India’s unlikely agents of rural change

Moin Qazi
Published : 11 March 2017, 03:44 AM
Updated : 11 March 2017, 03:44 AM

The priorities of village people are constantly undergoing changes. These priorities are, in fact, a result of development. A generation or two ago, ending hunger would have been the overwhelming need. Not any more even if malnutrition remains a daily tragedy. Development also has brought electricity, more roads, pumps and overhead tanks — all non-existent a generation or two ago. Perhaps it is time we ask the people what they want. Or, better still, leave it to the people to ask each other what they want and then decide themselves how they want to spend their resources. The ancient Indian term for this is Panchayati Raj.

In 1993, an amendment to India's constitution formally established the Panchayati Raj (Village Government), a three-tiered structure of local governance at the village, block and district levels, and reserved one third of all posts in gram panchayats – village councils at the bottom tier of India's decentralized governance system – for women. It has been called a silent revolution, the greatest social experiment of our time and one of the greatest innovations in grassroots democracy. The new role models the legislation created had a dramatic impact on families and younger women. The glass ceilings in India's villages are slowly cracking as these women are steadily furrowing male bastions.

The immediate impact was less than revolutionary: Although a million women instantly entered electoral politics through the reservations, most of those elected were proxies for their husbands or fathers. They either sat mute beside the male family member who made the decisions at meetings, or did not even attend.

These women have slowly learned to climb the greasy pole of politics and are actively exploring all the options available to them as citizens of a democracy. Some of the ways in which women, through Panchayat Raj, are changing governance are evident in the issues they choose to tackle: water, alcohol abuse, education, health and domestic violence. The functional level politics aims at maintaining law and order in society, resolving conflicts, achieving justice and providing good living conditions for all. Against this background, is there a nobler activity and profession than politics? But few women are using this opportunity to make politics benign.

Power holders were determined to screen women's political programming, lulled by the false belief they will always remain at the political margins. But years of patient work on women's political empowerment in an environment of growing political thuggishness enabled women to capture the forefront of protests and helped crack open the system.

"In the beginning, I had many doubts about whether I could do this kind of work," says Mala Game, who spent five years as the sarpanch, or elected head, of Wanoja gram panchayat in Central India. "A woman can't use all those dirty techniques for defeating opponents' hate, anger, bitterness, lies, promises, disloyalty, and other negatives."

"I had to take responsibility for decisions that would affect the lives of so many people, handle sums of money I had never seen before, and allocate funds and projects in different settlements in the village. But slowly, I learned how to enjoy the work and now that I am no more the sarpanch, I miss it."

Mala had an advantage since her father had been a sarpanch in his village. Her role then had been limited to plying the endless stream of visitors with tea and snacks. But some of the ideas rubbed off on her. The increase in reservation was a trigger for her, to let her step out of the house, into public life.

On a walk through the quiet lanes past herds of snoozing water buffalo and carts pulled by teams of oxen, Mala pointed to the village hand pump she had got installed. She showed off the new brick lanes, electrical poles and street lights installed on her watch and checked on the progress of a new community hall being built. I found that the villagers had now put a premium on educating girls. This was in contrast to the trail of unkempt, unwashed children who would be a regular sight earlier. Women are also pushing to make administration and financial management transparent. Earlier it was the power of the wallet that determined the local electoral contests; wads of cash were used to buy votes. Women like Mala have changed the game.

One could argue that women like Mala represent a new chapter in the deepening of Indian democracy.

According to a study conducted by the UN Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women (UN Women) with over 3000 elected members of the gram parishad (GP), elected women have different issues as compared to their male counterparts and focus not only on development but on the sociological issue as well. These women, who have successfully challenged the traditional village male elite, are aspirational symbols for the new empowered rural India. These women are reconfiguring gender and social dynamics and have started exploring their wider responsibilities as stakeholders in a community and as citizens of a polity.

The increase in political consciousness and the consolidation of the negotiating capacities of newly empowered Panchayat leaders made state and national politicians focus on their development needs. The villages began to get integrated into the mainstream development grid. The arteries of India are its highways and its railway lines. It's the buses and trains, however intermittent or sporadic the service, that form the connective tissue linking India's villages to each other and to the cities. They all need roads and highways that cut like blades through rural isolation. All these are materializing.

A research by Lori Beaman et al., featured in Science, surveyed more than 8,000 adolescents and parents in almost 500 villages across India. Where there are women political leaders, female students scored higher in school exams. Meanwhile, boys' test scores stayed roughly the same regardless of the sarpanch's gender. Historically, wide gaps have existed between what girls and boys aspire to, but the Science study illustrated that this, too, is changing, as female politicians in India prove that women can choose to be something other than caretakers and wives. In villages that had a female leader for two election cycles or more, the gender gap in parental aspirations for their male and female children was reduced by more than 25 percent, and by 32 percent among adolescents themselves.

Panchayat raj provides heartening evidence of the ways institutional design can foster the slow progress of small things. Its lesson is clear: if the wisdom of women at the grassroots is to become policy, it will have to be by the 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.

Ela Bhatt, founder of SEWA (Self-Employed Women's Association) whose trade union movement has helped realise the dreams of thousands of women at the grassroots level — vendors, agricultural labour, rag pickers, embroiderers, construction workers and countless other women toiling in rural and urban areas — has always believed in the enormous potential of India's women:

"Women are leaders. If a peaceful non-violent society is to be built, focus on women. You will find an ally who wants a peaceful society because she wants roots for herself and her family. She has the power of motherhood and most important of all is the feminine way of working. It is more inclusive. Women are slow but they are steadier than men. So the feminine way is the way to grow."

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher