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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 13, March 20, 2010

Women in Panchayats: The Path Ahead

Saturday 20 March 2010, by Usha Narayanan

Now that the Women’s Reservation Bill has been passed in the Rajya Sabha, we are reproducing the following write-up based on the speech the author, the wife of former President K.R. Narayanan, delivered at the inauguration of a National Workshop on “Training Women in Panchayats—Looking Back and Forward” (New Delhi] October 31, 1996). It was the success of women’s one-third representation in the Panchayats that influenced politicians (like Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, for example) to comprehend the need for ensuring reservation of 33 per cent seats for women in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies. In that context the contents of this write-up assume considerable significance even though neither K.R. Narayanan nor his wife, Usha, is with us today. —Editor

Now that in Panchayats one-third represen-tation of women is operational in most States of India, and similar representation of women is imminent in State Assemblies and Parliament, it is necessary to formulate a comprehensive programme of training in order to enable women play their part fully and effectively in our democracy.

Looking back upon the part played by women in politics and society in our country, we can be proud of the contribution women have made in the past. In spite of the innumerable handicaps, discrimination and the oppression they have been subjected to, women have been the unacknowledged movers and shakers of our society. Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest feminist in history, understood during the freedom struggle the importance of drawing women into the thick of it. He had observed:

Here was a reservoir of intelligence and skill which had never been tapped for the national cause.

He said that no great cause could be achieved unless the power of women is harnessed to it and that all our schemes and programmes would fall half-way through unless women participate in them. This is true of our democracy and our social and economic development. They have only half succeeded so far on account of the absence of women’s participation.

Panchayati Raj was Gandhiji’s dream for India. It was this dream that was spelt out in Article 40 or our Constitution. The constitutional amendments, passed by Parliament in 1989 and since ratified by the States, may be a pale reflection of this dream but they are important steps towards that goal. Together with the legislation now envisaged giving one-third representation for women in State Assemblies and Parliament, they constitute a major effort in mobilising the masses behind the political process and investing them, particularly women, with political power and social and economic initiative. About the reservation of seats for women Rajiv Gandhi said while introducing the Bill in Parliament, that women contribute half the population of India and are involved in rather more than half the economic life of rural India and that the sound finance of the household has traditionally been with them. He added that a large number of women in Panchayats, will not only make the Panchayats more representative, but will also make them more efficient, honest, disciplined and responsible. When in our Parliament and State Assemblies 33 per cent of the members will be women, I believe that these august bodies will also be more efficient, honest and disciplined, and there will be less sound and fury, and less froth and bubble and scuffle in their proceedings.

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There has been considerable scepticism expressed by some whether the home-bound and largely illiterate women of India would be able to fulfil their onerous responsibilities as members of elected bodies. Similar doubts were expressed when universal adult franchise was first introduced in India. But our experience has been that the average men and women exercised their right to vote thoughtfully and with wisdom. In fact in several States women have shown greater keenness to vote in elections than the menfolk. And in the Assemblies and Parliament, and in whatever posts were given to them they discharged their duties better than the average man—here I am using the words of Pandit Nehru. The innate intelligence and wisdom of the average women in India is great, born out of their experience with the hard facts of life and out of their cultural heritage. But nevertheless, training is necessary so that they can fulfil their new duties as representatives of the people. Indeed, such training is desperately needed for our menfolk also who sit in Panchayats, Assemblies and Parliament. For women representatives there are additional duties to perform apart from the general work of an elected representative. They have to address themselves to the gender-based problems of society, the specific needs and requirements of women, which tend to be neglected by men.

To be accepted and looked up to as representatives of the whole people, women Panchayat members should first of all be able to articulate and espouse the common problems of the village, block, district or the Assembly and parliamentary constituency, and also the nation as a whole as the case may be. At the Panchayat level they will have to familiarise themselves with the poverty alleviation programmes, with health, family and child welfare programmes, with education, literacy and culture, with road building and housing and drinking water programmes etc. Women have special interest in all these. The training courses should address such general work and also programmes specific to women’s welfare. I am sure that you have in mind to give a practical bias to the training and not so much academic content. Group discussion method rather than the class room approach will be more appealing to women and also more effective. The members should be encouraged to raise problems and also asked to suggest answers from the fund of commonsense they possess. Trained social workers and voluntary agencies should directly be involved in the training courses. And there must be programmes to tain those who train. I am aware that most of the States are running such programmes already. It is necessary for the training to be periodic, if not continuous. The training should include instilling the spirit of the Panchayati Raj, the political and social essence of democracy, in the minds of the trainees.

For the role of women and also men to be effective in the Panchayat system it is essential that the Panchayats themselves should be vested with real powers. Devolution of such powers for local developmental and administrative responsi-bilities is visualised in the constitutional laws passed. To what extent will such devolution take place is a moot question. The States have been in the past in the habit of curtailing their powers and even superseding the local bodies. I do hope that real investment of powers will take place in the new Panchayat system. If the Panchayat system as a whole is deprived of real authority, how can the empowerment of women take place?

There is also the apprehension that the one million representatives of women who would be elected to the Panchayats will not all be capable of fulfilling their responsibilities. Besides, they may be proxies for men, who may manipulate them behind-the-scene. Of course this danger is there, and in the beginning there might be a number of wives, daughters, daughters-in-law of male politicians etc. But that would be only a passing phase. Women will soon emerge as real representatives of the people. They must go through training and orientation courses so that they could become independent and intelligent representatives of the people. And such courses must keep in mind the probability that it would be from this reservoir of Panchayat members that future MLAs and MPs will emerge and become leaders of the nation.

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