As the Union Government approves scaling up reservation for women from 33 to 50 per cent in all tiers of the Panchayat Raj system, Karnataka has something to take pride in.
The State long ago exceeded the 33 per cent mark and has started inching towards the target set now. Women won 43.7 per cent of seats in gram panchayats, 41.2 per cent in taluk panchayats and 37.1 per cent in zilla panchayats in the elections held in 2005. The next panchayat elections are due in the first half of 2010.
This relatively large presence of women in grassroots-level governance is partly on account of Karnataka’s early entry into the system. Karnataka was the first State in the country to implement the Panchayat Raj Act, which mandated 25 per cent reservation for women, in 1987. This was prior to the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments. As many as 14,000 women were elected in the first elections held in 1987. Significantly, women from Dalit and backward communities have a large presence in Panchayat Raj institutions.
Ashraful Hassan, Director, Abdul Nazeer Sab State Institute of Rural Development, exudes confidence that the new target, “a new step towards women’s empowerment,” will be achieved effectively given Karnataka’s history.
Numbers apart, the challenge for a State like Karnataka is in taking women’s participation to qualitatively better levels. Given the increasing role played by money and muscle power in politics, coupled with the traditional trappings of patriarchal dominance, this is no mean challenge.
As Jayalakshmi M.S. of the Grameena Mahila Okkuta points out, “The traditional gender biases have kept women out in many instances where programme implementation involving money is in question”.
“Women have, in many places, either been misinformed or kept out of key programmes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act projects,” she says. “So we should focus on not just participation, but effective participation.”
M.M. Ganapathi, convener, Gram Panchayat Hakkottaya Andolana, underlines the need for women to understand that they represent the community of women and bring in the perspective of gender into their politics.
In preparation for the elections in early 2010, the okkuta has already started an awareness programme for members of Self Help Groups in Mulbagal taluk in Kolar. Ms. Jayalakshmi says women in the first workshop expressed apprehensions on two counts: the role money played in winning or losing an election, and the indirect role that party affiliations play, although gram panchayat elections are not fought on party lines.
“There are no answers to these questions because the entire system is increasingly geared to this,” she says. Women can hope to escape this trap only by working more closely with people and bring in greater transparency in work, she adds.