Women need greater say in panchayats

They face challenges including interference by family members and party functionaries

Updated - June 24, 2022 12:55 pm IST

Published - June 23, 2022 09:46 pm IST

A woman candidate, contesting as an independent, campaigning for the local body election at Puduvalasu village in Lakkapuram Panchayat in Erode district in Tamil Nadu. File photo.

A woman candidate, contesting as an independent, campaigning for the local body election at Puduvalasu village in Lakkapuram Panchayat in Erode district in Tamil Nadu. File photo. | Photo Credit: GOVARTHAN M

Calls to the official mobile numbers of select women village panchayat presidents, be the local bodies in Kanniyakumari, Ariyalur, Madurai, Chengalpattu or Coimbatore, are answered by men. The persons invariably identify themselves as husbands of the village panchayat presidents and politely tell this writer that the panchayat functionaries are “not available”.

On the other hand, calls to women panchayat union chairpersons or district panchayat presidents are mostly answered by the functionaries themselves.

These two scenarios reflect the level of participation of women in rural local bodies where more than 50% of the elected posts are held by them. Tamil Nadu is one of the 21 States which have reserved 50% of the elected posts for women in panchayati raj institutions (PRIs), according to a reply given by Union Minister of State for Panchayati Raj Kapil Moreshwar Patil in the Rajya Sabha in December last.

“In the last 10-15 years, the situation has improved in the State. There have been strong positive changes in the representation of women in PRIs. The general trend is that these women are no longer controlled by their husbands [with regard to discharge of their duties], though the influence of the latter is very much there,” says V. Raghupathy, professor in the Department of Political Science and Development Administration, Gandhigram Rural Institute (deemed to be university).

Quantitatively, one cannot say about the impact of the 50% quota for women, but, qualitatively, “the trend is very encouraging. Those who are making use of the situation constructively are doing their work silently. It is all the more discernible in respect of SC/ST women, who would not have been able to take part in public life otherwise,” says S. Nandakumar, founder of ‘Thannatchi’, a civil society organisation specialising in issues of local bodies.

“Women leaders demonstrate ample courage and self-confidence,” says K. Nagarani, who heads the Kinathukadavu panchayat union in Coimbatore district and hails from a Scheduled Caste. Belonging to the AIADMK, Ms. Nagarani points out that in 34 village panchayats under the jurisdiction of her panchayat union, she has been able to get repairs done to 10 school buildings and have five fair price shops opened. Roads in Adi Dravidar colonies are in need of attention, she says. “It is my wish that no one should call Adi Dravidar colonies derogatorily.”

B. Subalakshmi, chairperson of the Lathur panchayat union in Chengalpattu district, who is a postgraduate in English and belongs to the ruling DMK, asserts her husband has never interfered in her functioning in the last six months after she assumed charge. Pointing out that her husband is a local party functionary, she, however, adds that there is a clear-cut boundary between her work as a panchayat union leader and that of her husband.

The problem of interference by husbands or immediate family members in the working of women panchayat leaders is not confined to Tamil Nadu alone. Answering a question in the Lok Sabha in March this year, Mr. Patil said his Ministry had been issuing advisories to the States to end the practice of rule by proxy members and the interference by the family members or spouses of the women members. He clarified, “All panchayat related matters, including the issue of proxy members, come within the purview of the State”. It had also advised the States to facilitate holding of separate ward sabha and mahila (women) sabha meetings prior to the gram sabha meetings and allocation of panchayat funds for women-centric activities.

P. Sathyabama of the AIADMK, chairperson of the Tiruppur district panchayat, is a disappointed person these days. Her disappointment is because her functioning has been hampered not by her husband or any other family member but by her party colleagues. “MLAs or panchayat union chiefs have a feeling of apprehension that their future prospects in politics will be disturbed if they allow me to work freely. I would say this is a much bigger challenge than anything else,” she says.

A senior official of the Department of Rural Development, who is not oblivious to issues and problems concerning women panchayat representatives, says the State government has been trying to improve the communication and managerial skills of the representatives. The Institute of Rural Management (IRMA) in Anand, Gujarat, and the Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad, have been roped in to train 400 representatives each. Special attention is being paid to removal of “bottlenecks” being faced by women leaders.

Every player in the field acknowledges there is still a long way to go. As there are bright spots, the sense of optimism over the future of women’s participation in the panchayat institutions appears to be well justified.

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