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Sunday, July 29, 2001

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Some good news


LET us leave behind "failed" or "inconclusive" summits for the moment and turn our minds to some good news. Of course, such news is rarely deemed "news" because it is part of larger processes of change that go unnoticed. Sometimes even those in the midst of this process do not understand the full import of what is happening. But there is something positive happening in the most unlikely of places, and it should be recorded.

Just weeks before the Agra summit, which dominated the news for almost the entire month of July, panchayat elections were held in that much-maligned State of Bihar. The elections were remarkable for a number of reasons but primarily because they were being held after a gap of 23 years.

A series of reports in The Pioneer by Dhirendra K. Jha brought out facts that are often overlooked. The stories reflected the choices and the voices of the most oppressed - the Dalits and particularly Dalit women in Bihar. For the first time, these women found themselves facing an electorate. Some of them had never voted before as the system had deliberately worked against the right of Dalits to vote. Polling booths would be located in upper caste areas where Dalits were afraid to venture.

One of the women elected to a panchayat in Madhubani district, Tilla Devi told the reporter: "Two years ago the scene was different. It was too oppressive to go on. There was no respite. Even the piece of land meant to be our habitat was grabbed by local landlords". But this woman successfully mobilised her people and managed to wrest their land back from the landlords despite violent attacks from the other side. And she fights on, determined to use her elective position to get people access to health care and education and other government schemes to which they are entitled. Seen against the background of the situation in Bihar, such stories are truly astounding.

Of course, the mere election of a Dalit woman does not necessarily mean that there is sustainable change in the caste and gender equations in a State like Bihar. In fact, a number of the women were elected because their husbands were men who had done some good work in the village. The women stood because the seat was reserved for women. Yet the 33 per cent reservation for women at the panchayat level appears to be breaking through even the most rigid caste and gender hierarchies.

At the other end of the country is Kerala, a huge contrast to Bihar.

Here women are educated, there is access to health care, the population growth rate is the lowest in the country, women get married at a much later age than the Indian average and they are supposedly empowered. Yet, this latter fact has been disputed by many women in Kerala. They argue that patriarchal structures have not changed; therefore mere education or better developmental services do not automatically result in women's empowerment. Proof of this lies in the relatively low participation of women in politics.

But this too is finally beginning to change in Kerala, thanks to the 33 per cent reservation for women in panchayats. Reports in this paper by K. P. M. Basheer earlier in the month carried encouraging news about the Muslim-dominated Mallapuram district, considered one of the most backward and conservative in terms of the status of women. Today, thanks to reservation, of 300 panchayat members, 100 are women, averaging three in every panchayat. A quarter of the panchayats in the district are headed by Muslim women, two out of five municipalities have women as chairperson, and six out of 14 block panchayats are presided over by Muslim women. There are seven Muslim women in the 30 member district panchayat council.

This is a huge change from the past when these women would not have been permitted to go out on their own leave alone contest an election and preside over political bodies. The few who had been in these positions earlier - Kerala, unlike Bihar, has held panchayat elections - are confident that their newly-elected sisters will soon learn the ropes, gain confidence and be able to participate fully in the process of governance. Women like R. K. Hafsath, who was married immediately after she finished school and now has two young children, say: "If there was no reservation for women, I would still be leading the life of a housewife confined to the four walls of my home." Instead, today, she is proud to be the head of the Thripprangot panchayat.

What is even more interesting in Kerala is that the elected women have succeeded in getting the women in their panchayats to participate more fully in the gram sabha and sub-ward meetings. In a conservative environment, the women feel more comfortable coming to meetings organised by a woman panchayat member. Also, as a panchayat member told the reporter, "The women members have to act as a family counsellor and mediator". Many women come to them with personal problems. It would be impossible for them to turn to a man for help on such matters. Thus the elected women are playing multiple roles in their societies.

These examples from States as different as Bihar and Kerala make a strong argument for the value of reserving seats for women at the local self-government level. Without this kind of encouragement, it would have taken many generations before these women could have been elected. And given their contribution, it is clear that communities would have been deprived of a more humane style of governance if women had been kept out.

KALPANA SHARMA

E-mail the writer at ksharma@vsnl.com

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