Women have rarely held posts of political authority in Kerala. There are, though, processes at play that could alter some things, a sense that big changes are under way. They will account for over 50 per cent of all 21, 682 wards in the 1,209 local bodies going to the polls.

A single issue dogs all candidates in the local polls in Guruvayoor municipality of Kerala's Thrissur district. Any of the temple town's 80,000 voters, regardless of party affiliation, will brief you on the problem. Which has devastated the backwaters, rendered local fishermen jobless, poses massive health hazards and left residents helpless.

That issue is, say three people (including two candidates) at the same time: “The hotel lobby is too powerful. There are 150-200 lodges and hotels here, big and small, and most do no waste treatment at all. They have no septic tanks, will not install them and simply ignore orders to do so. With lakhs of tourists coming each year to the temple in this small place, the mess gets worse.”

“Human waste now clogs two of 14 km of backwaters in our stretch,” says C.F. George, a teacher and independent activist. “It is pumped through an open canal which merges into the backwater, completely polluting it. The tourists who come here are unaware of what the locals face. But this tourism is also Guruvayoor's only industry and main source of revenue. It has become unliveable along the backwaters. The fishermen are finished and no one there buys fish anymore.”

K.A. Sreedharan of the UDF (Congress) sounds helpless: “I am convinced change is needed, just not sure it will happen. Both the UDF and the LDF say hotels must dispose of the waste. They never do. The hotel crowd are too powerful at higher levels.” The “local bodies ombudsman says Guruvayoor needs a new master plan,” says George. “But the parties only talk of a waste treatment plant which is not enough to tackle this.”

Activism has sprung up around such issues, though. And against the backdrop of polls that will bring thousands of new candidates to office. Including women who will account for over 50 per cent of all 21, 682 wards in the 1,209 local bodies going to the polls. This will change the face of Kerala's pollscape. “It will bring an element of freshness,” says T.A. Usha Kumari, writer and trade union activist in Thrissur. “Without reservations, there would be no large induction of women. Even though they have proved their abilities already in the local bodies.”

In Guruvayoor, candidates like Latha Radhakrishnan, Dhanya Biju, Suma Narayanan and Geeta Sashidharan of the LDF agree, saying they have little to prove. “We have all been in women's organisations for years and also with ‘Kudumbashree' (Kerala's anti-poverty programme). Women voters identify with us. We walk into their kitchens and families.” Their confidence is high. However, Guruvayoor's problem is a harder one for women or men alike. This will not be a ‘clean-the-mess' task that ‘Kudumbashree'-background women often face, but a nasty minefield. Even more complex are the larger, new political challenges facing women.

The authors of a paper on “Empowerment or politicisation?” argue that “women's entry into local governance cannot be equated with their becoming full agents in the domain of politics.” J. Devika and Binitha V. Thampi of the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala, say women's chances of entry into politics, “are a distinct issue not to be lumped with their presence in local government.”

One concern is that women may be (and see themselves as) a service-oriented force within panchayats. As “fair distributors of welfare benefits” rather than as political actors in their own right. They show that (prior to these polls) the percentage of women in senior posts (such as chairpersons of standing committees) fell as you moved from village to district-level panchayats. And that many women panchayat members gained entry in ways that were themselves limiting in political terms.

Will the reservations, which now cover senior posts, change this? In numbers, in governance, certainly. In other dimensions, the ‘Kudumbashree' process has achieved much. In politics, the question is, as the authors argue, far more complex. Even where women have been unionised or taken part in political protests and action in large numbers, they have rarely held posts of political authority in Kerala. In fact, at the top, they've been mostly excluded.

‘Sensitisation' training

There are, though, processes at play that could alter some things. A sense that big changes are under way. The Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA) is gearing itself up for unusual post-poll training exercises. With the Left having said ‘no' to candidates with more than two terms in local bodies and the Congress also pushing youngsters, there will be thousands of new entrants this time. Yet, KILA's training is aimed at many besides them. For the first time: “Sensitisation training will cover spouses and male heads of the family,” says KILA Director N. Ramakantan. “With the ‘double burden' most of the women carry into office, there is a real need to build up support for them, including from their families. So while the elected women get vital training, there will also be a need to sensitise spouses, fathers and brothers on their responsibilities as well.” (There have also been instances where corruption by a husband or father has damaged an honest panchayat member.)

The acknowledgment of this need is in itself a step forward. A look at the campaign rubbed that home. In more than one place we visited, the way male campaign managers or activists organised the new women candidates was bad, their attitudes appalling. Male candidates are treated with far greater respect.

From political families

Some things might have changed forever. Most, if not all the thousands of women in the poll fray are from hard core political families whether CPI-M or Congress. Hundreds of them will soon also be presidents or vice presidents of their panchayats. It will be impossible for any major political party to continue having less than 15-20 per cent of women candidates in the assembly polls as they have for decades. So whoever loses, Kerala wins.

It's no accident that the only women MLAs today — just seven, all LDF — have all come out of local body backgrounds. When 10,000 women get elected at that level, the floodgates of aspiration are open. Also, the demand for ‘tickets' will be coming from the bedrock base of all major parties, from families who make up their core support at the village level. Alienating them could prove costly. More so when the process has altered elections in the state forever. So a lot could depend on who shows better judgment on this in coming years — the LDF or the UDF.