The Telegraph
Tuesday , July 8 , 2014
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Give husband power, lose sarpanch crown

New Delhi, July 7: Lay off, hubby dear.

The husband of a sarpanchni (woman sarpanch) could cost his wife her job if he doesn’t stop calling the shots and acting like the de facto village head.

The Maneka Gandhi-headed women and child development ministry is planning a new law under which women sarpanches could get the boot if they are found to have delegated their official powers to their husbands, dubbed sarpanchpatis.

In most cases, such “takeovers” have happened without the wife’s consent. “It has been found that more often than not, women panches (elected members of a village council) have no real powers,” a ministry official said. “They are just titular heads, with their husbands or other family members running the show. This cannot be allowed to go on.”

Such familial takeovers, the official added, could also lead to misappropriation of funds and corruption, as decisions don’t go through the proper channel.

Senior officials said appropriate additional support would be provided to women sarpanches by the district collector concerned to help them in their work.

The ministry is planning to make the collector the point-person to not only ensure that the women panches exercise their own rights, but also look into cases of violations and take steps if necessary to bar such candidates from holding the post.

The sarpanch, or the village head, and the panches make up the gram panchayat, the link between the state government and the people of a village. Most rural development projects are executed through panchayats.

The 73rd amendment to the Constitution gave women 33 per cent reservation in panchayats but, while many women hold the post, they do so just on paper.

Last year, Minati Nayak, sarpanch of Alailo gram panchayat under Mahakalpada block in Odisha, had alleged before the district administration that her husband had hijacked her powers as an elected representative. In her petition, she claimed she was being mentally harassed by her spouse who presided over panchayat meetings without her consent.

“Fixing 33 per cent reservation isn’t enough. There should be efforts from the government to increase the confidence of the women members. In most cases, women chiefs do nothing. They are the heads only in name,” said Savita Rathi, former sarpanch of Churu in Rajasthan.

Cases like Nayak’s, Rathi added, are not uncommon. “But very few actually complain.”

Some former district-level women office bearers said even when women don’t want to delegate work to the men, the cultural milieu forces them to. “The men of the village will only talk to a woman panch if she is veiled. If she isn’t, she would have to talk to their backs. How can she make decisions when even government officials prefer speaking to men?” said Preeti Bainsali, who was vice-chairperson of a zilla parishad in Haryana between 2005 and 2010.

“The government had tried to empower women sarpanches by banning husbands from attending our meetings, but even that hasn’t worked.”

Bainsali supports the ministry’s move to penalise such women who can’t keep their men — be it husbands or fathers — out of their workspaces.

“Basically, the reason a man takes over his wife’s post is to get power. If the wife is dismissed, this will disappear. So, there will be a sense of fear if such a provision is brought in.”

The sources said the ministry, which is expecting stiff resistance to its proposal, would discuss it with the panchayati raj ministry, the Election Commission and state governments before taking the final decision.

Rathi, the former sarpanch of Churu, said the ministry’s proposal would be a “great move forward” but added a word of caution. “I also fear it might be misused as a political tool,” she said, hinting that if the planned law does take shape, it could be used for unwarranted dismissals.

“I believe there should be a middle path, a liberal yet strict path to enable a woman to make informed and rational decisions without having to depend on her husband.”