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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 12, March 7, 2009

Women’s Participation at Grassroot Level: An Analysis

Saturday 7 March 2009, by Ajit Pal Singh

A democratic polity involves the decentra-lisation or deconcentration of power in a way that the affairs of the local people are managed by means of their positive participation. It implies the extension of democracy at the grass-root level in view of the fact that the people’s participation signifies the constitution of a democratic government not merely at the top but also at the foundation level of the political system. Thus, democratic decentralisation or Panchayati Raj aims at making democracy real by bringing the million into the functioning of their representative government at the lowest level.1 The philosophy of Panchayati Raj is deeply steeped in the tradition and culture of rural India and is by no means a new concept. ‘The rationale behind the concept is to involve the public in local planning, identification of beneficiaries, decision making and proper implementation of policies and programmes of the people as described by them. Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) have today the basic commitment towards rural development.’2 Panchayati Raj, as a system of governance, has had its ebbs and flows in the Indian polity ever since Indian attained independence. Various committees headed by Balwant Rai Mehta, Ashok Mehta, V.P. Naik, P.B. Patil, G.V.R. Rao, L.N. Singhvi overhauled these institutions which gave necessary impetus to the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act.

The Panchayati Raj, an enigmatic and elusive concept, has undergone topsy-turvy changes in its role, shape and function after the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992 which came into effect from April 24, 1993.3 With the passage of the 73rd Amendment, India is at a crucial juncture in the evolution of PRIs—the Indian brand of rural local self-government. It has envisioned people’s participation in the process of planning, decision-making, implementation and delivery system.


Gender equality and gender equity are emerging as major challenges in the global development debate. Social scientists and development activists are giving increasing emphasis to these fields in their agenda for research and development.4 As Noble Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has pointed out, “Democracy is not only the goal of development, it is the primary means of development.”5 Women’s participation in political processes is important for strengthening democracy and for their struggle against marginalisation, trivialisation and oppression. Emergence of women as a strong group would change the prevailing political practices, the nature and content of debates in the legislature and women’s issues can be taken care of from the feminist perspective both in policy formulation and implementation.

Although the new Constitution through various Articles (Art. 14, 15, 23, 29, 30, 42, 45 etc.) did guarantee equal rights for women, Indian women continue to remain oppressed and struggle over everything from survival to resources. While women have made considerable progress in some areas such as education and employment, they continue to be subjected to the influence of the existing patriarchical attitudes in Indian society. The dilemma for Indian women today is that despite the liberal provisions of the Constitution and various laws, serious inequalities remain.6 In fact, right from the days of the freedom struggle the Indian women have been consistently encouraged to take part in active politics. But due to the vitiated political milieu, resulting from increasing politi-cisation and criminalisation of politics, the level of political participation of women has been adversely affected despite the fact that there has been a marked increase in the level of literacy and political awareness among women.

This kind of constitutional provision (73rd Amendment) has created a scope for accomplishing development with social justice, which is the mandate of the new Panchayati Raj system. There can be no real progress if women of a country are not made partners in this process of development. ‘Mahatma Gandhi also believed that full and balanced development of the nation and establishment of a just society is possible only when women participate actively and fully in the political deliberations of the nation. The Balwant Rai Mehta Committee on Panchayati Raj System emphasised that rural women should not become mere beneficiaries of development but should be made equal partners in its affairs as contributors.’7

India is perhaps the first country to recognise this social fact underlined by Lenin on the International Working Women’s Day in 1921,8 and to have taken concrete measures to draw women into leadership positions and thereby into politics by giving them one-third reservation in what may now be called the third tier of governance—the Panchayati Raj. The constitutional amendment providing one-third representation to women in elected bodies as well as reserving one-third of the offices of chairpersons for them will have far-reaching consequences in Indian political and social life.9 Article 243D(3) of the Constitution (Seventy-third Amendment) Act, 1992, reads:

Not less than one-third (including the number of seats reserved for women belonging to the SCs and STs) of the total number of seats to be filled by direct election in every Panchayat shall be reserved for women and such seats may be allotted by rotation to different constituencies in a Panchayat.

And Clause (4) has the following provision:

…not less than one-third (including the number of offices of chairperson reserved for women belonging to the SCs and STs) of the total number of offices of chairpersons in the Panchayat at each level shall be reserved for women: provided also that the number of offices reserved under this clause shall be allotted by rotation to different Panchayats at each level.10

Now, some general observations can be made regarding the role of women in grassroot level governance. It has come to the notice that the percentage of women at various levels of political activities has increased formally. The general trend is that those in politics are women belonging to the younger age-group between 25-45. It is also revealed that women take up political career as an extension of their domestic role. While women have been active in mass movements, their presence is not felt in decision-making. The influence of the husbands and close relatives is quite palpable. This tendency is due to lack of confidence. This dependency is a stumping block in their empowerment. ‘Another positive impact of the grassroot level experiment is the increase in the female literacy rate. Studies reveal that after two years of their election to PRIs, many women demanded literacy skills and also felt the need to educate their daughters. Issues in which women representatives generally take interest are drinking water supply, primary health, child care, public distribution system and environmental protection. One quality observed among women representatives is their patience to hear the problems of the public. They also work in adverse circumstances. It has been observed that women representatives are honest and accurate in presenting issues to the decision-making bodies and authorities. Women would bring new ideas in local governance. They believe in a sustainable development and their emphasis is on natural resources management. Women representatives working at the grassroot level also believe that communal harmony is an important element of development and they strive to achieve this objective. Another promising fact is that they do not indulge in corrupt practices.’11 Under this system, in many parts of the country, the elected women have exhibited their leadership in solving some of the local problems and creating facilities for betterment of the rural society.

Women are considered an extremely pivotal point in the process of change in the rural areas. Women’s participation in panchayats provided opportunities to women to participate in the decision-making process. Women’s participation proved to be the most effective instrument in bringing about a change in their way of life in terms of economic well-being and adoption of new technology.12 Women’s entry into PRIs, both as members as well as heads of Panchayats, has pushed them into the policy-making and policy-implementation process in a very big way. Whether their husbands, fathers, brothers or other relatives compelled them to take up these roles, or whether they assumed these roles as dummy incumbents, one thing is certain: they crossed the rigid boundaries drawn through their households by the same male relatives.

II : Problems of Qualitative Women Participation

Prior to the reservation bill, statistics regarding women’s participation in PRIs were significantly lower (between four and five percent).13 Today 33 per cent of candidates participating in the PRIs are women. ‘In general, participation at local level can be viewed from two angles—quality and quantity. As far as the qualitative aspect is concerned, there are three levels of quality of participation: passive participation, active participation and decision-making participation.’14

But women representatives lack this aspect of qualitative participation. A constitutional provision is only a necessary step which should be followed by effective measures for women’s upliftment in the rural areas. To make women’s participation in society and politics a reality, enormous work remains to be done, given their present socio-economic conditions.

Despite reservation for women, effective participation in PRIs have failed due to misuse and manipulation by the local power-brokers. Ignorance of women about their rights and procedures and about their potential and responsibilities have kept them far behind men in the local bodies. It is very much doubtful that mere increase in the number of reserved seats for women in local bodies is likely to increase the participation of women. Unless structural changes are brought about, a sincere effort is made to educate women and the power structures existing in rural areas are neu-tralised, nothing much can be achieved. Women representatives often run into barriers (especially of family and society) and are hindered from participating effectively. They feel inhibited to speak especially when they are in large male dominated assemblies. Those who muster up enough courage and strength to speak receive very little respect or attention. It has been observed that women are invited only to complete the quorum. Further, the officials also pay heed to the needs of upper class women in preference to the needs of peasant women. The rights of women thus get systematically nullified by the local bureaucracy.15

The family, community and the state (represented by the officials) have together created a situation wherein elected women representatives are facing many operational constraints while playing their roles and discharging their functions in the PRIs. ‘Women representatives have some individual weaknesses:

• Illiteracy and low education levels of the majority of the women elected to the PRIs.

• Overburdened with family responsibilities.

• Introversion due to the lack of communication skills.

• Poor socio-economic background with which the women have come into the system and poor capacity building.

• Patriarchical system indirectly controls and directs their participation.’16

There are some other limitations regarding women’s qualitative participation in PRIs:

• Male family members and also leaders from the caste group/community come in the way of the affairs of the Panchayats.

• Indifferent attitude and behaviour of officials working in the system.

• Misguidance by the local bureaucracy.

• Apprehension of no-confidence motion by the other elected members of the system.

• Mounting pressure from the political party which has vested interests in the gender reservation for positions in the PR system.17

Women representatives face problems at every stage of their participation—from the Gram Sabha to Zila Parishad. ‘In an Open Forum organised by the Rural Litigation And Entitlement Kendra for 300 elected women representatives of PRIs of Uttar Pradesh, the following observations were made by the participants:

• Government orders on devolution of powers to PRIs were a mockery.

• There was a blatant practice of ‘commission’ demanded by Block level staff.

• Women were branded as ‘incompetent’ in the eyes of villagers and were forced to quit through the passing of no-confidence motions.

• Undue interference by the husband (post sarpanches) of women representatives, treating them as mere dummies.

• Widespread use of corrupt practices among the male members and local bureaucrats.’18

It is clear that mere reservation is not enough because a woman representative lacks qualitative participation due to both internal and external factors. Woman’s empowerment is not something which can be handed over to women only. This is a process which involves sincerity, earnestness and capacity and capability on the part of both men and women. It is a challenging task in village India as even today she cannot take any independent decision. She feels subordinate to her husband and even to her son.

III: Steps taken by the Government

In keeping with its past and present policy objectives, the government has launched a number of programmes focused on empowerment of rural women. ‘In 1998, a scheme was started that aimed at empowering women in rural areas. It was called Swashakti—the Rural Women Development and Empowerment Project. In 2001, the government launched Swayamsiddha—the Integrated Women Empowerment Scheme that aims at holistic empowerment of women through awareness generation. In 2002, Swadhar was launched to make rural women economically strong. Under the Ninth Plan (1997-2002), ‘Empowerment of Women’ became one of the nine primary objectives of development. India has heralded the New Millennium by pronouncing the year 2001 as Women’s Empowerment Year.’19 Under the provisions of ‘The Women (Empowerment for Equal Participation) Bill 2005, it is stated that reservation for women in local bodies like village panchayats, municipalities etc. is not enough. They should have equal participation in the governance of the nation—legislative, executive and judiciary on the basis of their numerical strnegth.’20 One of the admirable steps of the government is that now girls are entitled to equal property rights along with their brothers. Recently, ‘with the efforts of the Ministry of Women and Child development, the Domestic Violence Act, 2006 has been passed and come into force from October 26, 2006. The Act covers abuse or threat of abuse, whether physical, sexual, verbal, emotional or economic and it also covers both houses and work places.’21 This Domestic Violence Act will certainly help the rural women representatives who suffer from physical or psychological threats/ violence from male members of PRIs.

IV : Suggestions

There is a need to empower rural women to enhance their quality of participation. The awakening of women in India towards a society where justice and brotherhood prevail, can best be achieved by woman-to-woman contact. The cultural patterns of Indian society are such that social progress among women can be promoted effectively though the medium of personal relationship among them. It is women who can inspire confidence and offer stimulus for social change especially among their sisters in the rural areas. Hence, effective leadership among women must come from the ranks of women themselves. Their qualitative participation can be achieved through training besides of course the literacy educational programmes. Mahila Mandals could be activated for this purpose where women could learn skills and acquire confidence. Links have to be strengthened between the village and the bureaucracy at the lower level. Special programmes on the role of women in PRIs, on rights of women and procedures should be prepared and highlighted through the mass media so as to make women aware and improve the quality of their participation in the socio-political system. The commitment to political empowerment must be supplemented by a new conceptualisation of women’s role in the economy of India. The government (Ministry of Women and Child Development) should take the responsibility to make the rural women aware about their rights and responsibilities.

There should be a remedy for each problem of rural women participation. It should be followed by comprehensive empowerment policies and programmes. Some problems and their remedies are as follows:

• ‘Low Status and Morale: Need of Upgradation—Most of the women in rural areas feel inferior to male members of family/Panchayats. This attitude needs to change to make women as part and parcel of the family as well as Panchayats. They should retain their confidence level.’22 There is another major problem with the women representatives. Women hailing from SC and ST categories may find it difficult to mix with representatives of general categories. To cope with this problem, it is necessary to inculcate confidence among them and to bring attitudinal changes through training in the psyche of the upper classes. Stern action should be taken against such persons who foment communal feelings.

• ‘Dependence upon Men since Childhood: Need of Independence from Early Stages—In Indian villages, girls remain dependent upon the father, brother or cousin and this very feeling continues in their married life. We must give capacity building training to girls in schools to be independent.’23 The programmes of free universal education upto the age of 14 should be vigorously implemented. The courses of studies should inculcate the values of gender equality, self-respect, courage, independence etc. which would help to develop the personalities of girls/ women. ‘In all kinds of public participation, the primary responsibilities of women for looking after home and children always come in the way; unless arrangements are made for child care and other domestic responsibilities, sustained participation of women in the public sphere is not possible.’24

• ‘Women Elected Representatives of PRIs Give Way to their Menfolk: Need of Taking Independent Decision—Women representatives in PRIs must be trained in the art and science of decision-making so that they are not influenced by extraneous factors. They must develop leadership qualities. They should discuss among other women and take their opinion.’25 All women members of Panchayats and other executive bodies must be trained and empowered to exercise their authority. Particular attention must be paid to the development of inter-personal communication skills among the community leaders. Efforts are required to elicit participation of women by establishing links between the elected representatives and the development functionaries. The prevailing male dominated power structure in the village is not ready to accept women as chairpersons (Sarpanches, Pradhans of Block Samiti and Chairperson of Zila Parishad) of the Panchayats. This problem can be solved by persuading women to come forward to assume responsibilities. This requires special orientation camps for the rural elite.

• Lack of Interest and Knowledge: Need of Enthusiasm and Training—‘Women lack interest in PRIs on account of the lukewarm attitude to PRIs by the Union and State governments. They must generate enthusiasm within themselves by making a goal and attach themselves to the altar with a spirit of dedication and reverence.’26 ‘The women participants must be mutually able to communicate in order to be able to exchange ideas. They should be given proper training in the working of the politico-administrative institutions. It is also suggested that PRIs prepare publicity material in local languages. Audio-visual and print media can contribute significantly by the dissemination of information on women related issues and prospects.’27

• ‘No Forum to Exchange Ideas: Need for All Women Forum—Elected women representatives of three tiers should meet once in three months and formulate integrated plans. In this way, they would be more participative while deliberating on important issues.’28 The empowerment process requires social change by organising and mobilising the women’s groups for struggle. Mahila Mandals should be formed in all the villages and get the full support of the National Commission for Women (NCW) and other women’s welfare-based NGOs.

• ‘Women MLAs and MPs do not take Interest in them: Need of Motivation by their own Examples—Women MLAs and MPs should visit frequently the elected representatives of PRIs to solve the problems faced by the rural women members. They should encourage them to take decisions independently.’29 The national and regional political parties can play an important role in making them aware about the process, values and working of democratic institutions.

Empowerment has multidimensional focus and its success depends on environmental forces in a given society. For that, a healthy environment is a must for women’s empowerment at the grassroot level. Drawing lessons from experiences and case studies at the local, national and international levels is important.

In the end, it can be said that 33 per cent reservation for women in PRIs is a good step but it should be supplemented with effective measures that ensure the qualitative aspect of women’s participation. As the India Panchayati Raj Report 2001 reveals: “Women’s expectations and hopes for a greener, cleaner, responsive and representative politics have gone up. They will send out more clearly and energetically the message of women’s empowerment and social development. For that reservation needs to be accompanied by considerable amount of affirmative action programme.”30 To influence and lead effectively, women representatives must develop and use legitimate power (authority). To empower is giving women the capacity to influence the decision-making process by integrating them into our political system. Hence empowerment of rural women can be made possible not only through reservations but it also requires removal of the causes of disempowerment whether social, political or psychological. n


1. J.C. Johari (2001), Indian Government and Politics, Jalandhar: Vishal, p. 515.

2. Neelima Deshmukh (2005), “Women’s Empowerment Through Panchayati Raj Institutions”, in Indian Journal of Public Administration, Vol. LI, No. 2, New Delhi: IIPA, p. 194.

3. R. Venkata Ravi and P. Sunder Raj (2006), “Decentralisation and Development In India”, in Man and Development, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Chandigarh: CRRID, pp. 49-50.

4. S.S. Sree Kumar (2006), “Representation of Women in Legislature: A Sociological Perspective in the Indian Context”, in Indian Journal of Political Science, Vol. LXVII, No. 3, Meerut: Indian Political Science Association, p. 617.



7. Ashok Kumar Jha et al. (eds.) (2004), Women In Panchayati Raj Institutions, New Delhi: Anmol, pp. 198,199.

8. V.I. Lenin—“But you cannot draw the masses into politics without drawing the women into politics as well. For, the female half of the human race is doubly oppressed under Capitalism… (and) in ‘household bondage’.”

9. George Mathew (1994), Panchayati Raj from Legislation to Movement, New Delhi: Concept, p. 129.

10. S. Maheshwari (2004), Local Government in India, Agra: Lakshmi Narain Aggarwal, p. 184.

11. S.S. Sree Kumar, op. cit., p. 621.

12. A. Rajeshwari, PRIs and Women, in G. Palanithurai (ed.) (1996), Empowering People—Issues and Solutions, New Delhi: Kanishka, p. 128.


14. Manjusha Sharma, “Women’s Participation in Gram Panchayats: A Study in Haryana”, in Shiv Raj Singh et al. (eds.) (2003), Public Administration in the New Millennium—Challenges and Prospects, New Delhi: Anamika, p. 216.

15. Ashok Kumar Jha, op. cit., pp. 198,201.

16. A. Venkata Ravi and D. Sunder Raj, op. cit., pp. 60-61.

17. Ibid.

18. Rajesh Gill (2006), “Empowering Women Through Panchayats”, in Man and Development, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Chandigarh: CRRID, p.98-99.

19. S.L. Goel and Shalini Rajneesh (2003), Panchayati Raj in India —Theory and Practice, New Delhi: Deep and Deep, p.272.


21. The Hindu, October 26, 2006.

22. S.L. Goel and Shalini Rajneesh, op. cit., pp. 283-284.

23. Ibid.

24. A. Rajeswari, op. cit., pp. 132.

25. S.L. Goel and Shalini Rajneesh, op. cit., p. 285.

26. Ibid.

27. S.L. Kaushik and Kiran Hooda (2002), “Political Participation of Elected Women at Grassroots Level”, in Indian Management Studies Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, Patiala: Punjabi University, pp. 52-53.

28. S.L. Goel and Shalini Rajneesh, op. cit., p. 286.

29. Ibid.

30. India Panchayati Raj Report (2001), Vol. II, Hyderabad: NIRD, pp. 302-303.

The author is a Lecturer in Political Science, Department of Correspondence Courses, Punjabi University, Patiala. He can be contacted by e-mail

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