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Decentralised Governance and Women's Empowerment through Panchayati Raj Institutions in India.

For democratic decentralisation it is pertinent that democracy is seen as a broad participatory process in which citizens at the grassroot level take part directly in decisions affecting them, their community and their work. It calls for empowerment of the citizens and their involvement in the delivery of services at the local level. Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen argue that the practice of local democracy is also form of wider political education. In the context of village politics, people are learning (if only at varying speed) to organise, to question established patterns of authority, to demand their rights, to resist corruption, and so on. This learning process enhances their preparedness not only for local democracy alone, but for political participation in general (Dreze and Sen, 2003).

The crux of democracy lies with the people. Participation of the people grants legitimacy to the government. Though women form a sizable part of any country's population, their political representation and participation is definitely below the mark. The 1985 New Delhi Document on Women in Development accepted that though there has been a rapid growth of informal political activity by women to advance their own interests and rights as citizens, their role in the formal political structures has remained virtually unchanged. (1) The issue of women's political empowerment further gained momentum in the global debate for women's rights at the time of the Fourth World Conference on Women held at Beijing in 1995.

After a brief understanding of democracy and decentralisation, and introduction of Panchayati Raj institutions the paper systematically examine the changes in the role of women while leading the Gram Panchayats in Indian states at the village level. The kind of issues and challenges they have to face while exercising their powers and the general perceptions among people are further explored. The paper analyses whether women are truly able to exercise this right in improving the village conditions for the betterment of people. These arguments are substantiated through case studies and analyses of data from some of the states in India.

In developing countries like India, political participation assumes a wider meaning. It cannot be confined to right to vote, campaign or be a part of administrative process. On the contrary any action which tries to influence public decisions denotes political participation. Political participation is not only a symbol of women's development, promoting women's interest but also creates further awareness and mobilise other women to be a part of the political arena.

Indian women have been associated with politics since pre-Independence period. They were part of the freedom movement both as volunteers and leaders. Social and religious reforms and women's education were contributory factors in this development. In 1909 women set up the Prayag Mahila Samiti. In 1928, Sarojini Naidu was elected President of Indian National Congress. Ketki Bhatt opposed the Simon Commission and participated in the salt satyagraha. Of course, we had Annie Besant, Vijaylakshmi Pandit, Sucheta Kripalani and many others contributing in their own way. Organisations like Women's Indian Association (WIA) 1917, the National Council of Indian Women (NCIW) 1926 and All India Women's Conference (AIWC) 1927 began as voice against women oppression and developed strong nationalistic flavour. However, they remained elite based.

On Independence, Article 15 of the Indian Constitution guaranteed equality to women under law. Though Indian Constitution guarantees equal right to all citizens, women are still marginally represented in Indian political arena. Women have been given political rights without accompanying powers to exercise these rights. Women are underrepresented in central and state governments. At the societal level male dominance in parliament, bureaucracy, judiciary, army, police point towards lack of political power in the hands of women. Notwithstanding the fact that it is often argued that women's political leadership would bring about a more cooperative and less conflict-prone world (Fukuyama, 1998).

Background to Indian Panchayati Raj Institutions

* In India, the issue of womens participation in Panchayats gained momemtum with Balwantrai Mehta Commission Report in 1959. It pointed out that 'there can be no real progress if women of a country are not made partners in the process of development'.

* In 1974, the Report of the Commission on the Status of Women in India suggested setting up of women's Panchayats.

* The Ashok Mehta Commission Report in 1978 recommended a more radically decentralised structure of Panchayats with strong decision-making powers, as well as the inclusion of women and other disadvantaged groups like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

73rd Constitutional Amendment

With the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, India moved towards a big change in institutional framework of governance. With this amendment the system of democratic decentralisation came into focus which provided the authority for self-governance to the villages. The objective was to enable Panchayats to function as institutions of local self-government, planning and implementing schemes for economic development and social justice. With the Eleventh Schedule of the Constitution of India (Article 243G) listing 29 subjects appropriate for devolution to Panchayats, the Constitutional Amendment Act directed all state governments to pass enabling Panchayati Raj legislation that devolved specific powers and responsibilities to these local bodies. These subjects for Panchayats included agriculture, land improvement, minor irrigation, animal husbandry, fisheries, social forestry, minor forest produce, small-scale industries, village and cottage industries, rural housing, drinking water, fuel and fodder, roads, electrification, non-conventional energy, poverty alleviation, education, technical training, adult education, libraries, cultural activities, markets and fairs, health and sanitation, family welfare, women and child development, social welfare, welfare of the weaker sections, public distribution system, and community assets.

The Act further provides for a three-tier structure of elected representation in Panchayats, which includes the village level, the block (intermediate) level composed of a group of villages, and the district level i.e., Zila Parishads, Panchayat Samitis and Gram Panchayats. At each level, at least one-third of the total seats are reserved for women.

Political Empowerment of Women

Democratic decentralisation indeed has the potential for participatory development. With 33 per cent reservation for women at the local level i.e., Panchayats, it was a new beginning for women empowerment. Through the participation in politics, women are making use of power and resources to bring about necessary changes. Water scarcity, education and prohibition of intoxication are some of the important issues that have been dealt with by women. Potable water through a common tap has been introduced in several villages. However, translating a legal measure into effective change at the grassroots level remains a key issue in empowering women as independent agents in the democratic social process.

Following tables highlight the number of Elected Women Representatives in Panchayats:

Some Success Stories

* Demographically initially most of the women elected were from the dominant castes in their villages. The first all-women Panchayat, formed in 1963, was initiated by Kamlabai, a woman from a wealthy and influential family in village Nimbut Pune, Maharashtra. Next all women Panchayat got elected in 1984 in Mauje Rui, Kohlapur, Maharashtra. This included women also from backward sections of society. Padmavati was influenced by the community work of her father, a village policeman, and the desire to serve her village in a time of severe drought and chronic water scarcity. All were elected unopposed as the potential male candidates withdrew fearing embarrassment if defeated by female candidates. In Bitargaon, Maharashtra, the womens Panchayat was successful in banning liquor sales (Sekhon, 2006).

* It should also be noted that the very act of being elected to the Panchayat for many women is in itself a challenge to patriarchy. Women felt that they have gained recognition and respect within the community, as well as awareness, and more confidence. Many women also reported enhanced status and influence within the family. Nishika Sabitri who head a Panchayat in a remote tribal area of Orissa has taken initiatives to augment the income of a Panchayat by leasing out the ponds and mango orchards. She also ensured the basic needs of the rural people such as bathing and toilet facilities to be hygienically provided. She also took care of other social welfare schemes such as poverty eradication schemes, widow pension and old age pension (Kaushal, 2010).

* In many cases, women's participation in the Gram Sabha has increased, and they actually speak up for societal causes in the Gram Sabha. In Madhya Pradesh, women form part of vigilance committees, and it is reported that women are the most vocal among the members of the vigilance committee in some places (Khera and Nayak, 2009).

* Kamala Mahato is the elected head of the Panchayat in Bandoan, West Bengal. To overcome acute water scarcity in the village, Mahato had 10 tube wells dug in the village. She arranged loans under a government rural livelihood programme which enabled village women to start profitable poultry, dairy and livestock enterprise (Vaddiraju and Mehrotra, 2004).

* In another related development it has been noted that post National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), women benefitted from this scheme have shown reduced financial dependence. This has resulted in a positive development of increased women's participation in Gram Sabha meetings. It seems that the organisation of Gram Sabha meeting itself has become a more regular phenomenon post-NREGS (Pankaj and Tankha, 2010). A large number of women have also started airing their views in the Gram Sabha meetings.

* Of late, in Bibipur village of district Jind in Haryana first Khap Mahapanchayat involving women was held. Village's women Gram Sabha invited 360 Khap leaders to seek their support for their campaign against female foeticide. Over 200 women attended the meeting and passed a resolution seeking slapping of murder charges against those encouraging female foeticide in the village. The Panchayat has also taken a decision to launch an awareness campaign against female foeticide which is termed a heinous crime.

Not So Successful Cases

* Likewise, Satiya, Panchayat president of a village in Tamil Nadu regularly attends the Panchayat office and conducts the meetings with the board there. She is also active in various schemes, like chairing one of the two watershed committees in the village. However, it is her husband who takes care of the development work and takes all the contracts. Satiya says that she is unable to prevent him taking over her functions (Lindberg, 2011).

* Yashoda Raigar is Sarpanch of a Gram Panchayat in Panchayat Samiti Bonli, Sawai Madhopur. After her election she has faced constant harassment which began with throwing of stones and abuses and this culminated in physical violence against her and her husband from the dominant caste of the village. The aggressors were not arrested by the police despite her registering a case.

* Krishnaveni, had contested the elections as an independent candidate in Thalaiyuthu Panchayat, Nellai district, when it was declared reserved for dalit woman candidates. She won by a margin of 700 votes and became the Sarpanch. She worked sincerely honestly and earned widespread respect. She managed the construction of roads, building of a library, and the development of infrastructure with amazing speed. In recognition of her work, she received the Sarojini Naidu Award for 2009 from the President for the best (among Panchayats in the district) implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Apart from the caste prejudice, material interests of the old power elites were also hampered by her as she would not allow Panchayat funds to be siphoned off. Krishnaveni filed more than 15 complaints against these people, including the vice-president and ward members, as they were variously causing obstruction in her work. However, the district administration and the police did not pay any heed. On 13 June 2011, some people murderously attacked her. She survived 15 stabs after remaining for days in the ICU but could not move the State administration (Teltumbde, 2011).

Challenges to Actual Implementation

* Though the decentralisation process has come into force, there are structural and procedural bottlenecks still to be taken care of. There are a number of obstacles which come in the way of participation and representation of women in politics. These include poverty, lack of education, patriarchal mode of society, lack of financial independence and lack of awareness of political rights which hampers women ability to take independent decisions. Women empowerment has not gone well with extreme gender- bias that is prevailing in Indian society.

* Actual devolution of power has not happened.

* Moreover, the Panchayats have moved very little towards achieving fiscal autonomy. Large number of transfers made to them in terms of finance commission recommendations are not substantial and whatever funds are received by them come with conditions attached.

* Another drawback is that most of ward members complain that they have either not been given any training or enough training to understand the workings of the Panchayat and the government system. Quite clearly, this leaves much to be desired in the way these women are prepared for their task as Panchayat ward members (Lindberg, 2011).

* Caste discrimination is another obstacle at the village Panchayat level.

* Criminalisation of politics had a negative impact on women participation in politics. Further, even if women are elected to the Panchayats, they have to face so many other problems including harassment and physical threats. It is apt to say that, 'freedom from the fear of violence and coercion is essential for the exercise of women's agency'. (2)

* Likewise as a study in the context of Tamil Nadu highlights, ward members had to spend considerable sums for their election, which among other things make it almost impossible for poorer households to field a candidate and win. Further, party politics is legally banned in the local elections at the level of the Gram Panchayat but plays an indirect role, since many of the candidates are members or sympathisers of political parties and get unofficial backing from them and sometimes money for their campaigns (Lindberg, 2011).

* In some cases men want to retain power by proxy, thus they coax their womenfolk to fight elections on reserved seats. 'The ground reality is that in a substantial number of cases the candidates who have won the Panchayat elections are mere fronts for the old power holders. In case the reserved seat is for a woman, it is usually the wife or daughter-in-law of the old sarpanch who is usually made to sign papers while the husband or the father-in-law transacts all business' (Teltumbde, 2011).

* Another issue is gender based division of labour in the family where women are expected to do all household chores, look after the family, bring fuel, fodder and water, cook as well as rear the children. As Lindberg points out in the context of Tamil Nadu, elected women Panchayat members usually complain about the burden of their political participation in addition to being a wife, running the household, and working full time to support the family. They also claimed that since men did not do any work in the household, the men had much more time for politics. When encouraging women to enter the political system, one must also make provision for the time they need to participate. This means that other members of their households, including husbands and other males need to take more responsibility for the household chores including cooking and looking after the small children (Lindberg, 2011). Similar observation is noted in And Who Will Make the Chapatis edited by Bishaka Datta (1998). It highlights structural constraints that women have to face when they try to challenge stereotypes. The title reflects the expectation of patriarchal society if women go out and gets involved in the work of Panchayats, who will shoulder household responsibility which is considered women's domain as part of public-private divide.

* It is imperative to ensure that traditional groups like Caste Panchayats or newly created groups and co-operatives do not undermine the work of elected Panchayats.

Future Prospects

* Women's political participation and empowerment issue cannot be confined to mere political rights. Education, social awareness and economic power are its important and basic components. Economic and political power go hand in hand. To make inroads into male dominated institutions, they need equal level play field with men as they are financially disadvantaged and do not have access to economic resources. Even today women empowerment remains a distant dream. It has been repeatedly seen that only few women make it to the arena of political power. They are usually well-to-do people. Second, either they are the daughters or wives or widows of politicians. In order to make sure that money power is not used during elections, Report of the Working Group on Empowerment of Women suggested that electoral reforms should provide for state funding for women contesting for elections to Parliament, state assemblies, urban local bodies and PRIs. (3)

* Political parties only make promises in their manifestoes to work for the welfare of women, but in actual practice, they are not interested in the issue of equal participation of women in politics. Opposition of some parties to the 33 per cent reservation of women in Parliament has not only shown the patriarchal ideas of these male leaders but also made the women resolution and movement for increasing participation in Parliament and assemblies all the more strong.

* Moreover, as a study on Orissa shows how reservation has meant an important beginning for the entry of women on the local political map but also reminds us that the process has just begun and will take time to develop fully (Hust, 2004).

* In order to create conducive conditions and open avenues for women political participation we need a change in the social attitude and the mindset of civil society. Local administration also needs to be more gender sensitive.

* Political, social and economic rights are vital as in many cases women do not understand that they are being subjugated or oppressed and do not want to bring about a change in the situation. Even if women are conscious and aware of their rights including the political rights it needs another round of persuasion and mobilisation for them to exercise their right to vote let alone stand for elections. Thus issue of women's political participation cannot be seen in isolation, we cannot divide issue of education, social awareness, economic power and political participation in watertight compartments. All these issues are related to each other. Women are able to take better advantage of new steps in areas where literacy rate is higher and where their social status is better. Literacy, health and other necessities are her basic rights and give her a chance to improve her position in social strata by changing her economic status. This will go a long way in claiming political power too.

* In order to address the empowerment of Elected Women Representatives (EWRs) in a systematic, programmatic manner, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India, has launched a new scheme with the approval of the competent authority during the 11th Five Year Plan. The objective of Panchayat Mahila Evam Yuva Shakti Abhiyan (PMEYSA) is to knit the EWRs in a network and through group action, empower themselves, so that both their participation and representation on local governance issues, improves. PMEYSA aims at a sustained campaign to build the confidence and capacity of EWRs, so that they get over the institutional, societal and political constraints that prevent them from active participation in rural local self governments. It is a Central Sector Scheme. The entire amount is funded by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj for organising the various activities under this scheme. Strengths of this programme include:

(i) Building solidarity among EWRs

(ii) Opportunity for EWRs to present their demands to the State and Central Governments.

(iii) EWRs' overcoming shyness/hesitation while participating in public meetings.

(iv) Capacity building of EWRs through training.

Weaknesses of the scheme include politicisation of the programme at the local level and lack of coordination between State Governments and Convenors/Core Committee which need to be worked upon. (4)

* Networking of women village Panchayats is vital as this will lead to collective strength, a feeling of solidarity and a learning experience from each other. It is argued that networks among women's groups and NGOs allow for greater visibility that is necessary when working with state institutions and government officials (Purushothaman, 1998). Medha Kotwal and Vandana Kulkarni also note in the Aalochana publication, 'Moving from Visibility to Effectivity', 'Strengthening the civil society we think is crucial to ensuring the future of democracy, if Panchayat Raj is to be made a success what is needed is the mobilisation of people as a whole, for them to become active participants in the decision-making process of the village. The Gram Sabhas had to be rejuvenated... Thus, addressing the community as a whole, where both elected and non-elected, men as well as women, are involved in the process of learning, would ensure continuity'. (5)

* Role of community action, grassroots activism, NGOs, voluntary associations, cooperatives, and social activists is crucial as they can play a crucial role in enabling participatory politics at the local level. We have examples like Aalochana Centre for Documentation and Research on Women in Pune in Maharashtra, established in 1989 aims to collect and provide information on issues related to the social, political, economic and legal aspects of women's lives. Since 1994 they have worked primarily on women and Panchayati Raj. Another example is Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) in Andhra where in the process Gram Sabha mobilisations it uses methods like wall writings, distribution of pamphlets and kala jatha programmes (folk theatre and songs). Sahbhagi Shikshan Kendra (SSK) has been working towards building a useful perspective on gender justice and increased space for the marginalised communities in the democratic functioning of the institutions of local self government. Sakhi in Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala and Singamma Srinivas Foundation in Bangaluru are other examples.


To sum up, it can be said that laws may not remove structural inequalities but they can definitely assist social change. We need to bring about an awareness work on the culture of non-violence and non-bias to achieve a just and equitable society. What we need are systemic corrections rather than limiting our success to individual cases. Political participation is not only a symbol of women's development and empowerment but it also creates further awareness and mobilises other women to be a part of the political arena to promote their and societal interests at large. Women must not only participate in the decision-making process but must also be able to influence the outcome of the deliberations for it to be called empowerment in the true sense.

End Notes

(1.) The New Delhi Document on Women in Development (1985) 'Conference of Nonaligned and other Developing Countries on the Role of Women in Development'.

(2.) UNDP (2005) Bureau of Development Policy: En Route to Equality: A Gender Review of National MDG Report.

(3.) For details see Ministry of Women and child Development, Government of India, Report of the Working Group on Empowerment of Women for the 11th Plan

(4.) Retrieved from

(5.) For details see Aalochana, (2000-2003) Moving From Visibility to Effectivity: Report of the Project 'Towards Strengthening Networks of Women in Panchayati Raj in Pune District'


Datta, Bishakha (ed.) (1998) And Who will Make the Chapatist: A Study of All Women Panchayats in Maharashtra, Kolkatta: Stree.

Dreze, J and Amartya Sen (2003) Indian Development: Selected Regional Perspectives, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Fukuyama, Francis (1998), 'Women and the Evolution of World Politics', Foreign Affairs, September/October.

Hust, Evelin (2004) Women's Political Representation and Empowerment in India: A Million Indiras Now?, New Delhi: Manohar

Kaushal, Rachana (2010) 'Decentralised Governance and Empowerment of Women: A Case Study of India', OIDA International Journal of Sustainable Development, Vol. 1, No. 9, pp. 89-92.

Khera, Reetika and Nandini Nayak (2009) 'Women Workers and Perceptions of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act', Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 44 No. 43, pp. 49-57.

Lindberg, Staffan et al (2011) 'A Silent 'Revolution'? Women's Empowerment in Rural Tamil Nadu', Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 46, No. 13, 2011, pp. 111-120.

Pankaj, Ashok, and Rukmini Tankha, (2010) 'Empowerment Effects of the NREGS on Women Workers: A Study in Four States', Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 45, No. 30, pp. 45-55.

Purushothaman, Sangeetha (1998) The Empowerment of Women in India: Grassroots Women's Networks and the State. Delhi: Sage.

Sekhon, Joti (2006) 'Engendering Grassroots Democracy: Research, Training, and Networking for Women in Local Self-Governance in India', Feminist Formations, Vol. 18., No. 2, pp. 101-122.

Teltumbde, Anand (2011) 'India's (Jati) Panchayati Raj', Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 46, No. 36, 2011, pp. 10-11.

Vaddiraju, Anil Kumar and Shagun Mehrotra (2004) 'Making Panchayats Accountable', Economic & Political Weekly, September 11, pp. 4139-4141.

Bharti Chhiibber (*)

(*) Assistant Professor, University of Delhi. E-mail:
Table 1 State-wise Elected SC, ST and Women Representatives in
Panchayats as on 1 March 2013

States             SC        ST        Women      Total

Andhra Pradesh       46,755    21,078     85,154   2,54,487
Arunachal Pradesh        NA     9,356      3,889      9,356
Assam                 1,344       886      9,903     26,844
Bihar                22,201     1,053     68,065   1,36,130
Chhattisgarh         19,753    63,864     86,538   1,58,776
Goa                      NA        92        504      1,559
Gujarat               8,340    23,719     39,206   1,18,751
Haryana              14,684        NA     24,876     68,152
Himachal Pradesh      7,467     1,215     13,947     27,832
Jammu & Kashmir          NA        NA         NA         NA
Jharkhand             5,870    18,136     31,157     53,207
Karnataka            17,723    10,275     41,577     95,307
Kerala                  867       120      9,907     19,107
Madhya Pradesh       59,537  1,07,167   1,98,459   3,93,209
Maharashtra          22,175    30,211   1,01,466   2,03,203
Manipur                  21        38        836      1,723
Odisha               16,390    22,240         NA   1,00,863
Punjab               26,937        NA     29.389     84,138
Rajasthan            18,807    13,777     54,673   1,09,345
Sikkim                   77       418         NA      1,099
Tamil Nadu           28,655     1,194     41,790   1,19,399
Tripura               1,508       309      2,044      5,676
Uttar Pradesh      1,85,159        NA   3,09,511   7,73,980
Uttarakhand          12,230     2,067     34.494     61,452
West Bengal          17,605     4,168     19,762     51,423
All-India          5,68,181  3,42,157  13,64,154  29,21,381

Notes.SC: Scheduled Caste; ST: Scheduled Tribe; NA: not available;
All-India includes figures for UTs.
Sources: Strengthening of Panchayats in India: Comparing Devolution
across States, Empirical Assessment 2012-13, Indian Institute of Public
Administration and Ministry of Panchayati Raj website
2012-13.pdf, accessed on 8 September 2013; Devolution to Panchayats in
India: Ranking Functional Environment at Sub-National Level [2012],
Ministry of Panchayati Raj and Indian Institute of Public
Administration, New Delhi).

Table 2 State-wise Proportion of Elected SC, ST and Women
Representatives in Panchayats (per cent) as on 1 March 2013

States              SC     ST   Women

Andhra Pradesh     18.4    8.3   33.5
Arunachal Pradesh    NA  100.0   41.6
Assam               5.0    3.3   36.9
Bihar              16.3    0.8   50.0
Chhattisgarh       12.4   40.2   54.5
Goa                  NA    5.9   32.3
Gujarat             7.0   20.0   33.0
Haryana            21.5     NA   36.5
Himachal Pradesh   26.8    4.4   50.1
Jammu & Kashmir      NA     NA     NA
Jharkhand          11.0   34.1   58.6
Kamataka           18.6   10.8   43.6
Kerala              4.5    0.6   51.9
Madhya Pradesh     15.1   27.3   50.5
Maharashtra        10.9   14.9   49.9
Manipur             1.2    2.2   48.5
Odisha             16.2   22.0   50.0
Punjab             32.0     NA   34.9
Rajasthan          17.2   12.6   50.0
Sikkim              7.0   38.0   50.0
Tamil Nadu         24.0    1.0   35.0
Tripura            26.6    5.4   36.0
Uttar Pradesh      23.9     NA   40.0
Uttarakhand        19.9    3.4   56.1
West Bengal        34.2    8.1   38.4
All-India          19.4   11.7   46.7

Notes.SC: Scheduled Caste; ST: Scheduled Tribe; NA: not available;
All-India includes figures for UTs.
Sources: Strengthening of Panchayats in India: Comparing Devolution
across States,. Empirical Assessment, 2012-13, Indian Institute of
Public Administration and Ministry of Panchayati Raj website
2012-13.pdf, accessed on September 2013).
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Author:Chhiibber, Bharti
Publication:Madhya Pradesh Journal of Social Sciences
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2017
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