On a cold December morning last year, in Bihar’s Saguni village, nine women presided over the gram katchahry, or village court, hearing complaints concerning alcohol consumption, marital disputes and other issues affecting the local residents. Saguni is located in the Parsa block of the state’s Rohtas district, and its panchayat exercises jurisdiction over 13 contiguous villages. The women addressing the court were elected representatives from these areas. In 2006, the Nitish Kumar government had introduced 50-percent reservation for women in Bihar’s Panchayati Raj institutions, or PRIs. Yet, the calm confidence of women involving themselves directly in local administration was a rare sight in rural Bihar.
Though the reservation for women has been hailed by many for bringing about a “silent revolution” in Bihar, the policy has not translated into real empowerment on the ground. In December 2018 and February this year, during visits to eight villages across three districts in Bihar, I observed that a new practice had emerged after the reservation policy was introduced: women would contest as proxy officials on behalf of their husbands, who came to be called mukhiyapatis and sarpanchpatis—husbands of the mukhiya and sarpanch. Though women contesting elections as proxy candidates appeared to be the status quo across Bihar, in several villages, such as Saguni, I met women who had embraced the powers and responsibilities of their positions, and asserted their independence over their public office. These women had inspired others in their village to play a more active role in local governance, but my reporting indicated that such instances were exceptions, not the rule.
The PRI in Bihar follows a three-tier structure. At the lowest level of the PRI structure are gram panchayats for every village, or cluster of villages, followed by panchayat samitis at the block level, and lastly, zilla parishads at the district level. An elected mukhiya presides over each gram panchayat, and within each panchayat’s area, a gram katchahry exercises the judicial functions concerning the village. The gram katchahry, too, comprises elected officials, known as panchs, and is headed by a sarpanch.
Bindu Devi, the sarpanch of Saguni’s gram katchahry, has played a large role in inspiring the other women officials to assume control over their judicial responsibilities. “It was not easy to convince the panchs to participate in the katchahry instead of letting their husbands represent them,” Bindu said. She has a master’s degree in economics from Patna University and lives in the state’s capital with her husband, Manilal. Every Sunday, Bindu travels over fifty kilometres by bus to Saguni to conduct her administrative duties and persuades the other women officials to join her as well. “They still hesitate to come to the katchahry once every week but I make the village women convince them to attend. Now that the women panchs have started attending the katchahry, I see it as an achievement.”
Bindu added, “The key reason which holds back the women position holders here from discharging their duties confidently is lack of education.” In every village I visited, several women echoed this view; the lack of education prevented women from taking charge as elected officials, many told me. “All the panchs in my katchahry are either school dropouts or illiterates,” Bindu continued. “A few who know how to sign also prefer putting thumb impression. Education of women is a must if we really want to see women’s empowerment across the state.”