Is every elected woman representative in the panchayat a puppet, or is she an Indira Gandhi in the making? As a new survey reiterates, this is the wrong question, says Niraja Gopal Jayal in The Indian Express. Photo courtesy, www.thp.org
The Global Gender Gap Report 2007 ranks India 114 out of 128 countries, using a composite index of economic participation, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival. On three of the sub-indexes, India’s ranking is even lower than 114 — for instance, its ranking on health and survival is 126, higher only than Azerbaijan and Armenia. In sharp contrast, India’s ranking on political empowerment is 21, higher than Australia, Canada and the United States.
This ranking, it must be clarified, does not take into account women’s representation in institutions of local governance. Even as the Women’s Reservation Bill — for the one-third quota in Parliament and state legislatures — has remained just a bill for over a decade now, one wonders what impact the inclusion of the one-third representation of women in the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), given a constitutional mandate exactly 15 years ago, would have on such a ranking.
A recent survey, commissioned by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj and executed by the Nielsen Company-ORG Marg under the guidance of an academic advisory committee, addresses the knowledge gap, providing many new insights into the performance of women in the new Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). This is the largest-ever survey on any aspect of panchayat functioning, covering Gram Panchayats in 23 states, with a total sample size of over 20,000, including Elected Women Representatives (EWRs), Elected Male Representatives (EMRs), ex-EWRs, official functionaries and members of the community.
Nearly three-fourths of the EWRs in the sample belonged to the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and OBC categories, and were evenly divided above and below the poverty line. That reservation has been critical to the representation of disadvantaged groups is confirmed by the fact that 88 per cent of them were elected on reserved seats. Approximately 85.8 per cent of all representatives surveyed were first-timers in the panchayats, while 14.3 per cent had been elected for a second or third term. While 15 per cent of women pradhans had been re-elected twice or more, 37 per cent of the male pradhans had been similarly re-elected. Of the ex-EWRs interviewed, 11 per cent said they had contested but lost the election, while 39 per cent indicated that they did not contest a re-election because the seat had been de-reserved. This clearly points to the need to rethink the rotation of seats reserved for women.
Much is often made of the phenomenon of surrogate representation, with the associated assumption that women who contest even reserved seats generally come from families with a record of political engagement. An interesting finding of the survey was that the gender gap on this issue is less than 3 per cent — for while 21 per cent of EWRs reported a member of their household having previously contested an election, 18.6 per cent of EMRs did so, too!
The survey establishes quite clearly that while reservation provides the opportunity for entering the PRIs, it is no determinant of performance. Performance was found to be quota-neutral. In other words, a representative elected on a reserved seat performed no differently from one elected on an open seat. Performance is likewise not associated, either positively or negatively, with caste, though there is some negative correlation on this count with Scheduled Tribe status.
What, then, are the determinants of performance? In the case of women, these were seen to be age, education, training and prior involvement in social and political activities. Women in the age group of 21-35 years, educated up to middle-school and above, and either involved in political campaigns or associated with community-based organisations of various kinds were found to be more effective representatives. Those who had received training in the functioning of the panchayat system were likewise better performers.
Though it is tempting to ask whether women performed better in some states as compared to others, there is need for caution in attempting such comparisons of the performance of women across states. This is because every state has a different legislative framework for panchayati raj, with enormous variations in the extent of devolution of functions and finances, as well as in the robustness of the implementation of devolution provisions. To control for these variations, it makes greater sense to compare the gender gap across different states. The gap between the performance of women and men pradhans is lowest in the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Sikkim, Tripura, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, and highest in the states of Orissa, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
However, the gender gap between community satisfaction with the performance of male and female pradhans is a mere 2 percentage points. Unsurprisingly, the participation of women ward members is of a lower order than that of women pradhans. The participation of women citizens of the village is even lower, averaging 25 per cent.
The gap between men and women representatives is much higher when it comes to their interaction with members of the local bureaucracy. Here the state-wise comparisons are of particular interest, as Kerala reports a one hundred per cent interaction of both women and men pradhans, with reasonably high levels of interaction also reported from Karnataka, Assam and Himachal Pradesh. On the whole, it was found that the household environment of EWRs has become more enabling, with about 30 per cent of them reporting a reduction in the time spent on household work and childcare. Thus, families have been supportive to elected women by sharing household responsibilities, but the outside environment — administrative and political — has clearly not responded as well.
There are broadly two schools of thought on the subject of women’s participation in the panchayats — the cynics who see every EWR as a puppet and the evangelists who view her as an Indira Gandhi in the making. This study provides a more nuanced account, contesting the unmitigated pessimism of the cynics but equally moderating the over-enthusiasm of the evangelists. It is obvious that till such time as all states effectively devolve powers and finances, elected representatives cannot be properly empowered. For EWRs, the policy challenge is to provide an enabling administrative environment and to encourage the education, training and mobilisation of younger women, drawing them into public life as effective representatives of the people.
The writer is professor of law and governance at JNU, and was the project director for this study.
Article courtesy Indian Express