What is a panchayat election

Emancipation through village autonomy in India

In 1993, through a constitutional amendment, the Indian women were allocated a third of the seats in the municipal councils and other local government bodies as a fixed quota. This is gradually proving to be a promising measure to promote women's emancipation, although it will certainly take a while before women can fully develop in this unfamiliar position.

In 1993 the parliament in Delhi passed an amendment to the constitution to strengthen local government. As part of this reform, the women in the municipality, district and district councils were allocated a third of the seats as a fixed quota. Within this quota, women of the indigenous tribes and the untouchable must be represented in proportion to their numerical strength at the place of their choice. A third of all council presidents are also reserved for women. The whole thing goes under the title Panchayati Raj, which roughly means rule of the local councils. Literally translated, Panchayat means council of five.

Three-tier local administration

The new constitutional article regulates the basic structure and tasks of local autonomy; the elaboration of the details was left to the legislative assemblies of the individual member states. There are three levels of local government: the village, the county and the district. The village should have two bodies: the community council (Gram Panchayat) and the community assembly (Gram Sabha). The municipal council acts as an executive, should meet once or twice a month, has 5 to 20 members (panches) depending on the size of the village and should be elected every five years by the village residents who are entitled to vote. The chairman, Sarpanch, is also directly elected.

The community assembly consists of all women and men in the village who are entitled to vote. It should meet twice a year and debate and vote on the financial budget drawn up by the village council, the tax proposals and the ongoing and planned development work.

The second stage is formed by the block or district council and is called Panchayat Samiti, also Panchayat Thesil or Thaluk. His area of ​​responsibility covers several villages. Its members are elected directly or indirectly, and it also includes representatives of all municipal councils that report to it. The top tier is the district or district council (Zilla Parishad). He is also elected, directly or indirectly, and forms the district planning committee.

Rejection by the holders of power

All member states except Bihar held local elections, some already twice, and the women's quota was adhered to everywhere. Around a million women were elected. The allocation of quotas is gradually proving to be a promising measure to promote emancipation.

Precisely for this reason, in practice the emergence of local administration and within it the political development of women is actively and passively fought by politicians, village potentates, landowners, members of the upper castes and by men in general. They are unwilling to cede part of their power to women. At the same time, there is strong resistance from the central administration to the free activity of the local authorities, since decentralization means a loss of power for them too. Finally, the social and religious traditions of the patriarchy and the caste system form considerable hurdles.

Despite this resistance, considerable progress has already been made. They differ from region to region. Development is progressing relatively well in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, parts of West Bengal and in northern Himachal Pradesh, one of the most progressive states. It is slowly taking place above all in the strongly conservative and patriarchal member states of the so-called Hindi belt in the north of the country, i.e. in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh; but progress can also be seen there.

Selective transfer of competence

The legislative assemblies of the member states should empower the panchayats to function as institutions of local autonomy and to work out and carry out a variety of projects, projects for the development of agriculture, livestock, fisheries, forestry and domestic and small-scale industries as well as projects to expand the local road network, to improve the electricity and drinking water supply and to build schools, village clinics and district hospitals. Each member state should allocate part of the necessary funds from its budget to the Panchayats, the rest should be brought in through their own tax collection.

So weighty powers and powers were envisaged. The intention was to partially decentralize the country's administrative structure through the establishment of independent political bodies at the local level with decision-making powers and limited but effective financial sovereignty. However, precisely that, the decision-making power, financial sovereignty and money allocations from the state budget, the parliaments of the member states granted them only very sparsely. As a result, contrary to the original intention, most panchayats are hardly autonomous bodies for the time being, but little more than executive bodies for projects that are planned and worked out above.

Women as governors

Few of the women elected are prepared for their task for the time being. They do not know their duties, their rights, their responsibilities. Many are illiterate and most of them have never been politically active, had no experience in matters of public services, administration, finance or planning and were not used to appearing in public, expressing their own thoughts, contradicting men. For the time being, the majority are so-called proxis, representatives of a male family member. In constituencies with reserved women's seats, the dominant families push them forward as candidates. If they are elected, the male family members decide afterwards whether they are allowed to attend the meetings and assemblies, whether they can speak there, what they should say, if any, and how they should vote when voting.

Often times, the family will not allow a female Panch to attend meetings at all; an authorized male family member goes in her place. The participation of the female panches is often made deliberately difficult or impossible because the sessions are scheduled for the late afternoon when the women have to look after the children and cook dinner.

On the occasion of the election of the Gram Panchayat of Junjhunu in Rajasthan, the author visited the candidates in November 1999 in a constituency reserved for women. There were three of them, and each received the guest in her house as usual in the presence of her husband. In two of them there were still representatives of the parties that supported them, in one the Congress Party, in the other the Communists. Both women were barely twenty years old and had no training. The questions put to them were answered without exception by the husband or a party man. When asked to get an answer from the candidate herself, she would repeat verbatim what her husband or the party representative had said.

The third candidate, a high school graduate, mother of two grown children and non-party, answered all questions herself and had precise ideas about what she hoped to achieve as a councilor for the village.

It speaks for the maturity of the electorate that, contrary to all expectations, the latter candidate was elected. In another village, Karondi in Madhya Pradesh, the writer was shown to the house of the man who obviously set the tone in October 1996 after his arrival. He was introduced as Sarpanch, the chairman of the community council, and as such talked to the guest. The next day one learned from the teacher in the neighboring village that in truth it is not he, but his wife Sarpanch, but never appears or officiates as such. The family had promoted her to the election, and after her election her husband took her place.

Slow progress

Today's political milieu in India is detrimental to women's political activity. It is characterized by the criminalization of politics and practically all-encompassing corruption. There is often a direct connection between politicians and criminals and gangster gangs, in some places criminals have become politicians themselves and have risen to influential offices. Indian politicians in general and women in particular are exposed to violence today in election campaigns and in the exercise of office. There are known cases where female councilors tried to oppose corruption but were dissuaded by intimidation, extortion or violence. At the meetings of the Panchayats, women are often molested, humiliated, mocked and ignored in debates by the male Panches. All of this discourages women from running for re-election at the end of their first term.

Despite all of this, women's rights activists are confident that conditions will change over time. It is already evident throughout the country and at all three levels of the Panchayati Raj that many of the women elected as proxy become aware of their situation in the course of their term of office and try to become independent as far as possible and not always follow their dictates that they advanced. They gain experience, learn to appear in public, speak in public and deal with the self-conceit of their male councilors. And they learn the art of making meaningful agreements, which is important for all political activity. However, there is immediate opposition from men to those women who try to assert themselves; but there are also increasing numbers of men who encouraged and supported their wives in public activity, and not for the purpose of exercising their own influence over the municipal authorities through them.

Numerous non-governmental organizations specialize in preparing women for participation in the Panchayats, to literate them and to inform them about their rights, powers and duties as Panches and to teach them about administration, financial management and project planning. A few Indian filmmakers are also trying to encourage this development. The film “Sanshohan”, for example, is about a woman who realizes that she is being abused in Panchayat to work to the detriment of the poor and needy, then gradually rebels against it and in the end is able to assert herself.

* The author is a former NZZ correspondent in India and Great Britain and lives in London.