This article is written by Srishti Sinha, a student at the Institute of Law, Nirma University, Ahmedabad. This article deals with the empowerment of women in Indian society through Panchayati Raj Institutions.
Women empowerment is a topic that comes up frequently in discussions about human rights and development. It is a vital precondition for every society’s overall growth. Even though women make up over half of the population, they are still oppressed and have uneven socioeconomic and political positions. For decades, women’s empowerment has been a hot topic in India and internationally. Women in India who are submissive to males must be empowered to overcome social, political, and economic inequality. Since India’s independence in 1947, there have been numerous initiatives to enhance women’s status. The Constitution (Seventy-Third Amendment) Act, 1992 is a significant step forward in women’s political empowerment through Panchayati Raj institutions. As a result, a substantial number of women who were formerly homemakers have gained access to decision-making bodies in rural regions.
Panchayati Raj institution
The Panchayati Raj institution is an Indian system of local self-government in rural areas. It was formed by state legislatures in all the states of India to help develop democracy at the grassroots level. It was created by the 73rd Amendment Act and is responsible for rural development.
Evolution of Panchayati Raj in India
The notion of Panchayati Raj was not new to India. From ancient times, Indian communities had Panchayats (five-person councils) with executive and judicial responsibilities and were responsible for resolving different issues (land distribution, tax collection, etc.) and conflicts that arose in the community.
- The establishment of Panchayati Raj, its structure, and its organization was firstly recommended by the Balwantrai Mehta Committee in 1957. This Committee recommended the establishment of a three-tier system at the village, block, and district levels. On October 2, 1959, Rajasthan became the first state to implement Panchayati Raj, which began in Nagaur district.
- After that, in December 1977, the Ashok Mehta Committee on Panchayati Raj was established. In August 1978, it issued a report with several suggestions to resuscitate and improve the country’s ailing Panchayati Raj system. Its main recommendations were a two-tier panchayat system, frequent social audits, political party representation at all levels of panchayat elections, provisions for regular elections, reservation for SCs/STs in panchayats, and a Panchayati Raj Minister in the state council of ministers.
- Later, the G V K Rao Committee, in 1985, again recommended adding some measures to strengthen Panchayati Raj Institutions.
- Just after a year, in 1986, L M Singhvi Committee recommended that the constitutional position of Panchayati Raj institutions were also discussed, as well as the constitutional requirements to guarantee that Panchayati Raj Bodies elections be held on a regular, free, and fair basis. Based on this recommendation, a Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha but it was not passed by the Rajya Sabha.
- Following this, P V Narashima Rao’s administration submitted a Bill in the Lok Sabha in September 1991 for this purpose, which became the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act of 1992, and went into effect on April 24, 1993.
Constitutional provisions regarding Panchayati Raj
The 73rd Constitutional Amendment gave constitutional standing to self-government entities known as Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), intending to make democracy more effective at the local level, driven by residents’ demands and involvement. Economic growth, social justice, and the execution of Central and State Government Schemes, including the 29 topics specified in the Eleventh Schedule, have been assigned to Panchayats.
Part IX of the Indian Constitution establishes three tiers of Panchayats (only two levels in the event of States or Union Territories with populations under two million):
- Village-level Gram Panchayat,
- District Panchayats at the district level, and
- Intermediate Panchayats between Gram Panchayats and District Panchayats at the sub-district level.
It also establishes the Gram Sabha (a general assembly of registered voters who live in the Gram Panchayat’s territory) as a venue for people’s direct participation in local government.
The Indian Constitution established five-year periods for these Panchayats and provided for the reservation of seats for women and underprivileged groups of Indian society (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes). Women’s reservation is at least 33.33%, whereas the quota for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) is proportional to their population share. However, according to the information available with the Ministry, 20 states, including Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura, Uttarakhand, and West Bengal, have made provisions of 50% reservation for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions in their respective State Panchayati Raj Acts.
Areas not covered under Part IX
While Part IX of the Constitution applies to a greater part of the country, some places are exempted from Part IX according to Article 243M of the Constitution. The states of Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland, and regions covered by the Sixth Schedule, the hill parts of Manipur, and district level Panchayats in Darjeeling’s hill districts, are among them. In these locations, there exists a variety of grassroots local governing forms.
How Panchayati Raj institutions are helpful for women?
The 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, which took effect on April 24, 1993, and became part of the Constitution, has ushered in a quiet change in the country. It aided the admission of about one million women into public life when combined with the 74th Amendment. The initiatives taken by the Panchayati Raj institutions for the political empowerment of women are as follows:
- Women are developing self-confidence and taking self-initiative to fight against discrimination.
- Women are getting a platform to make their decisions.
- Women are taking steps to come forward and educate other women about education, hygiene, alcohol abuse, etc.
- Every year, the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS) hosts conferences on Panchayati Raj and women’s political, social, and economic empowerment. At these major gatherings, elected representatives of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and members of NGOs, notable academicians, social workers, government officials, and media personalities from throughout India attend. The ISS 1995 conference focused on the issues that Panchayats face, with a specific focus on the issues that women members and office bearers face. The participants were completely in agreement on the actions that needed to be done to enhance the system so that women can play their intended role in establishing self-reliant, wealthy communities and, as a result, a lively and thriving society.
- Women are rising to the occasion and preparing to engage in politics at a grassroot level in the spirit of self-governance as devoted citizens.
- More than one million women have actively participated in India’s political life as a result of the Indian Panchayat Raj Institutions’ experience. Up to one-third of seats in panchayats (chairman and members) are reserved for women.
- Women are also working to end child marriage and child domestic labour, as well as promote female education. Furthermore, women have utilized their political power to address crucial concerns such as excellent health care.
Efforts by Government to proliferate women’s participation
The administration has taken several important steps, including raising the reservation level for women in parliament from 30% to 50%. Even though India has succeeded to legislate representation, it is merely the first step towards women being able to make decisions on par with males. To empower women in the public realm, representation alone is insufficient, and unless it is reflected as participation, it stays restricted.
The government has also been active in the implementation of several initiatives, including the Pradhan Mantri Mahila Shakti Kendra scheme, which aims to empower rural women via community involvement to create an environment where they may reach their full potential. Training of trainers of elected women representatives of Panchayati Raj is also conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development to discuss issues related to women’s empowerment and the functioning of PRIs, describe participatory planning processes in local governance, and enable women to identify their leadership potential to contribute effectively as change agents.
Restructured Panchayati Raj institutions
The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs has recently given its approval for restructuring Rashtriya Gram Swaraj Abhiyan (RGSA).
The restructured scheme will have the following components:
- The program would apply to all Indian states and union territories, as well as rural local government entities in non-Part IX regions where Panchayats do not exist.
- The program will feature a central component – National level activities such as the “National Plan of Technical Assistance”, “Mission Mode Project on e-Panchayat”, and “Incentivization of Panchayats”, as well as a State Component – Panchayati Raj Institution (PRIs) Capacity Building”.
- The Government of India will completely fund the central component. However, for all states except the North East and the hill states, the Centre: State financing structure for the state component will be 60:40, with a 90:10 allocation for the North East and the hill states. The Central share will be 100% for all Union Territories (UTs) (with and without legislatures).
- The scheme’s implementation and monitoring would be mostly linked with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with a focus on Panchayats designated under Mission Antyodaya and 115 Aspirational Districts selected by NITI Aayog.
- The Scheme will bring together capacity-building programs from other ministries, with a special focus on ministries that will be significantly impacted by the Scheme.
Impact on women with restructured Panchayati Raj Institutions
The said scheme of RGSA will give its major attention to Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). It will help lakhs of PRIs to strengthen governance capacities to achieve the SDGs via inclusive local government and the most efficient use of available resources. PRIs achieving SDG goals will ultimately help to achieve gender equality, education, hygiene, sanitation, nutrition, etc.
The scheme will help represent Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and women as panchayats which will help women become politically powerful. Also, this scheme will help in strengthening panchayats, and gram sabhas would be strengthened to operate as effective institutions that promote the social inclusion of people, particularly disadvantaged groups, under the plan. It will provide an institutional structure with appropriate human resources and infrastructure for PRI capacity building at the national, state, and district levels. All these developments in PRIs will ultimately make women stronger. As the main focus of this scheme is on women and development then, the say of women’s words will be considered.
Women’s political empowerment can begin with PRIs, since their confidence and grasp of the polity will enable them to vote in elections to state legislatures and Parliament, opening the route from “Panchayat to Parliament”. They can even get the confidence to take a stand for themselves, but it is only the start of a journey toward empowerment. Women’s empowerment requires more than local reservations and women’s involvement in Panchayati Raj institutions because the mindset that women are meant for households has still not changed, women are still not educated. Still, women are oppressed and are denied their rights and they face many more hurdles. But the PRIs are great initiatives to make women strong either politically, economically, or socially.
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