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It has  been more than  20 years since the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts – termed as post-Independent India’s most revolutionary exercise in democratic decentralization and devolution of power – were passed by the Parliament, mandating one-third seats in all local governments be reserved for women. The biggest significance of women’s reservation was that it unlocked the power, talent and determination of millions of women for driving a new social change that would redefine the contours of rural society. Today we can see visible gains of that piece of legislation -1.2 million village women are making their entry into public life every five years.  Many of them are unlettered but they use their quotidian wisdom and sharp instincts to steer development in their communities.

As Gandhi said, “Panchayat Raj represents true democracy realized. We would regard the humblest and the lowest Indian as being equally the ruler of India with the tallest in the land” Gandhi  wanted to see each village a little republic, self-sufficient in its vital wants, organically and non-hierarchically linked with the larger spatial bodies and enjoying the maximum freedom of deciding the affairs of the locality.

It is now an item of faith for  planners that for addressing   gender issues we need to change social dynamics, and this won’t happen without women’s fuller  involvement  in all major spheres-education, economy ,politics and governance. .We have for long made paternalistic decision to “protect” these women, thereby eliminating their ability to solve issues that they face.  Why couldn’t they decide for themselves how to address their issues? Why couldn’t we equip them to   make their own decisions?

Societies that invest in and empower women are on a virtuous cycle. They become   more stable, better governed, and less prone to corruption. Countries that limit women’s   opportunities and their political voice get stuck in a downward spiral. They are poorer, more fragile, have higher level of inefficiency, and are more prone to extremism.

The devolution of power was not so seamless and was beset with several hassles and it had to ride several storms before it could settle down. This is not unusual .All revolutions are marked by tremors and seismic changes. Elected women heads of village councils have been   gaining control and several of them are now able to bring about visible development. Women have catalyzed change in large swathes of rural India .This is despite the fact that female leaders had low literacy levels and socio-economic status, and little experience, ambition or political prospects until they assumed leadership positions.

During my recent visit to villages where I had worked as a banker almost a decade back,   I found local campaigns to share basic resources like land and water, to build   schools, trading co-operatives and credit movements, and to make the government accountable at the highest and lowest levels. These are the small revolutions that are changing the world. In Wanoja village in northern Maharashtra, Mamta Patil, a development activist   whom I mentored, was elected as Sarpanch without a contest.  I   was wonderstruck by the transformation she has brought about. She was a firebrand right from her early days. Mamta’s voice was not the only voice raised in the village. But his was surely the loudest and most persistent, and — cumulatively — the most persuasive. She was such a zealous believer in the empowerment theory that she tramped through almost all the villages with me to demonstrate to me the creative potential of poor rural women in governance and resource management. There’s a bank, a school, Women are out of the house and working on village improvement projects such as sanitation systems and vegetable gardens. They have started small businesses.  People eat more nutritious foods, they use mosquito nets and repellents to ward off mosquitoes. They know they must boil water for drinking to protect the family from water-borne diseases. Even more remarkable is the social transformation that the movement has wrought. No one drinks. Only a handful smoke. There hasn’t been a crime here in years. Even the practice of untouchability has weakened.  .The village is brisk and prosperous. Signs of rural modernity abound.

Having women as at least one-third of all local elected representatives is beginning to transform gender relations and call into question the deeply entrenched patriarchal system. Old prejudices are dissolving and new partnerships between women and men are developing. For example, one man from Maharashtra who works with women Panchayat leaders said that “I realized when I started working with these women leaders that I needed to begin my work at home.” He has started to view his relationship with his wife as a partnership and has begun doing household chores–something he never imagined he would do. Earlier   women representatives were often perceived as puppets of men. Yet, women Panchayat leaders say that “women are beginning to cut those [puppet] strings.”    .

A lot of women (sometimes backed by family support) harbouring aspirations to positions of power, have enthusiastically fought elections and emerged winners. Transcending their ascribed roles, they have dispelled the myth that women do not have political aspirations. They have refused to succumb to the pressures, both external and internal, and have pursued their goals with sincerity and integrity. Such women can serve as effective role models for other women who are desirous of taking up leadership positions

Bihar, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh have provided 50% reservation to women in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) .This provision is expected to be implemented across the country. Among other changes on the anvil include reservation of a particular ward for women for two terms of five years each from the existing single term so that they can undertake developmental activities in a continued fashion.  .

An M.I.T. economist, Esther Duflo and her colleagues found that by objective standards, the women ran the villages better than men. For example, women constructed and maintained wells better, and took fewer bribes. Yet ordinary villagers themselves judged the women as having done a worse job, and so most women were not re-elected

The lesson of PRI is clear: if the wisdom of women at the grassroots   is to become policy, it will have to be by restructuring of a political system that brings their voice on the dialogue and negotiating table. Bringing women into power is thus not only a matter of equity but also of correcting an unjust and unrepresentative system. Many believe that the removal of poverty, the achievement of full employment and social integration cannot be effectively addressed without the kind of democratization of the representative process that we are seeing in rural India. Political restructuring is key to economic growth with justice.

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decade .He can be reached at moinqazi123@gmail.com

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Political and social empowerment of women has led to positive results. They have been crucial in improving basic amenities of villages. The trend must continue further for a complete rejuvenation of society.