Women and Democracy in India

December 21, 2009, 6:11 amBy NANCY FOLBRE

Democracy is, everywhere, a work in progress.

Like many other countries, India has imposed electoral quotas to improve the political empowerment of women and racial-ethnic minorities – that is, it has a political system that requires women to be elected to certain leadership positions.

These rules represent a form of affirmative action, but they also resemble a feature of our own Constitution that reserves space in the Senate for two representatives from each state, violating the principle of one-person, one-vote in order to ensure equitable group representation.

Political scientists and economists have eagerly analyzed the Indian case, and I learned more about their findings regarding women’s participation at a conference I attended last week on “The Challenge of Gendering Economics” organized by Professor Bina Agarwal, director of the Institute of Economic Growth at the University of Delhi.

Over the past 15 years, India has extended a series of measures designed to ensure democratic decision-making on the local level through the election of village or town councils (panchayats) and council heads (sarpanchs).

While far less influential than state-level governments or the national parliament, these village councils exercise control over local decisions regarding utilities such as water and roads. They also administer the relatively new job creation program, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, that ensures that every Indian household can obtain 100 days of employment per year for one of its members at the minimum wage.

The specific rules governing “reservation” of positions for women have been adopted at different dates and implemented in slightly different ways across states. In general, about one-third of village council seats are reserved for women, and, every third election, all candidates for head of council must be women.

As a result, at any point in time, about one-third of council heads are women. This random variation provides a unique opportunity to compare results across local councils with and without gender reservations in a given year.

Gender inequality in many Indian states is enforced by a set of especially strong norms against women’s participation in public life. One might worry, therefore, that powerful men exploit the reservation rules to their own ends, giving women only token power.

One detailed qualitative and quantitative study of South India finds some evidence to this effect. For instance, in one public meeting, a man was exhorted to make the council leader — his wife — behave.

But most elected women don’t seem to be tokens. They tend to be better educated and more knowledgeable than the average woman in their districts. Measures of the efficacy of council efforts suggest that women leaders seldom perform worse than men, and sometimes perform better.

Do village councils with women leaders implement different policies than those with men?

One study suggests they do, responding more to the preferences of women constituents, who, it seems, prefer public investments in water supply (for which they are largely responsible in their households) to those in roads (which they are less likely than men to use).

But other studies challenge this result, questioning the extent to which leaders can influence council outcomes and offering evidence that women leaders respond to the expressed needs of all their constituents.

How does reservation affect women’s probability of success in a subsequent election when no restriction is in force?

Here, the evidence from a study of councils in urban Mumbai points to a positive effect. Women who have gained political office are more likely to run and to win in elections where there are no quotas.

Both men and women report a higher assessment of women’s performance as leaders once they have experienced it. A study of the state of West Bengal suggests that bias against women leaders remains, but is less likely to be based on the assumption they will prove incompetent.

Backlash against restriction is softened by the practice of imposing it only every third election.

In the long run, women might move up through village council leadership to run for state or national office, where no gender quotas are in effect.

In the Indian context, this local council gender reservation system makes sense. I’m not sure I would agree with one conference attendee who termed it “tremendously magnificent.”

But it provides heartening evidence of the ways institutional design can foster the slow progress of small things.

*Posted in NY Times