Women participation in democracy, the least understood promise in Rajasthan

Posted By: Staff
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Jodhpur, March 24 (ANI): Rajasthan should be proud of its pioneering move being the first Indian state to introduce Panchayti Raj System and also being prime mover for a move towards integrating women into local governance.

Like in all other states, the 73rd Constitutional Amendment brought in one-third reservation for women at various levels. Fifteen years after this amendment, Rajasthan increased this reservation to 50 per cent, a step aimed at parity of men and women in the democratic process. n the face of it, the move was promising, heralding political empowerment of women and strengthening democracy at the grassroots. But the recent Panchayati elections in the state showed a picture quite contrarily.

It demonstrated an ugly play of the power of money and influential lobbying. Unfortunately, this degeneration of a system meant to usher in healthy, participative democracy. It is, hence, imperative to understand why.

Today, the Sarpanch or, the village council head's post commands not just respect but also the chance to wield large sums of money under Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).

Correlate this with the fact that 50% reserved posts for women and what do you see? The opportunity for families of potential Sarpanch posts to amass fortunes during the five year tenure. The role envisaged for women by the Constitutional Amendment and state government policy stands diminished. She is viewed as a proverbial 'golden goose' today.

Panchayat elections have become a battleground for high stakes and the money pumped into it is phenomenal. Often along with putting up their woman candidate, men in the family fight the elections in the same Panchayats for ' wardpanch' . This gives them the moral and legal right to interfere in Sarpanch's decision and makes the family's hold on the funds stronger.

Rameshwar Dayal, a social worker from Bikaner, said: "This time, the expenses of Panchayat elections has increased enormously. For a Sarapanch seat, Rs. 25-30 lakhs were spent. Funds pouring in the Panchayat through NREGS are main attraction for this change. One Panchayat normally attracts Rs. 8-10 Crore every year. Budget allocated in different categories is an added advantage." Today the bid for higher posts like District head and Pradhan have come way down in the order of priority. It is the sarpanch post that is most coveted for obvious reasons.ayal said that before 73rd Amendment, the Panchayat elections were more about an individual bidding for the post. There was no interference from the family. During the last one-and-a-half decades, especially in the last election, it has become a family affair.

Raner Panchayat offers an interesting example. "This Panchayat was reserved for women. Because of NREGS money this has become very tough and competitive. About Rs. 50 lakhs was expected to be spent with food, alcohol and cash being openly distributed. Various families have fought a pitched battle for the Sarpanch post."

Ashok Meghwal, a social worker of Dalit Rights Movement in Rajasthan, said: "The post of a Sarpanch has become significant because of NREGS money. In Jodhpur, women of mighty political families contested the Sarpanch election. Because of their stature, these politicians shy away from filing their own nominations in the Panchayat elections. But they launched their women for the post of a Sarpanch."

He believes that on Schedule Caste or Schedule Tribes (SC/ST) reserved seats the expenses are between Rs. two to five lakhs but in the general category, candidates spend upto Rs. 25-30 lakhs in the election.

But, at the same time, it also needs to be understood here is that such lavish spending is not only for 'woman reserved' seats. The sarpanch's post, in any category, is a plum post and resources ploughed into it seen as an 'investment'.

The 50% reservation policy for women is one factor in the planning the strategy for winning. There are other such factors like the two-child norm for women standing for election.

This was the reason for an aspiring family to zero-in their choice candidate to a 70 year-old illiterate woman in Fitkasni panchayat, Jodhpur district. While her sons organized a wedding style 'pandal' for campaigning that included a sumptuous feast and even offering shots of opium, this woman was conspicuous by her absence. It was obvious that her sons would hold the reins of power ultimately.

One tends to think what can be more demeaning to the lofty ideal of women's participation in Panchayati Raj. In the villages of Rajasthan, the rot is palpable, endemic. The question then needs to be pondered by all those who speak for these ideals is what this implies to the dignity of women within the family and the community at large? Are they meant to be 'pawns' in what is obviously a play of power and money? Or, are they meant to hone their capacities and contribute meaningfully to transparent and responsive governance at the village level? Why is it that this erosion of her role in society is taking place with such impunity?

Traditionally, women in Rajasthan do not have a voice. They have a negligible share in property. The money, spent during the election, does not come out of her pocket. Even if is she possesses money, the decision to spend it will not be hers. She becomes willy-nilly 'party to the crime'. She becomes only a 'front' for the corruption being orchestrated by her family.

Of course, there are some women Sarpanches in Rajasthan who despite the rot in the system, have fought the elections on the strength their commitment to effective and transparent governance.

They have stayed away from the high-drama of the big bucks, have stuck to core issues and have won. Though extremely heartening, these are straws in the wind. It is clear that for women leadership to take root in Rajasthan, what is needed is to grasp the 'intent' and not merely the 'form' of the policy that exists.

According to Charkha Features, for this to happen, a clean-up operation of entrenched mindsets and social mores may be an initial step followed by comprehensive measures to restore the ower and dignity of women at the grassroots. By Dilip Bidawat (ANI)

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