About 15 years after the statutory panchayati raj institutions based on the amended Central Act and the consequential State legislation were put in place, most of the office-bearers of these bodies elected under the scheme of one-third reservation for women and Dalits radiate confidence and even exuberance. Thanks to several rounds of training conducted by experts from governmental and non-governmental organisations and progressive political parties, they have equipped themselves with the needed tools and skills and got over many a hurdle placed in their path by adversaries.
The new generation panchayats have clearly come of age. They have left behind them the bitter memories of the initial resistance, often violent, they had to face from caste-based and gender-based elements in the villages.
A glimpse of this could be seen at a national convention of panchayat heads from Andhra Pradesh at Tirupati recently. The participants included panchayat leaders from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Gujarat, and Delhi. The theme of the convention, organised by the Academy of Grassroots Studies and Research of India, was “Fifty per cent reservation for women in rural and urban bodies: A way forward for inclusive growth.” The speakers, many of them with rich work experience in the field, told the panchayat representatives, most of them women, that now that they had been adequately trained and empowered, they should shed their fears and misgivings and concentrate more on development activities in their panchayats with the experiences they have accumulated.
In a special address to the convention, Manju Sharma, plant scientist and former Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, made a strong plea to enhance the presence and role of women in science and technology. She regretted that “the intellectual capital of half of the human resources” had not been fully tapped for the creation of a knowledge-based society and for the promotion of sustainable development across the country.
The theme is by no means new. The First World Conference on Women in Mexico was held in Mexico in 1975 and its main theme was overcoming discrimination against women. It came out with the Declaration of Mexico on the Equity of Women and their contribution to development and peace. The Beijing Declaration that came out of the Fourth World Conference that was held two decades later described gender equality as “an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” A decade later came three international reports on related issues.
The reports revealed a positive trend of increasing numbers of women entering the field of science and technology over the previous two decades. This applied to India as well but the gender gap is still huge and the facts speak for themselves. Of the 443 Indian scientists who received the prestigious Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Award in the last half-century, only 10 were women. Only one woman has won this award so far in the Medicine category. As for the emerging future, the proportion of women students in India's top S&T educational institutions, the Indian Institutes of Technology is abysmally low.
One major reason for the underrepresentation of women in science in India, apart from their dual roles in society as “homemaker and child-bearer,” is the discrimination practised against them by men at home and in offices and labs as well. The studies found that not only male colleagues but even senior women scientists in some cases were not friendly to female entrants into the field.
Against this backdrop, it is heartening to observe influential sections of the news media playing an active role in encouraging women achievers in science. India Today, for example, has been giving awards to outstanding women achievers in 11 fields that include science, apart from business, arts, sport, and story-telling. The award for 2010 in the category “women in Science” went to Geeta Varadan, Director of the Advanced Data Research Institute in Hyderabad. Many daily newspapers and magazines, including The Hindu, Business Line, and Frontline, have been encouraging women in science and technology and women achievers in this vital field.
“No matter what obstacles arise, if you are determined to fulfil your dream, all you need is dedication and hard work,” writes Manju Sharma in a note of confidence to the up and coming scientists. She strongly believes that “a cadre of women scientists and technologists [will] accelerate the pace of socio-economic progress in this country.” That's the spirit that needs to be inculcated in newspaper readers and the tens of millions reached by television and radio – women and men, girls and boys. That's the progressive message that needs to go out to every part of India.