In 2007, in a certain Grama Panchayat of Kodagu district of Karnataka, the post of Adhyaksha was reserved for a Scheduled Caste woman. There being only one such candidate, her election ought to have been a foregone conclusion. In reality, however, the woman failed to secure a proposer and the Returning Officer even allowed the incumbent President to continue after the expiry of his term. It was only after the intervention of the High Court of Karnataka that she was rightfully appointed in her role.

In yet another case in Udupi district, a woman candidate belonging to a Scheduled Tribe declined to contest for the post of president, citing her general disinclination. However, upon further probing, a section of the people as well as an organisation working for the rights of the Scheduled Tribes revealed that the candidate in question had actually been pressured by followers, mostly men, from a certain political party not to run for the presidential post. Once again, the incumbent vice president stepped in to fill the president’s post for the period.

Such examples of the patriarchal attitude that prevails in the system are common enough, making it difficult for women to find a voice and authority in local governance, despite constitutionally-mandated reservation for them in all tiers of the Panchayati Raj system of local governance.

In August 2009, the Union Cabinet presided over by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, cleared a proposal to amend Article 243(D) of the Constitution, thus raising reservations for women in all tiers of the panchayati raj system from the existing 33 percent to at least 50 percent. However, in most states as in Karnataka, where women have been theoretically ‘empowered’ through 50 percent reservation of seats in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), there has been no let-up in resentment, scepticism over their abilities, and genuine powerlessness.

Legitimately elected women representatives remain vulnerable to manipulation and harassment and are often reduced to mere proxies, while the real decision-making authority remains with their husbands or power brokers from higher castes.

There are instances where a woman belonging to the Scheduled Caste or Tribe has been elected in a reserved seat as panchayat president, one who is actually dependent on an upper caste landlord in the village for her livelihood. In such cases, too, the reins of power and decision-making clearly lie elsewhere.

All this, and more issues specific to the representation of women saw extensive deliberation in the process leading to a 134-page report submitted by the Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act Amendment Committee. The Committee was constituted to suggest reforms in the 1993 panchayat legislation of the state, so as to foster the realisation of democratic decentralisation both in letter and spirit.

Women at a rally in Bangalore (2012) to demand devolution of funds, functions and functionaries to Grama Panchayats. Pic: The Concerned for Working Children

As these and various other consultations between the reforms panel and stakeholders progressed, it was apparent that a new enactment would serve better to achieve the real intentions of the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution. Along with its report, the Committee therefore also came up with a draft Panchayat Raj Act (Amendment) Bill – a bill which, among other things, seeks to reinforce “participation of women and the underprivileged and the disenfranchised classes at all levels of the Panchayat Raj institutions.”

As Karnataka awaits elections to its 5000-plus Grama Panchayats in April this year, it is perhaps time to assess whether the true spirit of affirmative action can be achieved better in tandem with the recommendations made in the report and the draft Bill.

Capacity Building

One distinguishing feature of the report of the Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act Amendment Committee is that it has been written in deep empathy with every group of people that the Act will cover. Thus, when it comes to women – whether women office-bearers or those whom they represent – the new law presses for their rights and needs almost in their own voice.

The new draft Bill proposes a budgetary allocation of funds from the state government for preparing all elected members and staff across the three tiers of Grama, Taluk and Zilla to carry out their responsibilities efficiently, and imparting the required skills, knowledge and attitude. However, in this too, the needs of women representatives have received special attention from the Committee.

As Nandana Reddy, a core member of the committee and Convener of the Karnataka Grama Panchayat Hakkothaya Andolana, points out, access to knowledge and information remains a challenge for women despite significant strides. Moreover, with increasing penetration of technology and the government’s attempts to move towards e-governance, the training infrastructure needs to be sensitive to these realities. (See full interview below)

While lack of relevant education and skills prevent women from performing their duties adequately, many among them – especially daily wage earners and members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes – cannot afford to invest time in attending extraneous training workshops.

Beyond the realm of skills and knowledge lies the need for enhancement of overall capacity that is constrained by several other factors. For example, it has been noted that female Adhyakshas and Upadhyakshas are easily intimidated by officials and misguided by them.

Ganapathi M, assistant director at The Concerned for Working Children (CWC), Bangalore and an active member of the Grama Panchayat Hakkothaya Andolana, shares several anecdotes in this regard.

In one instance, he says, a female president in Shimoga district found that the men in the panchayat often held informal meetings in her absence to arrive at decisions and would then simply announce those at the gram sabhas or public meetings. If anything went wrong at a later stage, the burden of blame would be on her shoulders. But despite realising what was going on, there was little that she could do.

In yet another case in Udupi, while the president was a woman from the Other Backward Castes (OBC) community, a Taluk Panchayat member acted as shadow president. Initially called upon to help the female president who did not know the intricacies of local governance, this person soon took over the reins and was taking unilateral decisions. In fact, he eventually overruled the actual president completely, sitting in the panchayat and issuing orders on her behalf.

In many cases, the family of the elected woman also fails to give her the support that she needs. There is no one to share her responsibilities as wife, mother or daughter. Some female panchayat representatives have themselves requested that their families, especially their spouses, be included in these capacity building programmes so that they may be sensitised to the demands on her time and energy as an elected representative.

In view of all these issues constraining female panchayat leaders, the Committee recommends capacity building which is ongoing and in situ, which covers processes and not just procedures, and which enables them to handle unwieldy situations such as demands from the constituency, disorderly and disruptive gram sabhas, or pressure from influential castes or the political class.

The proposals also include provision for a sufficiently qualified female assistant for illiterate or semi-literate female office bearers, who will be trained along with the latter.

Enabling infrastructural facilities have also been mandated in the Bill, such as separate toilets for men and women, enclosures for breast-feeding infants, and crèche facilities. Transport arrangements will ensure that they can travel to any remote and far flung area without fear.  A specific code of conduct is proposed to be evolved for all members of grama panchayats that will create a congenial environment for women to work in.  

Special gram sabhas for women and other groups

Real empowerment necessarily entails an inclusive, bottom-up process that must consider the concerns and aspirations of all citizens. It is, therefore, imperative for the specific needs and plans of women and children in each gram panchayat to be treated with special care, just as those of female elected representatives are.

The Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act Amendment Report recognises that voices of special groups need to be heard in an environment especially suited to them, for effective action to be based on such consultation. The comfort levels of members are invariably higher and they feel more confident to speak up and voice their problems, as they have the undivided attention of their elected representatives and have no fear of their issues being dismissed as trivial.

It is perhaps for this reason that whenever ‘special gram sabhas’ have been held on issues of special interest such as ‘violence against women’ or ‘danger zones for children’ or ‘the quality of food in the Anganwadi’, the turnout has been found to be overwhelming, even at a time when general gram sabhas have aroused lukewarm response at best.

A poster from The Concerned for Working Children shares statistics of women's special gram sabhas held in 2014.

Separate gram sabhas for women, children and Scheduled Castes and Tribes were made mandatory through an order of the Government of Karnataka, and in June 2014 the government released a circular for Special Women’s Gram Sabhas.

The CWC, which supported a pilot for this, also conducted preparatory workshops for the women in the chosen panchayats, in order to enable them to participate effectively in these Special Gram Sabhas. The women prepared a list of their problems, alongside the departments responsible for the implementation of the solutions to each of these problems.

The 57 women’s gram sabhas held across the state in August saw the participation of over 13000 women who collectively raised and initiated resolution of nearly 1200 issues. 

This concept has been strengthened further in the draft bill which lays down that such sessions will be convened to deliberate on and finalise plans for the empowerment of marginalised sections. They will discuss issues related to each of them separately. This must be done at least once annually, before the meeting of the grama panchayat.

Given the success of the pilot project, the amended act, if passed, is likely to ensure larger and more powerful spaces within which to address the concerns of rural women.

Interview

India Together caught up with Nandana Reddy, a core member of the committee drafting the amendment report and legislation, to seek her views on how the proposed law could strengthen women in local government, beyond their empowerment on paper.

Nandana Reddy

What makes the draft legislation a really empowering tool in the hands of female panchayat leaders, as well as the women they represent?

For the first time, a piece of legislation has been framed with a rights perspective, be it women’s, children’s or the rights of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes or of the specially-abled. Even animal rights have been considered!

However, as a result of the progressive vertical reservation measures of the Karnataka Government, the participation of women has exceeded 50 percent, a large number of them from the scheduled castes and tribes and the backward classes. Therefore the Committee paid special attention to create an enabling environment for them.

Women have to cross three thresholds to enter public life and the many constraints and challenges that are inherent in these; first, the threshold of home and family and the economic and socio-cultural barriers and demands that exist.

The second is access to knowledge and information as the education of girls has not been a priority for decades and though this is changing, the girl is still deprived. However, literacy is not enough to enable a woman to transact governance and access all the skills and knowledge required nor understand how to access these.

Thirdly, the new age of information technology has penetrated villages and Gram Panchayats have become more technologically savvy thanks to the State Government’s attempt to computerise all data and communications of the PRIs to introduce the concept of e-governance.

We recognised that a women elected to represent her people has these three very enormous challenges to surmount and the amendments suggested endeavour to mitigate these and provide support to women to enable them to overcome these hurdles. 

Enabling women to participate in an active, informed and meaningful manner in the governance of a village is the key to enabling the turning around of the political pyramid and making each village as Gandhiji said, a “perfect democracy based upon individual freedom”.

For this to happen women should not try and play the present political game and compete with it; they should not just change the rules of the game, but change the game itself! To do this the woman has to be empowered as an individual, while the community, too, needs to support these changes in perspective.

The Committee therefore took a holistic view and every amendment was examined from this angle ensuring that the onus of change was not only on the women, but the Panchayat and the community at large.

As a member of the Committee, as well as in your role as Convenor of the Karnataka Gram Panchayat Hakkothaya Andolana, what are your personal observations on rural women's readiness and willingness to break long standing social barriers and take on positions of leadership? Are they prepared for it?

Women are more than ready and willing to break social and political barriers and take positions of leadership. Let us not forget that even in the most patriarchal communities, behind the scenes, women are the ones who are keeping the family together and managing the household. Many households are headed by women and they are the ones who are the bread winners while the men spend their earnings on liquor or entertainment.

Women have been playing this role for centuries but deprived of their right to decision making or shaping the world around them. Women are not just ready to take on leadership roles, they are raring to do so.

In our extensive consultations across the state, women repeatedly expressed their deep understanding of social issues and the means to address them. The more illiterate and marginalised, the deeper their understanding, which proves that literacy is not a criteria for able governance. If we really believe that development must take place within the frame of social justice, it is these women who will make this a reality.

At this juncture, what is it that you are looking forward to as far as the procedural aspects of moving ahead on the Bill are concerned?

Time is very short – the Panchayat elections are due in April and these amendments have to be passed by the legislature before then.

An ideal schedule would be:

  1. The State Government notifies single member constituencies for Gram Panchayats for a population of 600 members and other related election issues this week, which will allow the State Election Commission to proceed with the Election Schedule. These amendments do not require legislative sanction and can be done by a government order.
  2. The RDPR Ministry places the Committee’s amendments in toto before the Cabinet for its approval next week.
  3. The Amendments are tabled in a joint session of the Legislature in the first week of February.

However, we sense strong resistance from the RDPR Ministry to our recommendations and foresee moves to scuttle them in favour of strengthening the Panchayat Raj Bureaucracy and increasing State control – an antithesis to devolution and the spirit and letter of the 73rd Amendment.

[The full text of the draft Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act (Amendment) Bill, 2014 can be accessed here.]