Rule by proxy: How men have subverted women's reservation

In Maharashtra's rural areas, the reservation of panchayat seats and sarpanch positions for women has often been ineffective. Men rule by getting their female relatives elected.

Mahesh Vijapurkar September 10, 2011 18:15:42 IST
Rule by proxy: How men have subverted women's reservation

If you happen to elect a woman candidate to a civic body – municipal council or corporation – in Maharashtra, don’t be surprised if you are ‘served’ by a male, most probably her husband, father, father-in-law, brother or brother-in-law.

Bihar might have been the most egregious example of a woman CM (Rabri Devi) effectively becoming the figurehead while her husband ran the show, but in Maharashtra’s rural areas, this worrying trend is defeating the very purpose of reserving seats in panchayati raj institutions for women.

Now, they have not only increased the women’s quota to 50 percent but also brought urban civic bodies under a similar dispensation. A wave of elections will commence in the next two months, upsetting many a male applecart all across the state.

Past record shows that men don’t take kindly to being displaced from positions of political power and have now found ways to work around it. Here’s how they do it.

Rule by proxy How men have subverted womens reservation

Past record shows that men don’t take kindly to being displaced from positions of political power and have now found ways to work around it. Reuters.

One, they manage to field close female relatives, often those who live under the same roof, to contest seats reserved for women. Once elected, the woman attends the formal meetings and then little else. The male continues to do the rest of the business – politicking, deals, nursing the constituency.

Two, if the election is for posts like sarpanch or panchayat president – panchayat often is co-terminus with the taluk or the block – then the woman makes her formal appearance in the office. The office has an extra chair behind the table from where the dispossessed male does business on her behalf. He even conducts routine work. Except, of course, putting his signature on official papers.

Three, where the sarpanch is a woman – some gram panchayats and panchayat samitis are also reserved for women – she is persuaded to sign away her rights to a male deputy, and she remains blissfully out of the orbit. Until, of course, the next election dereserves the office on the basis of a lottery. Then men resume their formal roles.

This gives raise to the anomalous, even tragic, situation of a de jure elected representative being sidelined and a de facto representative wielding authority. In Maharashtra, this pair is described quite aptly in Marathi as the dheed sadasya – literally translated, the ‘one-and-a-half-member’ constituency.

Many women accept it, and even the constituencies accept it, but there’s no gainsaying the fact that it makes a mockery of the intent and purpose of a decentralised representative democracy in which women are to be politically empowered to play greater roles in decision-making.

This one-and-a-half member formula is fortunately not a universal reality, but is widespread enough to cause anxiety.

It is not as if the state is unaware of this subversion. But it prefers to turn a blind eye. It has even recorded this fact in the Maharashtra Human Development Report 2002 (HDR 2002), brought out by the State Planning Board in collaboration with the UN Development Programme.

This is what it has to say: “Often, the male is a husband, father, father-in-law or brother-in-law and, rarely, a son. Almost invariably, the effort is to retain the reigns within the family.”  In addition, “it is not uncommon for a woman to just sign away her authority to the upa-sarpanch (deputy sarpanch), even if she is an elected sarpanch to fill a reserved slot because the power males dictate the terms. “

Further, the phenomenon has led to the “practice of a male functioning as a proxy to the woman who has her legitimate rights curtailed”. She gets it by law “but is encroached upon by convention” in a male-dominated society. They “constitute a pair, the man wielding authority and the woman providing the formality”. Quite explicit, but it stops there.

Now with a 17-percentage-point increase in quotas in rural areas, and the provision of a 50 percent women’s quota in urban local self-government bodies as well, the scope for mischief substantially enlarges now.

It has to be said, however, that in many places where this dheed sadasya business came into play earlier, there have been changes made to eliminate this unfair male encroachment into the woman’s entitlement.

But not enough places have experienced this change. Nor has a proper quantification ever been attempted.

For male politicians in cities and towns, such large-scale transfer of power to women is already causing anxiety. Already political parties are being lobbied to ensure that the next of kin, starting with the spouse, be preferred in seats that will see women contesting, much like the gram panchayats and samitis.

The idea is to retain the seat within the family, ensure that the female relative remains unambitious enough, pander to vaulting male political aspirations, and keep the seat warm for the dispossessed male till it gets dereserved.. The male hopes that in the next election the draw of lots will shift the reservation to another ward. It has been happening in the countryside. There is the risk of it being repeated in the urban areas, too.

It is not anyone’s case that each seat assigned to a woman will definitely become a one-and-a-half member seat, but given the vested interests, the dangers are not inconsiderable.

Maharashtra was the first to provide, much before the 73rd Amendment, representation to women by setting aside quotas in Kolhapur district in the early 1990s. The change was considered a success and reservations were expanded to the rest of the state. The amendment lent it greater statutory muscle. But where possible, men tried, and successfully subverted it.

Updated Date:

also read

Tata Open Maharashtra: Ramkumar Ramanathan handed wildcard into singles main draw
Sports

Tata Open Maharashtra: Ramkumar Ramanathan handed wildcard into singles main draw

Ramkumar had won his maiden ATP Challenger title in Manama, Bahrain in November last year and regained his position in the top-200.

Maharashtra govt appoints Bhushan Kumar Upadhyay as new DG Home Guard
India

Maharashtra govt appoints Bhushan Kumar Upadhyay as new DG Home Guard

As per an order issued on Thursday, Upadhyay, a 1989 batch IPS officer posted as additional director general of police (ADG) state traffic, has been promoted to the post of DG Home Guard

Gadchiroli Files: Maharashtra police start comic strip to counter Naxal propaganda
India

Gadchiroli Files: Maharashtra police start comic strip to counter Naxal propaganda

The brainchild of Gadchiroli superintendent of police (SP) Ankit Goyal, the comic series focuses on different issues of youth, women, farmers, students, and the people of the area