Eagle's Eye: Panchayati raj: Footprints of hidden apartheid!

Even a cursory glance at newspaper reports suggests that travails and tribulations faced by dalit women Panchayat leaders like Urmila are no exception - Subhash Gatade

Recently, the Prime Minister participated in a programme organized to review the work of Panchayati Raj institutions at various levels. Apart from singing paens about the success of this experiment he emphasized training of the representatives to make it more effective. Perhaps he should have also focused on people like Sone Deyee who are paying a heavy price for their participation in the experiment.

Sone Deyee, (55yrs)elected as a Sarpanch (reserved constitutency) from Ballabhgarh village, Bharatpur district, Rajasthan and her son Jal Singh (20 years) have still not fully recovered from the brutal attack they were subjected to by the dominant Jat residents. In fact  the dominant caste people of the village wanted to teach Sone Deyee a lesson as she had refused to part with the muster rolls of labourers engaged and records of public works executed during her tenure.

Neither the police have registered a case under SC and ST (Prevention of atrocities) Act, 1989 nor the leaders of mainstream political parties have bothered to pay attention to this case of miscarriage of justice.And the perpetrators of the attack are still roaming free.

An added dimension to Sone Deyee's election pertains to the unceremonious exit of the previous occupant of the office, Hardeo Koli, who was similarly intimidated and thrashed by the same ruffians. A fact finding team of dalit rights activists found that Hardeo Koli was blinded as a result of the thrashing by the accused
But can it be said that Sone Deyee's case in the 'novel experiment' of Panchayati Raj is an exception ? One need not repeat that of late this experiment in 'devolution of powers' has earned lot of praise in this part of South Asia. There is much talk of the 2.5 million representatives getting elected at various levels, and the impact it is said to be creating in devolution of powers.

Celebrations apart it cannot be denied that this experiment has not been able to address the internal incongruities arising out a societal setup mapped by caste, gender, community and class indices. Despite many instances of growing empowerment at the grassroot level, it is a sad commentary on the state of affairs that it has largely failed on this count.

A study titled 'The State of Panchayats : 2007-2008' done by the Anand based 'Institute for Rural Management' (IRMA) rather reiterates this point. Submitted to the Prime Minister a few months back it tells us that sexual harassment and physical violence against women panchayat leaders belonging to Scheduled Caste households is 'widespread'.

Underlining the continuing subjugation of dalits in social and economic spheres, despite the constitutional and legal provisions, it emphasises the discrimination and harassment faced by the Women Panchayat leaders belonging to Scheduled Caste category while discharging their public roles effectively ( Bias Runs Deep, says study - Hindustan Times, 27 th April 2008)

The observations of the IRMA team remind one of the tragic suicide of Urmila, a ex-Panchayat dalit women leader belonging to village Dularia, district Betul, Madhya Pradesh (November 2007).  In her suicide note she revealed how she was raped twice by the son of the Panchayat head for raising her voice over misappropriation of funds meant for village development. She further explained how despite repeated applications to the police, no action was taken against the perpetrators. Leave invoking SC-ST Act 1989, a first information report under one of the clauses of IPC was also not registered. In fact it took six long years for a mere report to be filed in the police station. It was a different matter that nobody was arrested for the crime. Frustrated over continued denial of justice and the connivance of the Panchayat head with the local police she decided to end her life. The first arrest in this case came only after her death.

Even a cursory glance at newspaper reports suggests that travails and tribulations faced by dalt women Panchayat leaders like Urmila are no exception. A few days prior to Urmila's untimely death Sumitra Devi's brutalisation at the hands of the family members of the exPanchayat head had made headlines. Elected as a Panchayat head from a reserved constituency from Suratgarh, district Ganganagar, (Rajasthan) she was tied to a tree and beaten up by them. A dalit woman heading the Panchayat in village Beewai, district Dausa (Rajasthan) was not allowed to hoist the tricolour on 15 th August..

Few years back some concerned activists organized a public hearing of dalit women heading Panchayats in different parts of Rajasthan. These social activists had later compiled the presentations in the form of a booklet which was titled 'Dalit Mahila Sarpanchon kee Kahani - Unaki Jubaani' ( Stories of Dalit Women Panchayat Heads : In Their Own Words). It has specifically noted that the dalit women Panchayat leaders have to face triple exploitation/oppression - being a woman, being a dalit and being a poor.' Their experience had demonstrated that while dalits/women might have been able to get elected to different posts in the Panchayat because of the policy of affirmative action, the real goals of decentralisation of powers and empowerment were still a far cry.

The experiences of the Panchayat leaders from Rajasthan rather corroborate what the IRMA report says.
Women Panchayat leaders face discrimination at the level of Panchayat at the hands of fellow members belonging to dominant castes and they are also subjected to humiliating treatment by the government officials dealing with the department of rural development. The report rightly puts " Provision of no-confidence motions are very deviously used to further dominate elected panchayat representatives from the SC category."
Chhagibai from Rasoolpura, Ajmer a Panchayat head was the first lady to depose before the jury in the public hearing . She shared how the dominant caste members ganged up against her and removed her by bringing a no-confidence motion against her. They alleged that Chhagibai was not 'interested in development work' while they had enough proof about her initiative to start development work. The administration also remained a mute spectator. Kesan bai from Shergarh Panchayat was not even allowed to enter the Panchayat office when she got elected as head of the Panchayat. When somehow she managed to enter the office, she was not allowed to sit on the chair. Panchayat members belonging to the dominant castes tried to bring no-confidence motion against her four times but since representatives belonging to scheduled category were in majority in the Panchayat they could not succeed in their venture.

The IRMA report has suggested few measures to rectify the situation. According to it social justice committees be formed at various levels in the Panchayati Raj system. All such Panchayats headed by scheduled caste representative be given special grants by the Union ministry. Provisions of no-confidence motion be amended suitably so that it is not misused.