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Jan 04, 2003
Women Sarpanchs to hoist flags in Maharashtra

India has 250,000 Gram Panchayats and just over 10 years ago the Constitution was amended to make elections to them every five years mandatory. George Mathew reviewed in the Hindu [Dec 27,2002] the effects the amendment has had on local governance. His opinion is that there is a massive effort by the members of state and central legislatures to undermine the panchayats’ powers. State governments also try to rein in State Election and Financial Commissions. But within that negative environment he concludes that there is much to be hopeful about.

He quotes the Prime Minister as having observed that following Justice Venkatachaliah Commission’s review of the Constitution, Article 243 should be further amended.

Mathew says that there have been many positive changes. Rowdy states like UP and Bihar have been brought to pay at least lip service to the local bodies now. When states try to dodge elections, activist groups now have access to the judiciary to lean on them. Depressed classes are coming to elected offices. “Patronage is slowly moving from traditional castes and families to political parties and ideologies.”

But the greatest achievement of the last decade has been the effect of including women in local governance. Today there are a million elected women in panchayats. Three times that number contest elections. 33% of seats in panchayats were reserved for them in 1993. A number of women are contesting from the general, non-reserved constituencies too.

The experiment is only a decade old and it is too little time to break down male dominance at the lowest levels in rural India. Thousands of men push their elected spouses behind and wield power on their behalf. Mahesh Vijapurkar also writing in the Hindu [Jan 4, 2003] notes how at a function that sought to honour “women heads of local bodies their husbands lined up for being garlanded!”

Vijapurkar was reporting on a path breaking mandate issued recently by the state of Maharashtra. From now on hoisting of the national flag on Republic and Independence Days shall be by the village Sarpanch only—man or woman. There are 10,000 women sarpanchs in Maharashtra and for them --usually kept at home or jostled out-- this would be a novel exposure. The directive further says that if a given woman sarpanch is unavailable the flag shall be hoisted by the next ranking woman.

It is usual to have a Gram Sabha --a village plenary session-- on Jan 26, the Republic Day. Maharashtra now requires that a women-only session be held a day earlier to have them express their opinions fearlessly.

These may be small steps but in a democracy progress is always by small, incremental steps.

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