Chulubari (Tripura)/Kanjikuzhy (Kerala): Her relatives warned Hena Das, a resident of Chulubari in Tripura, against taking up political office because it wasn’t “meant for women”.
Das disregarded the warnings. Two years on, she has no regrets. She also has no male colleagues; her fellow representatives on the board of an 12-member panchayat are all women.
The all-women local administrative body in a remote north-eastern state is one of the positive stories of India’s experience with self governance, a journey that will celebrate its 20th anniversary on 24 April. On this day in 1993, India notified the constitutional amendments making it mandatory that panchayats with a standardized structure be created across the country.
At last count, India had 238,955 gram panchayats or village administrative bodies. Tripura alone has 511. And of the 2.8 million elected representatives in such bodies, one million were women, according to the 2011-12 annual report of the ministry of panchayati raj.
The Indian Constitution mandates one-third of the seats of panchayati raj institutions and a similar ratio for offices of the chairperson at all level of panchayati raj institutions to be reserved for women. However, some states including Tripura, Bihar, Maharashtra and Rajasthan have raised the proportion to 50%.
If Chulubari’s experience captures the political empowerment of women, the demographic dynamic of Kerala—where the number of women in the total population exceeds that of men—and the state’s adoption of panchayati raj has led to employment opportunities targeting women, resulting in their financial empowerment.
In Perambra village in Kerala’s Kozhikode district, the proactive panchayat has led to women shifting away from manual agricultural labour to making value-added agriculture-linked products. Their self-help group manufactures coconut-based products such as virgin coconut oil, pickles, skincare products and coir carpets. The products are marketed by Subicsha, a company set up by the Perambra block panchayat that markets the products of 522 self-help groups in the area.
Indeed, India’s move towards effective local self-governance may be patchy, but the example of Tripura and Kerala shows that it is, in some ways, meeting a key objective of the panchayati raj movement: equal rights for women.
“Initially I was scared of filing my nomination; people in my village warned me about the kind of work it entails. Honestly, I became confident only after I got to the ground and started working,” says Das, a 36-year-old homemaker and a mother of two. “When I was going to contest, most of the people around me were confused and said that I would not be able to do anything.”
Chulubari is a small village with a total area of only 45.4 hectares. There are 999 families, out of which 802 belong to scheduled castes. The total population of the village, which depends mainly on the cultivation of rubber and sugar cane, is 3,720.
Today, the “gram sabhas of Kerala are predominantly attended by women. In the beginning, it was just presence and it has gradually transformed into actual participation. In the gram sabhas, women started taking up a lot of issues that are challenging to women in their area. The gram sabhas have become one platform where they are heard and seen”, says Peter M. Raj, associate professor at Kerala Institute of Local Administration.
And financial development is a key part of this.
At Perambra, the women break coconuts, dry them, crush them to extract oil, and make soap. Others prepare pickles and jams in cluster units or at home, which they bring to the Subicsha unit in the village.
Similarly, in Aryad village in Alappuzha district, Valsala Babu, through a venture set up with the help of the panchayat, sells 500-600 lotus flowers every month at between Rs.12 and Rs.20 apiece.
“I no longer have to ask my husband for money for my own needs. I save this and buy jewellery. I can also give it to my children, who are studying outside the village,” says 46-year-old Gita, an employee at Subicsha.
In Kanjikuzhy village in Alappuzha, the altered status of women has redefined the local economy. Once famous for fish and coir products, it is now, thanks to a new business created by self-help groups under the aegis of the panchayat, known as the best location for umbrellas in the state. Other village women make notebooks and bags, prepare solar-dried fish, pickles and jams that are sold under the brand name Maari. “We are finding markets for these agro-products by setting up small shops alongside the national highway,” says D. Priyesh, president of the Kanjikuzhy block panchayat.
Some panchayats in Kerala have even formed vigilance committees known as jagrata samitis that look into instances of atrocities against women and create public spaces for women.
Easy to approach
If the empowerment of women has been one of the achievements of the panchayati raj movement, public policy and making sure women are involved in the implementation of local governance initiatives and programmes has created a sort of a virtuous loop, both feeding off and amplifying the phenomenon.
In Kerala, for instance, gram panchayats have to allocate a minimum 10% of their budget for programmes related to the development of women.
Meanwhile, in Chulubari, in the last two years, the all-women panchayat has taken up tasks such as land levelling, road construction, providing better facilities at the health sub-centre, cleaning the village pond and ensuring the quality of midday meals in schools. It has also focused on campaigns aimed at spreading awareness about services being offered by the government so that they are effective, especially the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
Chulubari’s villagers said that the presence of women in a panchayat makes it easier for other women to approach the local body.
“It is easier for us to communicate our problems to them. They do good work and they take our requests seriously,” says Aarti Das, a 35-year-old homemaker from the village. In her case, the village panchayat ensured a quick and trouble-free clearance for a house under the Indira Awas Yojana central government scheme.
The men are impressed too. Biblab Das, a 21-year-old farm worker, takes pride in his village panchayat and its members. “They are very talented and they work effectively,” he says.
And there does seem to be a lot of work.
The 12-member Chulubari village panchayat holds at least two full board meetings in a month to lay out its plan, assess its work and collate a list of demands for the government.
On the 24th of every month, the panchayat members hold a meeting with Accredited Social Health Activist workers, health supervisors and business correspondents from the village to keep track of their work and problems, if any.
Then there are health camps, legal camps, education camps and cultural events.
It took some time for the women to find their feet, says Bishnu Pada Rai, the secretary of the panchayat and the only male at the body’s meetings. “Initially, we had a tough time with most of the members finding it difficult to file proposals, but after a year, they understood their work well,” Rai says.
That slow start is understandable given that an overwhelming proportion of women panchayat members are holding political office for the first time. According to a national survey commissioned by ACNielsen ORG-MARG by the ministry of panchayati raj, nearly four-fifths of elected women representatives did not have a family member previously associated with politics and around 86% of them were first-timers in politics.
Still, the women have a fine understanding of the big picture.
Hena Das, for instance, speaks of the importance of not just individual panchayats, but the entire network having to do well if the state has to benefit. “The pyramid is very important,” she says. “It is only when all the units function well that the work becomes easier for the state governments. The first step in that system is also a village panchayat.”
Though unprepared, women have not hesitated when given the opportunity, Das says, and adds, “I thought if I was an elected representative member, I would be able to do a lot more.”
This is the first in a series of reports on panchayati raj 20 years after it was given a new constitutional framework.