A few years ago I met a woman, let’s call her Chandibai, in a village outside Udaipur. A former panchayat member, she was now a leader in her village — a person to whom others (particularly other women) turned for help. She wore her mobile on a cord around her neck and had the panchayat president, the village development officer and even the district collector’s office on speed dial.
Chandibai is a rarity in Rajasthan, where women’s political participation is limited. As an ST woman with little formal education, she is all the more unusual. Chandibai’s story starts 10 years ago, when she was elected to a seat reserved for an ST woman. Her experience in the panchayat, coupled with support from an NGO working to empower female leaders, gave her skills and confidence that she took with her after leaving office. She explained, “I know the system. Even men, who did not think a woman could do this work, know that I can assist them.”
Last month, Rajasthan Governor Kalyan Singh issued two ordinances restricting who can run for local office that make the emergence of leaders like Chandibai less likely. First, he required that panchayat candidates have a “functional sanitary toilet” in their home — an almost laughable requirement in a state where, according to the National Sample Survey, 73 per cent of rural people lack access to a toilet. Second, he made it mandatory for candidates to be at least Class VIII pass. State-wide, literacy rates stand at 67 per cent, including just 60 per cent of SCs and 53 per cent of STs. Less than 50 per cent of Rajasthani women are literate, compared to 80 per cent of men. In rural areas, women’s literacy falls to just over 45 per cent, and to 25 per cent among tribal women. So women like Chandibai were unable to contest in the panchayat elections that just took place. The move is anti-democratic, anti-poor and anti-woman. While quotas ensure that SCs and STs will still hold office, educational minimums restrict the number of qualified candidates — rendering contests over reserved seats battles among an elite “creamy layer”.
The panchayat, while not without its flaws, has been a primary vehicle for the empowerment of marginalised citizens, including women. Research by Esther Duflo and Raghabendra Chattopadhyay finds that female panchayat members invest more in goods and services that are valued by women. Studies by Rohini Pande reveal that in villages where a woman has been elected, there is less bias against female leaders and greater political aspiration among women. Notably, villagers are also more likely to educate their daughters.
My own research in rural Rajasthan, for which I surveyed more than 2,000 households in over 100 villages, shows a stark participation gap between men and women. I find that women are more than one-third less likely than men to make claims on the state for public goods and services. I also find, however, that women who have experience in the panchayat are able to narrow this gap, and that the experience they gain extends beyond their time in office. My research also shows that exposure beyond one’s immediate community and locality helps to produce more active citizens, who are more likely to demand public goods and services. Women who gain such exposure at the same level as men are, in fact, able to overcome the gender participation gap. Entry into the public sphere through the panchayat is a key driver of women’s exposure and mobility, and is part of a larger mosaic of forces (including education) that are opening up new spaces for women’s participation. Now, with a majority of women barred from office, the potentially transformative effects of the panchayat will be eroded.
The ordinances will be debated later this month when the Rajasthan assembly is in session. The Rajasthan High Court, which refused to rule during an ongoing election, will also reconsider the case in March. Proponents of the ordinance argue that educational minimums are intended to ensure the election of more effective leaders. The logic is flawed for two reasons. First, it assumes that years of formal education really do equip politicians with the skills they need. But political knowledge takes many forms, only some of which can be gained in a classroom. Second, the experiences of women and the lower castes and tribes in the panchayat are part of a broader process of social and institutional change. Over time, political participation helps expand access to education. Higher education, in turn, enables deeper participation. Barring citizens from office halts this virtuous cycle.
Concerns about the capacity of the panchayat are real. But to restrict candidacy on the basis of access to a toilet or education does not get to the root of the problem. Instead, it worsens it by increasing imbalances of power, making local government more elite-dominated. Making sure women and the poor can run for office is a critical first step. But election alone is not enough; local leaders require support and training. In the past, both state and civil society actors in Rajasthan have been leaders in this regard. MLAs and judges of the high court, as they consider the future of Rajasthan’s panchayats, should seek to build on this.
The writer teaches political science at Boston College, US.