Often enough, we ourselves are that sad, cheated uncle and so, out of some embarrassment, we sometimes voice our opposition to reservations on grounds of larger economic or social inefficiency. Rewarding achieved status, we declare, is much more likely to foster development and improve society, than reliance on measures of ascribed status like caste and gender. That sounds like a good argument for stripping traditionally elite groups - like upper caste men - of their "ascribed" excess access to material and social resources, but of course that is not what is meant when reservations are opposed.
In most cases it is difficult to resolve these debates empirically in the short or even medium term, because reservations in education and jobs take so long to show any measurable effects. But there is one kind of reservation -- that in political office -- which, it turns out, is surprisingly quick to deliver measurable results.
In 1992, the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution formalized the system of local government exemplified by the Gram Panchayats, Panchayat Samitis and Zilla Parishads, at the village, block and district levels respectively. Members of these councils are elected by the people and are given the funds and responsibility for all kinds of public services and development projects, with the freedom to also "choose" the nature of their public investments, based on the stated needs of their constituencies. Panchayati Raj institutions are of course an old Indian phenomenon, but this amendment made them mandatory, as well as laid out more explicit rules for their formation and functioning. Most importantly, the 73rd amendment made them more egalitarian through a system of reservations to office -- for example, one third of seats in the Gram Panchayat as well as one third of Pradhan positions are now reserved for women. Moreover, very surprisingly indeed, given the fate of legal directives in India generally, most of these reservations have actually gone into effect, even if superficially.
But how "statistically" powerful or effective is such political power when it is thrust upon one, rather than one being born with it (a situation all too familiar to countless countries with dynastic power lines) or acquiring it through actual achievement (of however dubious quality)? From studies conducted by Esther Duflo and colleagues at MIT1 appears that at least one kind of power, that granted through being the head of a Gram Panchayat, leads to women undertaking investments in public goods of the very kind most needed by the women in their villages. That is, giving women the power to help women does work and two birds are being killed with one stone : some women get to become important village functionaries and their sisters get the tap water and roads that they crave, both of which are less likely with male Pradhans.
Duflo et al's results are all the more encouraging because they refer to a very young situation. After all, the Gram Panchayat system acquired constitutional status only in 1993. And yet these short-term findings are powerful enough to make a strong policy case in favour of reservations in political bodies. More importantly, they underscore the power of even puppet reservations for women, an accusation that is constantly hurled at any representations of women in office -- that these women are there because their husbands have given them the permission to hold office, that they are only mouthpieces of their husbands' interests, that they perpetuate the old caste and class hierarchies of the village, that they are too inhibited to do more than rubber stamp anything that is placed in front of them.
And Who Will make the Chapatis? lends tentative support to all these dim pronouncements. But then it goes on to do much more. It goes on to demonstrate that these prognostications are only partial representations of the ground reality. Bisakha Datta, Meenakshi Shedde, Sonali Sathaye and Sharmila Joshi are in the field to capture the great variety of personalities, interests, talents and skills that make up the grim category of "woman". Ostensibly a study of all-women panchayats in Maharashtra, this book goes well beyond stereotypes - both positive and negative -- to give a human face to the women who, well before the Constitutional Amendment, stood for local elections and formed Gram Panchayats composed entirely of women. They interview members of 12 such Panchayats, from the oldest known all-women Panchayat in Nimbut village in Pune district (1963-68) to Panchayats in Brahmanghar in Pune district and Bhende Khurd in Ahmednagar district that were active at the time of this study in the mid-1990s.
I offered to review this book because I was intrigued by the title - this title apparently intrigued a whole lot of Sawnet members, luckily I was first in line. But this attractive title itself is actually misleading. For one thing, it is a quote from another study. But more importantly, while the sentiments it expresses are indeed found in the responses of some of the women interviewed in the book, in many other cases, they are completely absent. That is, in these all-women Panchayats, there are certainly women who are there on their husbands' behalf. But there are also many women who have taken on these posts with the active support of their families and communities; who have campaigned and won elections in spite of serious intimidation by local elites; who have learnt to speak up independently in favor of village rather than caste or domestic interests; who have become boastful about their achievements in office; and who have even dared to take little bits of individual pleasure and excitement from the perks of office -- the jeep ride to the Zilla Parishad meeting, the files and papers, the twice yearly gram sabhas (village meetings) that they conduct.
This is not a quantitative study but it adds much meat to the few statistical analyses on this subject. It also provides so many new leads to explore in further statistical analysis. For example, in Brahmanghar, the empowerment of women (seen not only in its all-women Panchayat, but also in the free movement of women, in their street corner gossip sessions) has come out of the migration of the men to the towns for work, leaving women with meaningful (and delightful) access to a public space that was usually denied to them. This and the related finding that male migration is creating a breed of female managers in the villages of India, is coming out of all kinds of qualitative studies on the status of women in Third World women and is something definitely worth following up on with quantitative analysis.
I was also impressed by the great variety of routes to women's participation in these Panchayats in Maharashtra that appeared well before any law made it necessary for them to do so. Once again, few generalizations are possible -- sometimes these Panchayats were formed because the men had migrated to the towns; sometimes because the husband of the female Sarpanch made other men put up their wives for election; sometimes because male candidates withdrew from the election for fear of the embarrassment of losing to a woman; at other times, these women were only a means to settle old scores between the men; at yet other times, there were genuinely progressive and egalitarian male village leaders who made room for the women to stand for elections. The stories are as distinctive as the villages they come from.
The effectiveness of these Panchayats also seems to have varied, calling into question the essentializing tendencies in much feminist as well as anti-feminist research. Some of these women have been openly autocratic, others have been democratic but only on the surface, still others have actually pulled in their lower caste or illiterate or poorer co-members to jointly consider development priorities.
Does all this mean that the book has only non-lessons to offer, that there are no common threads? Fortunately, no. While demonstrating that women in power come in all shapes and sizes, it nevertheless suggests that some things don't change easily. For instance, that bane of traditional and modern India -- caste -- continues to hamper co-operation and genuine inclusion, as exemplified by the "generous" sarpanch who brings piped water to the Harijan quarters, but also authorizes a new and separate temple for the Dalits in Mauje Rui. Indeed, several examples throughout the book suggest that the disenfranchisement of the lower castes is far more entrenched than the disenfranchisement of women.
The study also finds that that the women are more comfortable dealing with "official" business related to school rooms or piped water, rather than raising social consciousness on matters like dowry or son preference or wife beating. Perhaps they believe that things will change more easily with women's political power than through active rhetoric; perhaps they are hesitant to confront such blatantly political issues; perhaps they don't even see the need for such change as yet.
Consistent with the statistical findings I mentioned above, this "non-scientific" study also confirms that women in Panchayats are more likely to give priority to women's problems, especially related to water and to schooling, than to the questions of roads and buses that trouble male villagers -- although presumably these kinds of matters will also concern women as they more increasingly out of the domestic space.
Incidentally, the fact that water and education are uppermost in these women's minds says a lot about the failures of development in the country -- both water and decent schools are supposed to be the most basic public goods that a developmental state provides to its citizens.
I said a little earlier that one must not essentialize women. But there is one particular feature of these women's Panchayats that begs for such essentialization. This relates to the matter of corruption. Time after time, the book records its impression that these all-women Panchayats are strikingly lacking in corruption and are also perceived as non-corrupt by the larger community -- in fact this is sometimes a handicap because outside agencies are less enthusiastic about working with these Panchayats as there is so little scope for making money on the side. One might wonder if this integrity will survive as women become more routinely involve din Panchayat matters, but for the moment a least it does seem an economically good idea to press for women's political participation if that they can buy toilet seats for Rs.95 each (as in Metikheda) when the Panchayati Samiti engineer prices them at Rs.475.
The book ends with an excellent concluding chapter by Bisakha Dutta; I read this chapter after I had written my own review because I did not want to parrot her conclusions, but find now that I probably have. There is also an excellent bibliography, whose length reinforces my gratitude that there is in India such a strong social science community that is interested in these larger questions of governance and development at such a ground level.
All in all, this book emerges out of a splendid combination of talents -- those of the perceptive, non-judgemental and non-stodgy foursome that did this study, and those of the gutsy, articulate and cheerful characters who made up the all-women Panchayats that are its subject. The latter overturn so many of our rural stereotypes. The next time I am embarrassed to acknowledge my own Maharashtrian origins because of the doings of Thackeray and Co., I shall remind myself of this other, impressively defiant, face of the state and flaunt my relationship to it.]
1 R. Chattopadhyay and E. Duflo (2004), "Women as policy makers: Evidence from a randomized policy experiment in India", Econometrica, vol. 72, no. 5, pp 1409-1443
Book Description: This book is an in-depth study of some Indian rural women's attempts to carve out their own political space within an existing, male-dominated political system. 'If men and women are asked to devise programmes in panchayats, women will think of water and latrines, while men will talk of roads and buses.' This was observed by the authors when they went round twelve all-women panchayats in Maharashtra in order to understand the changing political experiences of rural women. The book has grown out of knowledge the village women shared with them.
Studying the history of women panchayats operating in nine villages in Maharashtra, this group of researchers examine how the larger society circumscribed these womens' work, and what strategies some of the women were able to devise to assert themselves against men trying to take over their power, confine them at home or keep them in ignorance about questions of administration and procedure.
If some stories are of women used as puppets by stronger (patriarchal) interests, others are accounts of women's clever manoeuvring to outwit the establishment. Still others show that political work can be as demanding and frustrating for women as for men. In all the accounts, the voices of women come through strongly. The authors used interview-based research methods, and preserved as far as possible the immediacy of oral communication in their work, as the title, a comment by a man when he heard that a woman wanted to attend a training camp
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