The Constitution of India is based on the principles of equality and guarantees equality before law and equal protection to all its citizens. It not only guarantees fundamental rights and freedoms, but also prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, and place of birth. However, these rights have remained de jure and have not been translated into de facto rights. As such, women have been denied social, economic, civil and political rights in many spheres. An important area where women have been inadequately represented is in the political sphere. Articles 325 and 326 of the Constitution of India, guarantee political equality, equal right, to participate in political activities and right to vote respectively. While the latter has been accessed, exercised and enjoyed by a large number of women, the former i.e., right to equal political participation is still a distant dream. Lack of space for participation in political bodies has not only resulted in their presence in meager numbers in these decision making bodies but also in the neglect of their issues and experiences in policy making.
Women participation in politics
The story begins with a law passed in 1983 in the southern state of Karnataka. This law included a clause that 25 percent of the seats in local councils would be reserved for women. The elections to these councils were held in 1987. On 1 May 1987, the Janata Dal (the party that won the elections) called a convention of all the 56,000 elected representatives, of whom 25 percent were women. It was a wonderful sight to see 14,000 women in the audience, shining bright, 80 percent of who were participating in politics for the first time, thrilled with their victory at the hustling. Even those who had passed the law, and advocated for its positive discrimination in the interests of gender equity, were stunned (Devaki Jain).
By 1995, the presence of women in local government had increased by many multiples, as the whole nation had introduced this political/ administrative change to reserve seats in local councils for women through the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution. In India, we call this new system the Panchayat Raj Institutions system (PRI). The women whom PRI has brought into politics are now governing, in the formal sense of the word. They are the government for their area, be it one village, or a larger area such as 100 villages or a district.
The 73rd Amendment to the Constitution of India
This Amendment, dated 24 April 1993, directed all state legislatures to amend their respective Panchayat legislation to conform to the Constitution Amendment, within one year. All the states complied and adopted new Panchayat legislation by 23 April 1994. By April 1995 all the states were expected to complete decisions on new Panchayats - and those who delayed ran the risk of losing central government assistance, as announced by the Prime Minister.
The Constitution of India was adopted in 1950. It had envisaged (Article 40) that "the State shall take steps to organize village Panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.”
This provision of the Constitution was primarily advisory. In the following four decades, some sporadic and indifferent steps were taken by some of the state governments to organize Panchayats; but they were invariably denied any meaningful powers and authority and, worst of all, the elections were seldom held at 5-year intervals as required. This deplorable state of affairs was an affront to the Constitution (Article 40) and there was growing demand in the country for a definite constitutional mandate to secure periodical and regular elections to Panchayats just as in the case of Parliament and State Assemblies.
73rd Amendment Act, 1992 The Salient Features of the Act are :
Panchayat Raj Institution: Transforming Women into PRI
Women's experience of PRI has transformed many of them. The elements of this transformation include empowerment, self-confidence, political awareness and affirmation of identity.
Women have gained a sense of empowerment by asserting control over resources, officials and, most of all, by challenging men (Jain 1980; Anveshi 1993). Men and their habits, long outside the realm of female influence, seem to be a major concern of elected women. For example, Deviramma, a 50-year-old woman from the "Golla", or cowherd community, kept cattle and sold curd until recently. Today, she is president of the Yeliyur Gram Panchayat, one of the 5,611 Gram Panchayats constituted in December 1993 under the Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act 1993.
As quoted by Rai et al (1995):
Some of the reviews highlighting the women participation in the Panchayat Raj Institutions. Singh, Surat’s (2004) article presents the findings of an empirical study of the elected women representatives of the Panchayat Raj Institutions of Haryana for exploring the extent of their empowerment as a result of the implementation of the 73rd amendment to the Indian Constitution which made provision for the reservation of one-third share for women in these institutions. It also aims at making some suggestions for making the participation of women effective in these institutions of decentralized rural governance. He concluded with several suggestion, that is, Men’s negative attitude towards women member, attitudinal change among both men and women, education of women, Community organizations encouragements ( SHGs and Mahila Mandal etc.,) regular attendance in the meeting, encouragement from family and local community, media are quite important to change the environment to women to participate in local governance quite effectively.
Biduyt Mohanty’s (2002) recent study on the impact of 73rd amendment in Orissa through field experience analyses that about 80-90% of women attend the panchayat meeting regularly. Given the sure number, one might conclude that the democracy has become participatory than before at least at the grassroots level. Micro studies also show that the working culture of the panchayat has changed because of the presence of the women. Finally, the increase in the female literacy can be attributed to the presence of the women in panchayats and their willingness to get educated. An interesting finding came out from the above field experience. Even it women representatives depend on relatives, the power relation between husband and wife has already changed due to the reservation for women, the women’s husband gets a chance to come to the public sphere because of the wife and particularly monolithic structure is no longer structure because is no longer seen in family relations. Studies point out the emergence of proxy women in panchayat where the husbands or brothers look after her official activities. Mohanty however states that the first one or two years of the tenure, the proxy women are seen. Gradually, they become independent.
Sinha, Archana (2004) in her article ‘WOMEN IN LOCAL SELF-GOVERNANCE’ pointed out that deep poverty is a social and political phenomenon as much as an economic problem and thus requires political and social change, particularly within the sites of power. The quest for equity cannot come about without wider representation of all groups; especially those currently denied access to power, and the presentation of all points of view in the process of decision-making. Revision of the current administrative and political structures, and their rules, is necessary in order to facilitate this border representation and its translation into political power for those who are currently marginalized.
Bringing women into the power it thus not only a matter of equity, of correcting an unjust and unrepresentative system. Political restructuring is the key to economic growth with justice. PRI is also demonstrating that transforming the local councils into representative bodies means they are likely to be more environmentally protective, as the new members have a greater stake in their local natural resources. PRI in India offers an opportunity to women to change the face of political leadership. But we still have to ensure that these are spaces where women can go to negotiate for power.
The Women's Movement and PRI
The women's movement continues to support the PRI “revolution”. Examples of this support include:
Women, in general, were denied of participation in the decision-making process for ages. A progressive Amendment to the Constitution has made it possible that women’s participation is important and this would really mean safeguarding social justice and empowering of every section the society.
Karnataka has a great distinction of enacting legislation and also has a fruitful experience of instituting Panchayat Raj System even prior to the 73rd Constitutional Amendment into the existing Act.]
The study is carried out in ten Grama Panchayath’s of Udupi District of Karnataka State. Udupi is known for several developmental achievements.
The ICDS programme has been experimented as a pilot project in this district.
The rate of literacy is very high (92%) and having largest number of educational institutions; and it is internationally recognized for its banking sector.
The literacy campaign has achieved 100% results and sanitation programme was implemented and also many number of Grama Panchayat have been adjudged as Total Sanitation Panchayats.
An interview schedule, covering the extent of participation of women in Panchayat activities, both at the levels of policy making and implementation has been prepared and the same has been administered on 30 women representatives of Panchayat.
The data were collected through interview method, in addition to observations made by researchers are drawn here.
To conclude, one would say, that change is inevitable. A slow process of change and a change for the good are necessary. The fruits of democratic decentralization are that of greater participation of the people, especially of women, and of effective and efficient implementation of rural development schemes. The observations have established the fact that women’s empowerment is a reality.
Mohan A K
Asst. Professor, Department of Studies in Social Work, University of Mysore, Manasagangothri, Mysore-06, Karnataka.
C. Usha Rao
Reader, Department of Studies in Social Work, University of Mysore, Manasagangothri, Mysore-06, Karnataka