THE Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which has enjoyed an edge over the other political parties in the elections to local bodies since long, is well set to improve its position by reaping the benefit of increased representation for women.
Women have had one-third reservation in local bodies throughout India under the 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution, passed in 1993. President Pratibha Patil, in her address to parliament in June, announced the Central government plans to raise women's quota in local bodies to 50 per cent.
Even before the Centre initiated legislation for the purpose, the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), headed by the CPI-M, directed the Kerala government to set the ball rolling.
The state assembly, at a special session last month, enacted legislation providing for 50 per cent reservation for women not only in the local bodies but also in the elective posts under them.
Currently there are more than 20,000 elected representatives in the three levels of local self-government in the state, about 7,000 of them women. The number of women members will go up by about 4,000 when elections are held next year.
In the elections of 2005, the LDF secured control of more than 700 out of 981 gram panchayats, 118 out of 152 block panchayats, 11 out of 14 district panchayats, 34 out of 52 municipalities and all of five city corporations. The CPI-M dominated at all levels.
The number of LDF-controlled went up from about 540 in 2005 to more than 700 mainly because the CPI-M bagged a number of reserved seats by fielding young, educated women, who had come close to the party through its student, youth and women's affiliates.
Thanks to the increased quota, 496 out of 991 gram panchayats, 70 out of 152 block panchayats, seven out of 14 district panchayats, 26 out of 52 municipalities and three out of five city corporations will now be headed by women.
A demand for one-third reservation for women in Parliament and the state assemblies has been discussed at the national level for several years.
While there is a consensus in favour of it parties which want separate reservation for women belonging to the backward classes have blocked the constitutional amendment necessary to implement the proposal.
What prompted the Central government to increase the women's quota in local bodies was the perception that one-third reservation has helped to empower women and needs to be carried forward.
While announcing the decision in this regard, a Union minister said, "Enhancing reservation for women in panchayats will facilitate more women to enter public sphere. This will lead to further empowerment of women and make panchayats more inclusive institutions, and improve governance and public service delivery".
Academic studies do not fully endorse the government's appraisal.
MS John, a researcher of the Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, who interviewed 27 members of the Vaikom block panchayat in 2000, said in a report that while women members had acquired the knowledge and skills needed to perform their duties many felt frustrated as they were not able function independently or in a non-partisan manner.
He stressed the need for a woman-friendly political environment, especially in cadre-based parties "who, in the name of party discipline, tend to adopt means of patriarchal domination to control women panchayat members".
Patriarchal domination was actually easy as most of the women drafted for public service were wives and daughters or other close relatives of party leaders.
However, there were instances of women who took their role as elected representatives seriously and faced the wrath of party bigwigs.
In 1997, CPI-M leaders at Puthige in Kasergode district destroyed the house of panchayat president Fathima Suhra who had refused to bow to their diktats.
Fathima Suhra, a teacher by profession, held out bravely for six months, saying her first loyalty was to the people of the panchayat. Eventually, however, she succumbed to pressure and resigned.
Many young women were waiting for jobs when they were persuaded to contest the elections and became members of local bodies. Most of them quit when they got the jobs they had applied for.
One woman gave up the insecure elective post of president to take up the job of sweeper in the same panchayat. That certainly is a sad commentary on women's empowerment.--Gulf Today, October 12, 2009