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‘Sarpanch Pati’: The small steps, and giant leaps of women’s reservation

Last week, several male relatives of newly elected women representatives of panchayats in Madhya Pradesh took oath on their behalf. The concept of ‘sarpanch pati’, where men relatives (mostly husbands) of elected women run office in place of them, is now immortalised even on celluloid, like in the recent web series Panchayat. However, where the Madhya Pradesh example drew attention was the brazenness of the men even taking oath of office.

Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram tweeted that it was “both a tragedy and a comedy to witness husbands of elected women representatives take oath as ‘members’ of Panchayats in Madhya Pradesh”, adding: “Unbelievable that in the 75th year of Independence, there can be such a mockery of the Constitution and the Laws”.

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The Law and its provisions

Started in Bihar in 1948, the panchayat system has existed since the early 1950s. But it largely remained non-functional until the 1990s. The 73rd Amendment in 1992 sought to change the framework and established a three-tiered panchayat system with regular elections throughout India. It also mandated that “one-third of the total number of seats reserved under clause (1) shall be reserved for women belonging to Scheduled Castes or, as the case may be, the Scheduled Tribes”. Additionally, it said that “no less than one-third (including the number of seats reserved for women belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes) of the total number of seats to be filled by direct election in every panchayat shall be reserved for women and such seats may be allotted by rotation to different constituencies in a panchayat.”

In 2009, the Constitution (110th Amendment) Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha to increase reservation for women from one-third (33%) to one-half (50%) of the total seats in panchayats. The Bill, however, was never passed.

In 2006, Bihar became the first state to increase the reservation percentage to 50%, under CM Nitish Kumar.

Sikkim followed suit and implemented a 40% reservation policy in panchayat elections for women in 2008 (it stands at 50% now).

Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand subsequently passed laws to increase reservation for women in panchayats to 50%. At present, 20 states, including Madhya Pradesh, have 50% reservations for women at the panchayat level.

The Impact

Several studies since then have shown how the changes have paved the way for the election of around 1 million women at village, block and district levels, and the impact of the same.

A 2003 study published by the Massachuesetts Institute of Technology (MIT) called it “a landmark piece of legislation as well as, to some extent, a test case”. It went on to say: “Women in villages with reserved pradhans are twice as likely to have addressed a request or a complaint to the gram pradhan in the previous six months, and this difference is significant.”

At the same time, the research noted that 43% of the women interviewed acknowledged being helped by their spouse. And that, even if they were contributing to work at their village level, they would largely remain “hesitant”. The researchers attributed this to “the impression that women are not effective leaders”, stemming from “the social perceptions of women that the policy precisely tries to address”.

The study quoted another research project that matched collected data with that from reserved seats, to find that “villagers are less likely to be satisfied about the quality of the water when gram pradhans are reserved for women, despite receiving objectively better service”.

A 2010 study published by the India Policy Forum, organised by the NCAER, noted that “villages with female leaders experienced increased female participation and responsiveness to female policy concerns”. The study also found that “village councils with reserved female leaders invested more in drinking water infrastructure, sanitation, roads, school repair, health centre repair, and irrigation facilities”.

A 2012 paper published by the International Growth Centre, a joint initiative by the London School of Economics and Oxford University, on health outcomes at the panchayat level in Bihar and Jharkhand, pointed out that “political decentralization is positively associated with higher probabilities of institutional births, safe delivery, and births in government health facility”.

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Women’s representation in Lok Sabha, Legislatures

In the higher levels of electoral representation, where attempts to bring in women’s reservation have remained stillborn, their representation remains abysmal. Several reports put their numbers at over 10% of the total MPs and 9% of all state legislators.

In 1996, under the government of JD(S)’s H D Deve Gowda, the Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced with the aim to reserve one-third seats for women in the Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies.

The Bill never passed, with versions of it introduced in 1998, 1999, under the NDA government, and 2008, under the UPA regime, also failing. All four Bills have since lapsed.

When the Bill was first introduced, the argument against it was that a reservation like this would end up benefiting only women belonging to upper castes. Among its chief opponents have been social justice parties like the Samajwadi Party and RJD.

In 2021, replying to a question by DMK MP Kanimozhi Karunandhi on the status of the Bill, the Ministry of Law and Justice said, “Gender justice is an important commitment of the Government… The issue involved needs careful consideration on the basis of consensus among all political parties before a Bill for amendment in the Constitution is brought before Parliament.”

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Incidentally, reservation for women to encourage political participation was considered during the Constituent Assembly debates, and rejected. Many point out that in the 299-member Constituent Assembly, there were only 15 women.

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In the first Lok Sabha elections (1952-57), 24 women were elected (out of a total number of 489). In a letter to Chief Ministers, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had expressed “great regret” at the low numbers of women. In the current Lok Sabha, 78 women MPs were elected, the highest ever. That is 14% of the House’s strength.

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