Posted on: July 8, 2020 Posted by: admin Comments: 0

Author : Sehal Jain, Research Scholar, M.Phil. Department of Political Science , University of Rajasthan, Jaipur


The 73rd amendment act passed in 1992 came into effect in 1993 and changed the rural landscape drastically. The passage of the act not only ushered in an era of local responsible governance but was also the epitome of gender and social equality with specific reservations for women and socially backward classes. While this was a step towards greater decentralisation and democratisation of the world’s largest democracy, several questions have been raised on the efficacy of this law. PRIs in India were granted a constitutional status in 1992 and this status also accorded women highest levels of formal equality in India any public policy since independence. The constitutional status provided the force of law with which women could now become a part of the decision making realm and make their voices heard and opinions count. But even after the passage of more than a decade, substantial equality remains a distant dream. Although the law has opened up spaces for women representation, the patriarchal threat of usurping this freedom looms large. The rural landscape may be painted with women sarpanches and leaders, but their power remains rather limited. This paper seeks to analyse the extent of formal and substantive equality guaranteed by the reservation policy to women in local governance and its impact on the rural landscape. The central objective is thus to analyse whether the amendment has been able to erase the binary of women and household or has it been only a façade mocking its very beneficiaries. An attempt is also made to study the reasons behind the absence substantial equality in the above formulated policy.


Public Policy, Substantive Equality, Formal Equality, Decentralisation, Democracy, Affirmative Action,  Agency.


The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Indian constitution were historic landmarks in Indian decentralisation policy history. These amendments transported Gandhi’s idea of Gram Swaraj to reality and laid the foundation stone for women’s formal equality in the local landscape. The amendment, unlike the Women’s Reservation Bill was passed unanimously as the legislature pledged to share power and resources at the local level of governance with women and other members of the scheduled castes and tribes. These changes in the constitution strengthened the federal character of the Indian state with a strong inclusive flavour. One third seats under this policy arrangement would be reserved for women and would be rotated after every term. The implication of this policy has been far reaching and has drastically altered the rural landscape. Women are now becoming active agents of decision making, defying the ascribed values of their private character and increasingly engaging in the realm of ‘masculine’ public sphere. 

There has been a widespread agreement between scholars that such a well formulated policy has brought formal equality for women and equally widespread agreement on absence of substantial equality for women. Reservation of seats have brought women to the public scene, it has ensured their representation, their quantitative development but has failed to perform on fronts like effective participation and qualitative development. While women are gearing themselves to participate in local governance by contesting the elections in greater numbers and acquainting themselves with the rules of the game, the broader experiment itself is somewhat dampened (Kaushik, 1996). Post enactment of the 73rd amendment act, there has been a spate of scholarly work on its implication on women and their political participation. Even if women come out it would be along the patriarchal whip under the command and guidance of the males, as proxies and signing or stamping the dotted lines (Kaushik, 1996). There is no second opinion on the fact that formal equality is the foundation for substantive equality, but rural governance has been stuck on the foundation stone and it appears as if the superstructure of substantive equality has been completely forgotten as an unnecessary task. This paper seeks to analyse the politics of why the building of such a superstructure has been deliberately excluded from the policy and what are the implications of this exclusivity for women and for the rural society on the whole. 


Well being and agency 

Amartya Sen in his works has described two aspects of human life, agency and well being. The agency aspect refers to the pursuit of goals and objectives that a person has to value and advance whether or not they are connected with the person’s own well being (Sen, 2005). Well being on the other hand focuses on the personal well being and pursuing personal goals by an individual. The twin concepts of agency and well being are deeply intertwined as well being is necessary for enhancing agency and enhancement of the role as an agent of social change can proportionally enhance one’s well being. The 73rd amendment has in a way enhanced the well being of women, but their role as agents of change is still under covers. To uncover such immense potential of women as agents of social change, we need to provide them with substantive equality which entails equality of participation, decision making power and control over resources. The absence of such agency has led to development absenteeism.  Decentralisation in a democratic setting.

The term democracy embodies a complex synthetic concept of popular sovereignty and personal liberty (Singh, 1996). Popular Sovereignty entails three concepts, (1) rule of majority in the name of the whole, (2) continued control and checks on such rule by members of the society (3) equality under rule of law among majority and minority.  Personal liberty on the other hand immunises the group action from individual action and vice versa. Democracy thus, entails dignity of all and  in such a democratic setting, to make planning responsive to the will and aspirations of the common man, to turn it into genuine social planning, it is necessary indeed to distribute power to decentralise it (Singh,  1996). Democracy entails a compulsory commitment of transfer of powers from national to sub national units and yet from sub national to local units. Smaller the units, greater the participation and involvement of the citizens in decision making.

Formal and Substantive Equality

The idea of equality of opportunity and capability espoused by Amartya Sen can be utilised the study the concept of formal and substantive equality. Sen believes that ‘equality of opportunity does not amount to anything like equality of overall freedoms. This is so because of (1)the fundamental diversity of human beings, and (2) the existence and importance of various means (such as income or wealth) that do not fall within the purview of standardly defined equality of opportunity (Sen, 1992). He further argues that ‘a more adequate way of considering ‘real equality of opportunities must be through the equality of capabilities (or through the elimination of unambiguous inequalities in capabilities, since capability comparisons are typically incomplete) (Sen, 1992). Although largely drawing from Rawls, Sen categorically differs from him when he espouses his ‘difference principle’ and uphold the availability of primary goods as integral to the Rawlsian theory of ‘justice as fairness’. Sen believes that, ‘the particular informational focus on which Rawls himself concentrates neglects some considerations that can be of great importance to the substantive assessment of equality.’

Concluding the above theoretical ideas, we can argue that though the 73rd amendment via women reservation policy provides equality of opportunity to women, their role in social change and transformation would materialise only when powers are decentralised, their agency is empowered and special arrangements are made for them to enter the otherwise male centric politics. Substantive equality would be an outcome only if these theories are transported into reality.

Facts And Figures: Are women really in-charge?

A study conducted by Devaki Jain in 1996 claimed that women enter the public sphere because of the influence of male members of their family. Their role in substantive decision making and hold on real power remains minimal. At many places they have been rendered powerless and local politicians have gained a upper hand (Garg and Verma, 2004). Similar findings have been reported by Mohinder Singh and he argues that women are generally represented by the male members of their family (Garg and Verma, 2004).

Such powerlessness stems from widespread unawareness of rights. In a study concluded by P.D. Sharma, ony 20% of women were aware of their rights and duties as members of Panchayat Samiti. (Garg and Verma 2004)

Pramod Chand initiated an in depth study of 19 states of Haryana to ascertain the impact of 73rd amendment on women. His findings largely highlighted the ‘proxy women’ candidates in PRIs. He argues that most elected women belong to dominant and affluent families whose males could not contest elections due to reservations. Thus, ‘they fielded women from their families for contesting as proxies (Chand, 1997). On an encouraging front, the numerical participation of scheduled caste women has increased owing to reservations but their powerlessness and unawareness prevails. Similar study in the state of Punjab by Prabhjyot Kaur Dhillon has reiterated the ‘proxy stystem’ but has also been heartening to see increasing women participation, even if it is solely at formal fronts (Dhillon, 1998). However, optimism still prevails if we study the economic background of women Sarpanches. It is easy to locate an increase in the entry of relatively lower class women in the arena of decision making. 

A survey of PRIs and women of Tamil Nadu underlines the public private dichotomy existing in rural India. Findings conclude that husbands run and represent Panchayat in the outside world like arranging for labour and they would jointly conduct Panchayat meetings and Sabhas. Thus, there is a process of increased participation and influence on part of these women, but there is still a considerable way to go before women can fully utilise the political space opened up by the provision of one-third reservation for women in elected local bodies (Lindberg et all 2011). The cultures of Self Help groups have added on to women empowerment in Tamil Nadu by providing them a platform to discuss, formulate and pursue their interests and goals. Such an incidence highlights the value of informal groups as tools of advancing substantive equality. This study also found that there were recurrent complaints of paucity of funds and also women largely participated only after their husband’s agreement and cooperation. Such an agreement often entailed double burden of political leadership and household activities.

Amartya Sen’s argument of well being and agency can be substantiated by an empirical study conducted by Raghabendra Chattopadhyay and Estehr Duflo, in the state of Rajasthan and West Bengal. In West Bengal the percentage of women participants increased in case the Pradhan was a woman, women in such conditions were twice more likely to file a complaint or a request. Women leadership and their agency of social change also affected the availability of public goods in the village. Both the states witnessed an increase in the investments made in public goods like drinking water in Gram Panchayats reserved for women. These results defy the stereotype that makes women weak and inefficient leaders and bring to light the hidden potentials and policy making capacity of women. Huge political conspiracy needs to be brought into light which labels women as ‘worse policymakers’ and tie them to the four walls of domesticity (Chattopadhyay and Duflo, 2003)

Further analysis also reiterates the fact that it is solely because of reservation that women have entered the arena of decision making. The provision of reservation has come out more as a compulsion than as a change in attitude of erstwhile leaders. Petrified by a loss of power and prestige, they have built inroads to crack up the governmental initiative of providing women substantive equality. 

 Nupur Tiwari’s research further proves that empowered women are the harbingers of social change. There are a number of success stories where EWR (Elected Women Representatives) of the Panchayats have taken lead in making efforts for smokeless stoves, crèches, community halls and for family and matrimony matters, counselling abusive or alcoholic development (Tiwari, 2012) It has been found that women leaders were more eager to take cudgels for effective implementations of various schemes like Integrated Child Development Scheme among other productive policies. 

Obstacles to ensure women representation 

Affirmative Action in 73rd amendment opens up a host of opportunities for women which would not have been otherwise accessible to them. The rationale for Affirmative Action is that, ‘given the systematic and multifaceted discrimination against certain groups, the normal process of development might not automatically close the gaps between the marginalised and dominant groups because the dominant groups will disproportionately corner the fruits of development (Deshpande, 2013). Affirmative Action is used to change the social composition of elite position holders making those more representative of caste/ethnic/gender composition of society (Zweigenhaft, 1998). It would be over simplification to assume that able women leaders do not exist and thus such an ocean is nothing but a fantasy of feminist scholars. Efficient women leaders exist but they face hurdles and obstacles in reaching the arena of leadership. The foremost task then should be the identification of the hurdles and obstacles that hinder substantive equality’s path. 

Nadezhda Shvedova outlines three major factors which obstruct women’s full and equal parliament face. These factors can be transported to Indian reality with some modifications vis-a-vis the Indian realities (Shvedova, 2005). 

Socio-economic obstacles

Rural India has been a perfect landscape of male dominant Indian society. Patriarchy is the cardinal feature of the rural society. Women have occupied the lowest social position and their well being had always been secondary to that of males. Their treatment has been like that of an object to be passed to another male to guard after marriage. Such conceptions of the female population relegated them into a vicious cycle of underdevelopment and under representation. Consequently their education was the least thing to be pondered upon. This is reflected by the exceptionally low levels of rural female literacy in India. Absence of literacy entails a bunch of other problems. Lack of awareness of their rights, political freedom and claim to justice all emerge from illiteracy. Literacy is the tool of empowerment, engagement, self actualisation and dignity or to say in Sen’s words, a tool of well being and agency. In a foundational sense, equality of opportunity provides the basis for equality of capability and outcome, but the journey mustn’t stop at that. The Indian case of equality has been categorically stuck at equality of opportunity and its failure on the fronts of capacity building has infringed on equality of outcome. The women reservation policy has been unable to perform on substantive grounds. Absence of substantive equality is a logical corollary of the sorry state of female education in rural India. Similar availability of goods does not essentially lead to similar freedoms to pursue one’s own conception of good. Imperative to our study, singularly by the availability of equality of opportunity to women does not ensure equality of capacity and thereby, doesn’t grant substantive equality to women. There is a dire need of capacity building to ensure equality of outcome between both the sexes. 

Although the 73rd amendment tried to introduce formal equality in the rural landscape, the burden of its effective implementation rests on the mindset of the society. The entry of women into the arena of politics didn’t mark their exit from the household. Resultantly, they were doubly burdened by political and household responsibilities. Dutta argues that, ‘the title of a study of all women Panchayats in Maharashtra –“And Who Will Make The Chapatis?” has offered one important view of the kind of opposition and double burden that women are likely to encounter, should they enter the electoral domain.’(John, 2005). Though women may have formally enjoined the political domain, they have seldom been absolved of their ‘presumed’ household responsibilities. The dual burden loaded on women discourages them to play an active game changing role even after occupying positions of dominance and influence. 

Ideological and psychological obstacles

The Sex-Gender debate of the feminists highlights the dichotomy between natural sex and socially constructed gender. Social construction of gender ascribes particular roles to the sexes which they ought to uphold for a peaceful functioning of the society. Women by such constructions are treated as being ‘soft’, ‘caring’, ‘loving’ , ‘kind’ and because of the reproductive roles are assigned a permanent non negotiable position inside the four walls of domesticity. Men by contrast were ‘bread winners’, ‘strong’, ‘ruthless’ and thus fit to venture out and participate in political proceedings. Administrative skills, leadership qualities and political capabilities have been treated as the prerogative of the male sex (Kaushik, 1996). This made women priced possessions and prestige of the entire community. This in turn made them vulnerable to violence and threat and made men their guardian angles. This falsification led to the belief that women must remain indoors to protect their honour and did they dare to venture out, their honour would be at stake. 

Situations are however, not that grim now. Women venture out, participate in politics which was always assumed to be a ‘male centric task’, but threat looms large. In the process of leading and bringing change, women are recurrently threatened by local politicians who fear loss of power and hegemony. This sort of violence increases as we go down the ladder of caste and class. Threats of life, family and honour instigate a sense of fear among women who then return to their ‘ascribed’ roles. The unacceptability and unwillingness of dominant males to share power and resources deny women equal power and representation in the world that they also inhabit. 

Political and institutional obstacles

The existing scheme of rotation of reserved seats after successive elections encourage the election of proxy women, whose presence thus vitiates the basis of reservations for women (John, 2005). She begins unmasking the issue of proxy with the argument that men take politics as their domain of functioning for granted and accord women a dependent or’ place holder’ status. The concept of requirement of support to women for entering politics creeps in. Such support covertly gains control of the complete faculty of the woman and pushes her into the business of ‘proxy candidate’.  Conceptualising women’s deprivation basically in terms of well being misses something extraordinarily important about their role as active agents of change, which can transform their own lives and the lives of other women and indeed the lives of everyone in the society.’(Sen, 2005) Enhancement of women’s social and economic power (agency) can lead to their emancipation and empowerment within the household and the society. Such women can be harbingers of social change and can miraculously transform the social relationships to equal terms. Thus, attempts should be made to ensure that women take cudgels to be social reformers after transforming and ensuring their personal well being. The 73rd amendment sets the stage for such a transformation but the policy hasn’t been able to achieve this transformation. Thus even the category of ‘proxy women’ has a wide spectrum of candidates each with varying degrees of formal and substantive power. But, the bottom line remains that, the nationwide prevalence of such ‘proxies’ deny women substantive equality. 

Another political hurdle to the realisation of substantive equality is the absence of ‘we feeling’ among women. Mary E. John firmly believes that there is a need to create ‘a critical mass of women in political arena’ (John, 2005). Elected one-third women have failed to constitute a ‘critical mass’ among themselves and have rather worked in isolation as few token women. Presence of such a ‘mass’ would have multiplied their power and helped them pursue women centred goals. However, the absence of this category stems from the absence of power wielding women. Thus, it is a largely cyclic process of building a critical mass and acquiring substantive power. 


Apart from the factors discussed above, the unburdened passion of limitless consumption has been the major obstacle in the path of substantive equality. Men in power are sceptical extremely unwilling to allow the entry of women in the power sphere. They fear a loss of privilege and power in this entry and thus create barriers, hurdles and constraints of various kinds to thwart full inclusion of women in the network of decision making. A petition filed by K Krishnamurthy and others in 1994 espoused their contestation to gender based reservation by calling it a retrograde step which destroys at one stroke the basic elements of the constitutions with equality, political justice, democracy and secularism. Prevention of women’s entry has to be assured by hook or crook by upper class/caste males dominating the rural power structures and processes. Such a psychological mindset upsets the equal world envisaged by decentralisation and affirmative action policies. The mechanism of decentralisation involves the lowest rung of population in decision making. Women have traditionally borne the brunt of hostilities, powerlessness and vulnerabilities, thus an attempt to decentralise governance in India has to mandatorily include women’s voices to make the policy worthwhile. 

However, the foundation for women’s entry has been laid; a silent revolution has begun and would occupy the centre stage soon. But before such a grand entry materialises, a lot has to be done. Women have to prepare themselves for the forthcoming by a complete overhaul of themselves and their surroundings. Along with such an attempt by women, several tasks also have to be done by the society to ensure smooth decentralisation of power. The foremost being the change of mindset, realisation of women’s potentials, not dismissing their role and importance in the smooth functioning of the society. The widespread resentment against women contesting for general wards is an instance of marginalisation. The election of all women Panchayats should also be scrutinized. Kaushik (1996) has highlighted that in such cases men were reluctant to work under a female leader and thus got an all women Panchayat in place. Unless the ascriptive natures of gendered values are broken, women’s presence would remain a ‘presence without participation’ in local governance. (Surat Singh 2004)

Proxy women can become full feathered politicians once they are acquainted with the powers and rights guaranteed to them by the constitution of India. Surat Singh (2004) believes that ‘there is an urgent need to acquaint women leaders with their rights and equip them with literacy to raise the overall frontier of the rural society’. Along with training the women, men are also equally in need of a training program to break the traditional shackles of rigid division of labour. Frequency of literacy and awareness drives needs to be multiplied, women should be infused with confidence and power to reach this destination of substantive equality. 

Coupled with these initiatives, there is an equally important task at the hands of women, the need to create ‘a category of women’. This category can collectively put across their demands, assert their rights and carve out a niche for themselves in the steel frame of male politics. This ‘critical mass of women’ (John, 2005) should be the revolutionaries for thousands of other women who could then be revolutionaries for other thousands. 

The destination of substantive equality is still miles away. Erstwhile power holders are trying to empty the fuel tank of women’s potential and synergy by playing dirty gimmicks. But if the critical mass of educated, aware and literate women step in, they will catch these criminals disguised as their ‘guardian angels’ red handed, whip them and take the reins in their hands, the journey to substantive equality would be completed. The policy would achieve required results solely when there is a social revolution before a political one. Thus,

 “Political revolutions have always been preceded by social and religious revolutions”. (Ambedkar, 1936)


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