celebrated on the theme of ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.’
Development-focused governance by women leaders
The evidence of women’s effectiveness as leaders and their positive association with development is now well established. Women elected under reservation invest more in public goods that are reflective of community priorities, such as drinking water. The experience reported seems to be that women leaders have preferences and development priorities similar to those of the people in their communities (Chattopadhyay, Raghabendra, and Esther Duflo. 2004. “Women as Policy Makers: Evidence from a Randomized Policy Experiment in India.” Econometrica 72(5): 1409-43). Take the case of Rasulan Bibi of Banjari Gram Panchayat in Bihar, which struggles with poor nutrition outcomes like anaemia and childhood stunting. Along with her fellow female ward members, she has prioritised improvement of nutrition outcomes and services in her panchayat, through promotion of kitchen gardening and mobilising communities at annaprashan and god bharai celebrations under POSHAN Abhiyaan.
Research also shows that constituencies reserved for women leaders have a higher delivery of civic facilities (drinking water, schools, health centres, fair price shops), and the measured quality of these facilities is at least as high as in the non-reserved constituencies, highlighting the value of such affirmative constitutional measures. (Duflo, Esther and Petia Topalova. 2004. “Unappreciated Service: Performance, Perceptions, and Women Leaders in India,” Mimeo, MIT)
However, women’s political participation continues to be gendered. While health and education are considered appropriate domains for women rural infrastructure and budgetary management remain the preserve of men. Ward member Babita Devi, who works as a daily wager in Pangri Panchayat, in Bihar, successfully improved the quality of mid-day meals by lodging a complaint. Samna Khatoon and Dhanmanti Devi, ward members of Rajnandna Panchayat, again in Bihar, successfully ensured removal of encroachment at the local Sub Health Centre.
An assessment of Centre for Catalyzing Change’s (C3) leadership and mentoring initiative for EWRs (elected women representatives) in Bihar, Pahel, shows how structured and iterative capacity-building efforts are helpful for women to navigate institutional and patriarchal barriers. Respondents stated an improved understanding of their roles and responsibilities as PRI members, following their participation in C3’s programme. A rise of 41 percentage points in the proportion of EWRs who report an improved ability to raise issues during meetings was observed. EWRs reported a marked increase in awareness of Panchayat committees and participation at meetings. The awareness of standing committees at panchayat level increased from 16 per cent prior to their participation in the programme, to 71 per cent in after. 88 per cent were aware of Village Health Sanitation Nutrition Committees (VHSNC), 72 per cent of Education committee and 54 per cent of Public Works committee. These proportions were 56 per cent, 69 per cent and 13 per cent, respectively, prior to EWRs participation in the programme. However, EWRs knowledge of financial committees remains low – just 15 per cent were aware of the Financial Audit committee and 23 per cent of the Financial Planning and Coordination committee.
Elected women are excluded by their gender, domestic responsibilities, and poor financial and digital literacy. Lack of adequate information and managerial experience among newly elected women representatives is challenging, as they struggle to understand what is expected of them as elected members, leading to a situation where male representatives often seize power. Even so, EWR’s often mention their confidence and eagerness to contest elections. However, few feel that they have any actual power to effect change easily — 77 per cent of them believe that they cannot change things easily in their constituencies, while just 23 per cent felt that they could. This represents an interesting dichotomy, where women leaders are feeling more valued by their constituents, and more self-confident, but at the same time finding it difficult to navigate existing local governance systems.
EWRs are expected to supervise, monitor, and ensure effective implementation of various development initiatives through smartphones. For instance, during Covid-19, they are expected to maintain digital evidence like photographs of mask, sanitiser distribution etc. But only 63 per cent EWR participants owned a phone and among them, only 24 per cent had a smartphone. This reflects the larger gender digital divide in India, where awareness of mobile internet is growing rapidly, but usage remains low among women, particularly those in rural areas. A 2020 report by the GSM Association, a trade body that represents the interests of mobile network operators globally, says women in India are 28 per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone and 56 per cent less likely than men to use mobile Internet. Thus, the digital divide emerges as a challenge for EWRs, and also an avenue to get support from family, especially sons and husbands.
In recent years, we have seen how increasingly responsibilities and powers are being delegated to Panchayat level — important initiatives like POSHAN Abhiyaan mandate their leadership. How can then, half the PRI representatives who are women, be left behind if these critical responsibilities vest in them? It is easy to put down women without being sensitive to their disadvantages. The Pahel evaluation respondent women had the following profile: majority (87 per cent) of the EWRs were first-time representatives, 34 per cent married before the age of 18; 23 per cent EWRs did not go to school, while 37 per cent completed only primary schooling; 5 per cent completed Class XII, and 2 per cent finished undergraduate studies.
A key takeaway has been that once women start, there is no looking back. Their achievements give them a huge sense of self-worth, an ambition to do more. While we wait for indicators to further improve in low resource settings, more concerted efforts need to be made to empower women like Rasulan Bibi and Babita Devi.
For women elected to Panchayats to successfully challenge the prevailing status quo in rural self-government and take on traditionally male-dominated domains through visible participation and agenda setting, stakeholders and government need to make special efforts to facilitate their on-boarding, ensure regular flow of information and facilitation. Till then, instead of highlighting stories of proxy leaders, focusing on achievements and progress would build a progressive narrative and support for women’s political participation.
Madhu Joshi is Senior Advisor- Gender Equity and Governance, Centre for Catalyzing Change. Devaki Singh is Policy Specialist – Gender Equity and Governance, Centre for Catalyzing Change. Views are personal.
Edited by Anurag Chaubey