ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Being Women Councillors

Democratisation in Progress: Women and Local Politics in Urban India by Archana Ghosh and Stephanie Tawa Lama-Rewal; Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2005;

Being Women Councillors

Democratisation in Progress: Women and Local Politics in Urban India

by Archana Ghosh and Stephanie Tawa Lama-Rewal; Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2005; pp 158, Rs 375.


his book is timely and important, especially when the heated debate on reservation of seats for women in the legislatures at the central and state levels is enmeshed in various issues ranging from caste to efficiency. The 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments have revitalised the local government in rural and urban areas and granted special representation to women to enable them to have their share of power and responsibility. Consequently, they have generated lot of excitement and expectations from policy-makers, scholars, citizens, particularly women citizens, because of their potential to bring about social change. They have also contributed to the intensity of the debate on the proposed bill for reservation of seats for women in the state assemblies and the lower house of Parliament. The research pertaining to women working in panchayati raj institutions and documentation of their experiences have brought to light the realities and happenings in women’s lives and in villages; many positive experiences of women leaders in rural areas serve as a silver line in murky politics. There is, however, a relative dearth of material on women working in local government institutions in urban areas after the passing of the 74th constitutional amendment. Democratisation in Progress is welcome research in this direction to fill the gap. It neatly puts the issue of reservation of seats for women in the context of the urbanisation process, decentralisation policy and good governance and draws our attention to the fact that the whole issue needs to be considered in light of the realities at ground level.

The book provides an account of what it means to be a woman councillor in the four mega cities – Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai – and offers a critical view of the functioning of the municipal corporations, with emphasis on women’s roles and opportunities to participate and perform. The first part gives a theoretical context for the implementation of reservations for women. It provides an understanding of the concepts of inclusive urban governance and decentralisation; concise profiles of the four mega cities and presents a historical perspective on decentralisation in the country, highlighting the local variations. The second part analyses the empirical findings of the research and reflects the relevance of gender in urban local self-government. It provides an analysis of women’s campaigns in the elections, women councillors’ socio-economic profile, their working, and their sources of support as well as obstacles.

The authors have studied the women elected under the 74th constitutional amendment in Delhi and Chennai (first batch), and in Mumbai and Kolkata (second batch). They have carefully collected data-quantitative from the questionnaires submitted to women and men councillors, and qualitative from the group discussions with the women councillors. They have also referred to relevant government reports, documents and policies, and put the issue in the larger perspectives of democratisation, good governance and women’s political participation.

The chosen four metropolitan cities are important in their states as well as in the nation as a whole. Each of them has its own history of development of local government and consequently functions under different institutional designs. All of them, however, survive under tremendous stress due to their inability to cope with issues like poverty, lack of essential services and environmental problems. Growing violence, increasing population, infrastructural inadequacy and economic disparities add to the gravity of the situation. Such critical challenges of cities make women more vulnerable. A study of women councillors in this context is evidently relevant.

The socio-economic and political profile of women councillors in all the four mega cities presents an interesting picture. Kolkata has a majority of women councillors with what may be characterised as “men’s political resources” elsewhere: they are older, have fewer children, are more educated, have a paid occupation, the party is their first training resource, and they have substantial political experience. By contrast, women councillors in Delhi have more children than elsewhere, are mostly newcomers and often become candidates for reasons other than the party’s decision or their own. Ninety-eight per cent of women representatives have a relative who is active in politics. In Mumbai, the family seems to be the foremost political resource for women as well as men councillors. Many of the women councillors are homemakers. Councillors in Chennai are the least educated. Two-thirds of its women councillors have no previous social or political experience, and do not have a politically active relative either. By and large, party support, family connections and money are major assets for women

Economic and Political Weekly February 25, 2006 ticket-seekers in mega cities, which also improve the chances of being elected.

With the political culture of each city being different, campaigning would be different too. To give examples, Kolkata displayed a greater presence of women in campaigns as against Delhi, where violence would discourage women. The study points out that the traditional sexual division of campaign works (which is applicable to elections at all levels of political life) does not seem to be affected by reservations. While male party workers take exclusive care of wall painting and slogan shouting, female workers are more prone to accompany the candidate – whether man or woman – in door-to-door rounds.

The book highlights some important issues pertaining to women’s roles in local politics. Its conclusions point out that reservations actually seem to have made the gender of the candidates invisible, if not irrelevant: nobody refers to the advantage or the inconvenience of having a woman as councillor (p 102). Interviews revealed that almost nobody, among councillors, party cadres or feminist activists, believe that women can mobilise and be mobilised as women (p 105). The study also reveals that there is little regional variation as far as women’s perception of local problems is concerned as metropolitan cities in India face similar problems. Women councillors in large cities are now aware of urban problems, but this awareness remains restricted to immediate civic problems (p 128).

The relation between women members and women voters is complex. The book handles the issue carefully and deftly. It considers various dimensions of the issue and argues that gender is not a ground for discrimination by the voters. It points out that the non-involvement of women’s organisations in local elections is striking. The study reveals that working on issues specific to women’s development is not a major concern for elected women, even though they are aware of the problems faced by women in their localities. Women are not a special constituency for women councillors despite the fact that they are aware of women’s issues (p 121). There is no gender differentiation with respect to the councillors’ priorities.

The book provides some glimpses of the fact that reservations do not show a uniform pattern. In Kolkata and Mumbai, the number of women elected in non-reserved wards increased after the implementation of the principle of reservation. Delhi and Chennai, however, show that women are elected almost solely in reserved wards (a few women dared to be candidates in nonreserved wards), and the situation does not seem to have evolved positively over time. Reservations appear to be most successful in the two states where the much-criticised rotation of reserved constituencies was actually implemented. Again they appear least successful in the two states where the chief minister is a woman, which proves, if need be, that the presence of a woman in the highest political position does not guarantee that women will be better represented at lower levels (p 104).

An analysis of the working of the municipal corporations reveals that local representatives experience constraints of an institutional, political and personal nature in their working. Decentralisation is in process, but implementation is far from complete. Democratisation faces many strains including the obstacles of the role of money and the quasi-absence of training for newly elected councillors. The prevalent institutional arrangement for delivery of basic services in the cities limits the scope of the councillors. In addition, the presence of several outside para-state agencies and state government departments limit or encumber the scope of local bodies for development work. In this context, the scope of participation of councillors, irrespective of gender, in development work is restricted. The structural constraints include problems of finances, noncooperation from officials, opposition from male members of their own party, and opposition from rival party members – both male and female. The last mentioned is common to all councillors irrespective of gender, while the other three are genderspecific (p 123).

The presence of political parties is powerful in the councils. Here women have neither a separate identity nor the power to pursue their own agenda. Corruption at the local level has become a common phenomenon, which affects women councillors also. Women councillors face some specific obstacles: they feel deprived of four major political resources, viz, maturity, money, access to information and experience. Obstacles on the domestic front – lack of time, guilt about remaining outside the home for long hours and concern for security – are formidable.

The book makes us aware of the fact that women councillors get support from their families, falling back on other members in the joint family structure rather than their husbands. They value support from political parties for corporation work. Shiv Sena councillors in Mumbai and CPI (M) councillors in Kolkata voiced this particularly.

Some important conclusions of the book, based on a balanced analysis of the data, attract attention. It shows that women’s decision-making role and performance do vary across the cities, illustrating that reservations do not automatically lead to their enhanced participation in decisionmaking for developmental activities. Several factors are at play, some of which are gender-specific and some general in nature. The gender-specific factors include women’s perceptions of the issues at stake, their knowledge and training, their political background, their relations with women’s organisations and other NGOs, and family support (p 128). Again, there is very little evidence that women’s presence has in any way affected the working style of the municipal corporations, and the impact of women, as women, on municipal politics seems to be largely symbolic at this stage. The household metaphor has a very limited legitimising capacity. Political parties do not consider women as a constituency. As long as women cannot be made into a vote bank, women’s interests will only be paid lip-service by parties. It is pertinent to note in this context that in a political world largely dominated by men, women candidates and women councillors themselves are keen to “transcend their gender” (p 139). They are eager to prove themselves as competent councillors in terms of the prevailing model, which is a male model. Women’s organisations have so far missed the opportunity offered by women’s reservations as an instrument for mobilising urban women, in the largest sense of the term, around their rights (p 140).

Despite these limitations, women councillors participate in the development process. Reservations have definitely made women more visible, the process of their gradual political integration has begun. One notices the large presence of female party workers with women candidates, with the exception of Delhi. Women councillors do become locally important people and they are more approachable to women voters. They have been, however, so far, generally unable to secure a strong presence to push gender interests in local government, because of the lack of support from male colleagues and their own hesitation to come together across party lines on women’s issues. However, the traditional

Economic and Political Weekly February 25, 2006

assumption that women are members of only “soft” committees does not hold good. The study shows that women are members of all sorts of committees vindicating the statement that the traditional distinction between “hard” and “soft” values is oldfashioned and inaccurate (p 128).

The study also suggests some useful initiatives at the research and policy levels such as building a database on women candidates and elected women at all levels; effective roles for women’s organisations and women’s fronts of political parties; training programmes for the newly-elected councillors; and access to information by all stakeholders, i e, the administration, political parties and civil society. This book will prove to be useful for scholars, policymakers and concerned citizens because of its balanced handling of the subject, well-argued conclusions and readable presentation.



Economic and Political Weekly February 25, 2006

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