At last, it is rightfully theirs

MUMBAI JAN. 3. It will be a Republic Day with a difference for women sarpanchs (village chiefs) in Maharashtra this year.

For the first time, the State has decided that the women chiefs — and not the male upa-sarpanchs (deputy chiefs) — in close to 10,000 village panchayats will hoist the Tricolour.

If the sarpanch is not present, the woman next in line would have to perform the ceremonial flag hoisting.

And the right to exercise the "privilege" is not to be limited to Republic Day but will cover the Independence Day as well in future, according to a Rural Development Ministry directive.

In itself, the move is a minor revolution in the countryside, where, the menfolk have been exercising power by proxy in places where women have been elected to local bodies such as the panchayat, municipal council, panchayat samiti or the zilla parishad — when the Congress honoured its women heads of local bodies, their husbands lined up for being garlanded.

Women were not "allowed" to perform important tasks despite having a de jure right to do so.

This, despite the fact that 33 per cent of the total seats are reserved for women in the local bodies.

Another noteworthy event will be the holding of gram sabhas — which is distinct from a panchayat, in that every voter is a member — on January 26 in 27,000 panchayats.

More important, it would be preceded by a gram sabha of women voters a day earlier to enable them to prioritise their concerns first.

These moves, at the behest of the Maharashtra Rural Development Minister, R. R. Patil, will trigger a greater public acknowledgement of women's rights and role.

Till now, the Government did not even acknowledge the widespread prevalence of the term deedh sadasya which in Marathi means ``one-and-a-half member.''

The man in the family carried the value of one and the woman, though elected, was equal to half. There are about 9,700 gram panchayats in the State, which have a woman sarpanch and in future, at all ceremonial and public events, she would have the place of honour.

Maharashtra was the first to reserve seats for women in local bodies in 1990.

But, it remained a formality, with the actual conferring of the rights and privileges being resisted.

The first all-woman panchayat was formed in the Nimbut village in 1962, with the second one coming up in Mauje Rui 22 years later.

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