July 29th, 2010 16:13 EST
India: Karnataka's Women Councillors Take Charge
Delhi (Women`s Feature Service) - Ravi Shetty had been struggling for three years to get his ration card allotted in Ramnagaram, a town some 50 kilometres from Bangalore. When someone recommended he meet the local woman councillor to get the work done, he was sceptical. Imagine Shetty`s surprise when she turned out to be a firebrand, who immediately took up his case with the `tehsildar` (district collector). When the `tehsildar` tried wriggling out of the situation saying that the case was not registered, the councillor promptly produced photocopies of the relevant documents. She also insisted that he tender a written apology as proof of his unwillingness to help a person asking for his rightful due. Needless to say, the ration card was issued within a week and word spread that here was a woman who would not take any irregularities lying down.
Sneha Baadkar, 38, is one of the 16 elected women councillors from urban local bodies in Karnataka, who recently visited Delhi as part of an exposure visit organised by the Urban Research Centre (URC), a non-profit organisation working on governance and citizen participation in urban areas of Karnataka, in association with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), a German NGO partnering countries like India for more participatory, gender-fair and socially equitable democracy.
It`s mostly women councillors like Sneha who are eager to make a difference. They are accessible and solution oriented. But getting the job done is certainly not easy. Although they play an important role in local self-government and exhibit leadership and resilience, in the absence of structured guidelines, systems and mentors, these women are usually left to fend for themselves.
The constraints that bind them are many. Most often they are financially dependent, their physical movement is restricted and there`s a lack of guidance in ward works. Lack of support from political parties and biases within the system are also constraints that restrict their avenues of outreach and scope for growth.
Yet a majority of woman councillors in Karnataka do everything they can to address the problems of women hawkers, petty traders, elderly women, the abandoned, the harassed and those living in poorer areas. Of course, in recent months, many have also successfully dealt with issues related to education, health delivery, nutrition and urban problems like water, sanitation and local infrastructure.
Karnataka has a long history of women`s participation in local governance. In fact, it is one of the first states to mainstream gender at the panchayat level. According to Gururaja Budhya, Secretary, URC, "Women have unique ways of conflict resolution and we should capitalise on that for the benefit of society. When Ramakrishna Hegde was the Karnataka chief minister and Abdul Nazeer Saab the panchayathi raj minister, the Mandal Panchayat system was implemented. In these Mandal Panchayats, which existed between the Gram and Zilla Panchayats at the district level, 25 per cent reservation was made for women. After the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments in 1993, this was increased to 33 per cent. Now the law has been amended to ensure 50 per cent reservations. This is a sizeable representation and we should maximise its potential."
Women of the state have in fact not only helped to instill confidence in the local people, they have found innovative ways to cut through the bureaucracy and deal with tricky situations.
A.H. Kaveri, a 70-year-old blind woman from Mysore has benefited by approaching her area woman councillor, Pushpavalli R., 40, former Deputy Mayor, Mysore City Corporation. Kaveri was surviving on her old age pension until her son turned 18 when the meagre amount was discontinued according to the rules. This made life even harder but Kaveri somehow got by. However, when her son married and moved out of her home, he refused to pay for her upkeep. Destitute and desperate, Kaveri turned to her councillor for help. Not only did the woman councillor get Kaveri`s pension reinstated, she also decided to make a case for a policy change regarding pensions so that other women like her do not face similar problems.
Kaveri`s area municipal councillor is among the many women in such positions who have gone beyond the call of duty and used their own personal brand of activism to deal with inequities within the system, even if it meant challenging the rules of the state government in the process.
Most often these women are treated as a "single window" for the redressal of problems. But to help people effectively they need to strengthen their understanding of governance and know about the latest government welfare initiatives. That`s where organisations like the URC come in. Explains Budhya, "Our training for women in politics includes capacity building for women councillors through study circles, seminars and field visits that establish a better understanding of issues at the `taluka` and district levels. This prepares them to play a more active role in party politics as they effectively deal with social and cultural issues."
But training aside, individual women have displayed great ingenuity in difficult situations. For instance, these women councillors point out that set procedures are sometimes extremely difficult to negotiate, but if one is smart there is always a solution. Most of the time they have to deal with routine irritants like improper street lighting, clearing of dumping yards, dowry harassment and illegal marriages. But other issues, too, are handled with care - like helping people secure their old age pension and ensuring that they avail of employment benefits through schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
A major hurdle in helping the local people, according to Councillor and Vice President of Holenarsipur Town Municipal Council, Sushri Hemashree, 35, is in getting the right information across to them and acquainting them with their rights. Women, for instance, may know that there is a Commission for Women, but they are unaware of its charter and how they could personally get their complaints registered and ensure justice.
For B.C. Parvatamma, 52, former Councillor, Ramnagaram, one of the toughest challenges she faced was getting ration cards issued for those in the Below the Poverty Line category. Says she, "The paper work is immense, more so for the uneducated. Producing original documents is an impossible task." During her tenure Parvatamma used her influence to get documents in place, make applications and take the process to its logical conclusion. "Having a better understanding of the system always helps. We councillors have a double advantage. Being women, we are not confrontationist. Also being part of the system means we know how to get around it. Using this to better the interests of the disadvantaged and marginalised has to be our mandate. It is not a favour we are doing, it is our duty."
Clearly, women councillors are today playing a significant role, not just in addressing the so-called soft issues like schooling, but also those related to poverty, employment, and development. These women, just by being where they are and doing what they do, constitute a powerful argument for why India needs reservations for women at every level, from local urban bodies and panchayats to state assemblies and the Parliament.
(Â© Women`s Feature Service)
By Taru Bahl