More than a million women are quietly working away and demonstrating a different form of governance than the top-down centralised forms that generally prevail in this country. A decade ago, in the honeymoon period after the 73rd Constitutional amendment was passed devolving powers to the panchayats, there was excitement at this democratic development, where power was literally being handed over to the people. The media took note of the fact that women, who had been kept out of systems of governance, were finally being given a chance. The one-third reservation for women in panchayats guaranteed their presence in numbers, something that has still not been achieved at the national level.
The result was a virtual revolution as thousands upon thousands of women got elected. Many of them were Dalit women. They challenged not just the patriarchal hierarchies but also the caste hierarchies. A decade later, these women are no more "new kids on the block", so to speak. Many of them have been re-elected, they now know the system and they are more willing to assert their views than in the early years. Of course, not all the women elected to posts are enlightened and many of them continue to be mere front people for their powerful husbands. But even if half the women elected are like that, you still have another half who have begun to understand their rights and are beginning to fight for them. This is an immensely exciting social revolution that is quietly taking place.
Given the import of these developments for India's future as a working democracy, one would imagine that the Minister for Panchayati Raj would be considered an important post. Not so. Ask the Union Minister for Panchayati Raj, Mani Shankar Aiyar. Speaking to the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) on April 4, Mr. Aiyar complained, "There is nobody so marginal in a government as the Minister of Panchayati Raj. I count for nothing. Nothing! When I was Minister of Petroleum, I used to walk surrounded by the media. But just try to get them to write two words about 700 million Indians."
Mr. Aiyar has a point, both about his invisibility to the media and that of the issues that his office represents. For, even as the media gave blanket coverage to the "wedding of the year" between film actors Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai in Mumbai last month, a law curbing the powers bestowed on panchayats through a constitutional amendment went through the Karnataka legislature virtually unnoticed. While the 73rd Amendment vests powers in the village panchayats and gram sabhas to identify beneficiaries for government programmes aimed for the poorest, the change brought about in Karnataka effectively curtails this power. Instead, it allows the local MLA or a bureaucrat to decide.
Yet, two decades after Karnataka experimented with panchayati raj and 13 years after the 73rd Amendment came into effect, it is evident that many politicians are uncomfortable with the system. From their public rhetoric you would be led to believe that they too think power should really be with the people. But their actions demonstrate that they firmly believe that only they should control all power. This has motivated some politicians in Karnataka to push through the Karnataka Panchayati Raj Amendment 2007 on April 13. Devolution means giving power away. Perhaps the MLAs in Karnataka never fully understood that the logical conclusion to creating a system that devolves power is fewer powers in their hands.
It must be said, however, that several bureaucrats and politicians, including those who had made their way up through the panchayat system, strongly objected to the amendment. But it still went through. There is a campaign now urging the Governor of Karnataka to reject it on constitutional grounds and there probably will be legal challenges that will follow.
But the very fact that such a law has been contemplated exposes politicians who constantly speak in the name of the poor but want to make sure that the poor actually do not have any power.
Having a say
For women, an emasculation of the powers of the panchayat and gram sabha is a real blow. Under the existing system, both women elected to panchayats and those who would attend the gram sabha meetings had a chance to make their voices heard. They were in a position to check whether those who really deserved the benefits of government programmes aimed at the poorest, actually got them. Of course, no system is foolproof and some favouritism and patronage could always creep in. But if a gram sabha, a general assembly of villagers, has to question and scrutinise all the decisions taken by a panchayat, including the identification of beneficiaries for government programmes, then there are better chances of transparency and fairness. This is precisely what politicians don't like.
The new law is restricted to Karnataka. But if it goes through unchallenged, it could set a precedent for similar laws to be passed by other States. That would be the death of grassroots participatory democracy as it has begun to evolve. Therefore, it must be challenged and resisted. For the sake of millions of voiceless women and marginalised groups who have finally been given a voice.