The 73rd and 74th amendment to the Constitution in 1992 gave constitutional status to the Panchayat local bodies. In order to empower women in terms of more active political participation, reservations for women Sarpanches now exist in several states.
The intent was good; let us review where the results stand vis-a-vis the objectives. Has the reservation helped in getting women to the fore? Undoubtedly, yes. Women, once they become Sarpanches, do become more politically savvy over a period of time. There is no magic here, it is simply a question of exposure. Once they answer a few questions in the Gram Sabha, start meeting with the Zilla Parishad officers, realize that their signature is important for withdrawing funds for some village scheme, they gradually start getting a sense of power. This process could take 3-4 years, depending on their family background, education levels, ambitions and inherent smartness quotients.
If the lady is simply the legal face of her more politically savvy husband or father-in-law, very limited empowerment comes from the exposure. After she wins the election, it is he who takes the victory march through the village and she just signs wherever he asks her to. It is ironical that even on the pre-poll propaganda pamphlets, you can very often see the husband’s photograph looming large.
However, if the lady is not connected to a political family and has contested the elections for whatever reason out of her own free will, there is a genuine change in her in some time. The problem is that just as she starts finding her feet and understanding the ropes, it is time for the next election. And in the next election, the Sarpanch seat in her village may not be reserved for women and she doesn’t stand a chance. Many Mahila Sarpanches hence claim that the true benefit to them could only accrue if the Sarpanch seat gets a reservation for 2 continuous terms.
Of course, there are many issues with this too. As of today, it is the men who understand the ropes. Why? Because it is they who’ve pretty much created the systems, greased the wheels, brought in the networks and generally driven the unique, person-centric, sycophantic political culture that brings critical funds for development. And as I’ve argued in my earlier blog, after all this work, when the seat gets reserved for a woman candidate and gets contested by an independently thinking woman, the polity collapses. The network through which those funds could have arrived into the village become null and void. The person with the actual power does not want to work and the person in power does not understand how to. It is a strange kind of a saddle point in the matrix of development history; it is the largest issue in the column of gender equality and the smallest element in the row of power and one that needs deeper thinking on.
The Mahila Sarpanch faces a number of extremely unique issues in her day-to-day working life too. Take the simple case of budgets. Most Mahila Sarpanches do not understand how to read budgets or accounts by virtue of never having done it before. Again, her helpers being mostly male and secretive about this main domain around which their entire power rests, are not exactly forthcoming in terms of educating her about it. It is here that community bodies like SHGs Bachat Gat groups can and do drive a huge difference. Wherever backed by such local groups, Mahila Sarpanches tend to drive much better outcomes than in other villages.
A large part of the Sarpanch’s duties is simply to liason with the ZP officials when they come for a visit or for exploring possibilities of a development scheme being implemented. However, the village culture does not allow the Mahila Sarpanch to invite these officers home for Chai-Pani and hence the male Upa-Sarpanch effectively becomes the liasoning officer. Further, the Upa-Sarpanch in all probability goes back to the ZP by just riding pillion with a junior ZP official and on the way understands where the dough lies, a luxury scant afforded by the women. They cannot do this easy talk culturally; riding in the same car or bike would be a steep moral offense and they are not given conveyance with which they can actually go to the ZP to follow up on the status of the projects. Thus, even with know-how about the Swacch Bharat project, they may not be able to procedurally drive the funds home. Add to this the apathy of the Gram Sevak and you see how acute the problem is.
Thrusting political equality on a society with inherent cultural gender-inequality can only go so far. To put the punch back into the role of the Mahila Sarpanch, multiple interventions in education, gender-sensitization, financial inclusion and cultural re-orientation would be required.