The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments enacted in 1993 opened a new vista in women's journey towards empowerment; for they paved the way for assured entry of women in grassroots governance through 33 per cent reservation for them in Panchayati Raj institutions (PRIs). West Bengal has the unique and unbroken record  of holding Panchayat elections at the stipulated 5-year intervals since 1978. PRIs in the state have a 3-tiered structure, with the basic unit, the Gram Panchayat (GP) serving 10-12 villages. The next tier, the Panchayat Samiti (PS) serves about 100 villages and there is an apex body, the Zilla Parishad (ZP)  in each district, its chairperson having the status of a state minister. Till 1992, elected women members in Gram Panchayats in the state constituted less than one per cent of total representatives. But the picture has changed dramatically since 1993 when women were elected to the reserved constituencies of the GPs for the first time. Corresponding one-third reservation for women in Municipalities, Notified Areas and Municipal Corporations followed soon after. Reservation for women as office -bearers in the PRIs was introduced in the Panchayat elections of 1998.The relative position of women members in the Panchayat bodies in 1998 is shown in Table P 1 while Table P 2 shows that of the women office-bearers at different levels. It will be seen that in almost all instances the share of women members goes beyond the statutory 33 per cent., there being a woman Sabhadhipati (chairperson of ZP) in 40 per cent ofZPs. West Bengal's record compares favorably with the situation obtaining in other states of India, except perhaps Karnataka , where women's share in GP seats was more than 43 per cent and in PSs and ZPs, about 40 and 37 per cent respectively During the 1990s,  the average percentage of women members  in PRIs ( with respect to nine states) was about 27 per cent .[i]

 

Table P 1 : Women members in PRIs in West Bengal : 1998

 

PRI

Area of work

Total members

Woman members

SC women

ST Women

No. of PRI

GP

10-12 villages

49199

36 %

18%

7%

3227

PS

Block of app.115 villages

8515

35%

17%

7%

329

ZP

District

716

34%

17%

7%

16

Source :Maitreesh Ghatak and Maitreya Ghatak, " Recent Reforms in West Bengal : Towards Greater Participatory Governance ?", EPW, 1 May 2002, p.47.

P 2 : Women members as office-bearers in PRIs in West Bengal : 1998  

 

 

GP Pradhan

GP Upa-Pradhan

Sabhapati : PS

Upa-Sabhapati :PS

Sabhadhipati : ZP

Sahakari "     : ZP

SC

women

ST

women

General category

women

All women

All seats

% held by women

298

94

734

1120

3360

33.6

269

82

392

713

3360

21.2

28

14

73

115

333

34.5

31

8

 

74

333

22.2

2

-

5

7

17

41.2

1

-

5

6

17

35.3

 

Source : Ganashakti, 5 November2003, p.5.

Certain encouraging trends can be noted in the evolving PRI structure and composition in West Bengal. First, there is growing participation of women belonging to weaker sections of society such as scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST). In 1998, for example, SC women comprised nearly 30 per cent of all women representatives in Gram Panchayats, Panchayat Samitis and Zilla Parishads. [ii] Secondly, all-women Panchayats have also emerged and working successfully- such as the Kultikari Gram Panchayat in Medinipur district. Thirdly, it is often found that as compared to their male compatriots, women members of GPs take a more active interest in essential developmental work such as expansion of literacy and convenient access to drinking water. [iii] It has further been observed , that in West Bengal, women representatives are becoming more self-reliant and by and large they do not need to function as 'proxy members'. But .it is also a fact that .women panchayat members are not always given equal status with their male counterparts. They are considered 'less equal' than the male representatives and hence, they are seldom given responsibility  of work considered to be important by the PRIs and  the chairpersons (karmadhyksha)of the important standing committees handling substantial funds are almost always men [iv].One study found that  women members of these committed less than one-fifth of total members though women account for one-third of total PRI members. [v] The relative exclusion of women in decision-making seems to be a common feature in other spheres of the political life of the state and women are also hardly visible  in the high level decision making bodies of political parties in the state, in common with the rest of India. According to information collected by the West Bengal Commission for Women, a number of political parties (including the Forward Block, the Communist Party of India (CPI)  and the Bharatiya Janata Party )had only a single woman in their state level decision making units, while the CPI-M had 8 in a total of 28.

Two other issues are comparatively low levels of education of women panchayat members and  the paucity of women's presence in the GP meetings. A recent study of nine Panchayats in Birbhum district  found that of  the 64 women surveyed in 1997, 24 were just literate and four could only sign their names, apart from 12 who had completed primary education. However, this group also included 9 who had passed School Final. The study mentioned above  also found that 25 per cent of each of general category and SC members, 65 per cent of ST members and 50 per cent of Muslim members attended less than half of the meetings held. (Panchayat meetings were held once a month from 1 to 4 pm and during the survey period each member received Rs. 20 for attending meetings) It is necessary that we pay attention to the  reasons stated by the women for  irregular attendance, for these reflect a common pattern and need to be addressed at appropriate levels. (i) Shortage of time: Household chores and rearing of children took up so much time that it was not possible for most women to attend meetings regularly .(ii) Loss of a day's wages : since a large number of women members worked as agricultural labourers or daily wage earners, they had to sacrifice a day's earnings; moreover, in most cases husbands or adult sons had to escort them to Panchayat offices, incurring additional loss of earnings. (iii) Poor transport facilities : one-third of the women surveyed had to walk more than 3 km either to reach a bus stop or the meeting venue as villages were not well connected by road (iv) Superstition: In some household it was still considered inauspicious for women to be involved in Panchayat activities.

There is no doubt that with growing awareness among women in the PRIs and growing emphasis on appropriate training for this group through government and non-government agencies, most of them will duly enhance their inherent skills and continue to use them as effective community leaders . As the West Bengal Human Development Report observes, "The participation of women in panchayats tends to have dynamic effects on the social and political empowerment of women in general More significantly, the greater presence and participation of women in public life has powerful effects of the situation of women in local society generally. There are numerous examples of how local women leaders have emerged through this  process , transforming their own lives and those of the society around them.."[vi] It has to be emphasised here that creation of political spaces for women is not an end in itself but only a necessary step towards an egalitarian polity and society.



[i] GOI, A Statistical Profile of Women in India -1997,  March 2001, p.5.

[ii] West Bengal Commission for Women (WBCW), Voice of Women, March 2001.

[iii] Raghavendra Chattopadhay , Esther Dunflo, "Impact of Reservation in Panchayati Raj, : Evidence from a Nationwide Randomised Survey", EPW, 28 February 2004,p. 983.

[iv] Buddhadeb Ghosh, "Gender and governance in the eastern Indian states " (mimeo), 2000.

[v] Arabinda Ghosh, "Inside-Outside Dichotomy in Panchayati Raj Institutions in West Bengal', The Administrator, October-December 1997.

[vi] WBHDR, p. 65.

 

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