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A Silent 'Revolution'? Women's Empowerment in Rural Tamil Nadu

One of the most significant social changes over the past 25 years in Tamil Nadu is the entry of women into the local political bodies at the village and village union levels through the 33% reservation system. Simultaneously, women are now, to a significant extent, organised in self-help groups. Through these about one-fourth of the households can access loans for small entrepreneurship or, rather more frequently, for smaller emergency/consumption loans. There has also been increased participation of women in the non-agricultural labour market and the emergence in Tamil Nadu of a rudimentary "barefoot" welfare state. In this article we report from a 25-year panel study of 213 agrarian households in six villages in Karur and Tiruchirapalli districts.


A Silent ‘Revolution’? Women’s Empowerment in Rural Tamil Nadu

Staffan Lindberg, Venkatesh B athreya, R Vidyasagar, Göran Djurfeldt, A Rajagopal

One of the most significant social changes over the past 25 years in Tamil Nadu is the entry of women into the local political bodies at the village and village union levels through the 33% reservation system. Simultaneously, women are now, to a significant extent, organised in self-help groups. Through these about one-fourth of the households can access loans for small entrepreneurship or, rather more frequently, for smaller emergency/consumption loans. There has also been increased participation of women in the non-agricultural labour market and the emergence in Tamil Nadu of a rudimentary “barefoot” welfare state. In this article we report from a 25-year panel study of 213 agrarian households in six villages in Karur and Tiruchirapalli districts.

Staffan Lindberg ( and Göran Djurfeldt ( are with the Department of Sociology, Lund University, Sweden. Venkatesh B Athreya ( is with M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai. R Vidyasagar ( is with the UNICEF, Chennai. A Rajagopal ( is with PRIA Foundation, Chennai.

here are two very significant developments relating to women in developing countries including India in the past two decades. One is the introduction of microcredit schemes, which cater to women’s need of finance, often through self-help groups (shgs) that impose a collective discipline in repayment, in an otherwise male-dominated credit market. The other is the rather dramatically increased representation of women in elected local government bodies through various forms of reservation or quota systems.

Microcredit has been widely hailed as a new way of empowering poor women and promoting economic and social development (manifested by the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to M uhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank in 2006). Quotas for women in legislative or other elected bodies, despite being introduced in many countries worldwide from the 1990s onwards, have not attracted the same attention. However, this so-called “jump-start” to increased political representation may even in the short run be more important than microcredit for women’s empowerment in our time (Dahlerup 2006).

In this article we deal with effects of these changes in six v illages in central Tamil Nadu, south India.

Microcredit and Quota Politics

Our focus is on the effects in terms of women’s political and s ocial empowerment, taken to mean both the strengthening of individual women involved in economic development and local politics, their power to influence the agenda and decisions of l ocal political b odies with gendered perspectives, as well as the development of gender awareness and collective action among other women in the community (Hust 2004:20). In this sense, empowerment is first of all a tool to give new legal or other rights to a group of people, in this case women (Dahlerup 2006:15; K abeer 2000).

The launching of microcredit schemes for women through socalled SHGs of women all over India in the late 1990s1 signals a change in poverty alleviation strategy on part of the central and state governments with the proclaimed intention of helping the poor to help themselves and to empower women. It is based on the premise that women are much more reliable as bank customers. As a highly visible programme, it has been also noted that the SHG-based loan scheme was politically useful to the government at a time when institutional credit to agriculture was being cut back, following the process of financial liberalisation and the exhortation to banks to maximise profits rather than pay attention to proclaimed social objectives.

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The earlier strategy of rural development including various rural employment generation programmes explicitly targeted poor landless labourers and their lack of employment in the agricultural off-season. It must also be noted that there was a predecessor to SHG-based lending in the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWACRA) programme in the 1980s. Following a decline in rural development expenditure in the 1990s which affected the DWACRA scheme as well as other rural development programmes, the strategy of promoting SHGs of women emerged. Funding to SHGs, increasingly mediated through nongovernmental intermediaries, has increased from the late 1990s.2

Simultaneously, credit from rural banks and cooperatives has also shown a decline in India during the last 20 years (Kalpana 2004a: 45-46). So, it is important to assess the impact of SHGs in the villages. Have they made a difference to poor people?

According to Kalpana (2004b: 49):

In addition to being institutionalised within the government’s antipoverty schemes, self-help groups have also been perceived as a strategic component of government programmes explicitly articulating empowerment goals, besides poverty-related concerns. …(It) is premised on the notion that organisation into groups enhances women’s access to information, knowledge and resources. … At the end of five years, the project aims to have increased self-esteem and self-confidence of women, improved their management and technical skills, enhanced women’s social status in the family and community, increased mobilisation of public and private sector services in women’s interests and improved women’s well-being by reducing drudgery and introducing time-saving devices (Government of India 2001).

No small claims indeed! The main questions that we ask are: What is the importance of this programme compared to other forms of credit supply in the villages in our study? How many women are benefiting and in what way? What is the economic and social status of these women? What is the larger context?

The second topic in this article concerns the politics of reservation of seats for women in elected local bodies. One of the most significant political changes over the past 25 years in Tamil Nadu, as elsewhere in India, is the implementation of a statutory status for local elected governments in rural and urban areas in accordance with the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution. These amendments also make mandatory the entry of women into the local political bodies of gram panchayat (village board) and panchayat samiti (block or panchayat union level) through a 33% reservation system.

The new constitutional provisions have led to a massive entry of women into local government bodies starting in the mid1990s. It comes with provisions for decentralisation of finance and decision-making in local government, which, however, has not taken off in most states, with Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura being the exceptions. It also prescribes reservations for the scheduled castes (dalits) and scheduled tribes. These changes have led to a renewed interest and competition in local elections and most states have by now experienced three rounds of such local body elections, among them Tamil Nadu based on the Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act of 1994.

There are by now quite a few empirical studies on the effects of the reservation system in India and elsewhere.3 There is, for example, an early very positive report from Tamil Nadu (Athreya and Rajeswari 1998). A study of the progress made in Orissa shows how reservation has meant an important beginning for the entry of women on the political scene but also reminds us that the process has just about begun and will take time to develop (Hust 2004).

Rai et al (2006) have made a comparison between India, P akistan and Bangladesh in this regard:

Our conclusion is that gender and class regimes mediate political participation in all the three countries. State provision, formal and informal networks and customary laws prevent women from fully participating in local government. There is also a lack of education, training and resources for women representatives. Finally, their dependency on male members of the household and inability to access economic resources (there are no salaries for local government representatives) are also inhibiting their performance. At the same time it seems like the new system of reserved seats have created a social mobilisation of rural women and changed their status both in the family as well as in the society, and have empowered them (Rai et al 2006: 234).

The main questions that we try to answer in this article are: Under what conditions do women enter into local politics under the 33% reservation system? Who are the women who do so? What is the actual nature of their representation? What difference does the entry of women into politics make? Is there more concern for so-called “women’s and children’s issues”? Is there more transparency and less corruption?4

Study Frame and Methods

Tamil Nadu belongs to that part of India that has experienced fairly stable economic growth and social development in the past 25 years. In our panel study of six villages in Karur and Tiruchirapalli districts, we have documented this development in various ways.5 The most important findings relate to a doubling of a verage real incomes, rapid growth of non-farm activities and a reduction of inequality in terms of operated area and income among the land operating agrarian households in our sample (Djurfeldt et al 2008a).6

We have identified the two most important driving forces in this transformation as industrialisation with its side effects and state social policy interventions.

Being close both to the Tiruppur-Karur textile industry belt and the growing city of Tiruchirapalli, many of the households we studied have been able to diversify their economic activities into a number of non-agricultural activities. The actual number of factory jobs is still small, but the number of workers now e ngaged in shops, various services and modern professional

o ccupations, building industry, etc, is quite significant. Almost 70% of the studied agrarian households have one or more members so engaged. Our statistics on income shows that it has i ncreased faster than farm income over the past two and a half decades. Today 64% of household income derives from the nonfarm sector, that is, the secondary and tertiary sector of the economy. In 1980, this proportion was only 34%.

The development of a rudimentary welfare state is also part of the story. Despite the neoliberal policies at the centre and the pressure on the Tamil Nadu state government to lower spending on social welfare, we still find functioning state run low price shops in all the villages which supply basic provisions of rice,

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kerosene, and sugar to more than three-fourths of the population. There are more and better government schools than earlier in all the villages and in all of them there are also crèches and centres for the care of pregnant mothers and infants (anganwadis). All schools and nurseries serve a midday meal to all the children, which helps in improving nutritional standards. Thus working parents are freer to work full time than earlier. This now also provides a larger number of jobs for people in the villages, not just as teachers but also as auxiliary nurses, pre-school assistants, literacy workers, etc, than was the case in 1979-80. However, recruitment to regular public service employment has been at a standstill through more than a decade and a half. Recently, there has been some recruitment of teachers.

It is this development coupled with a somewhat slower but still steady growth of agricultural production that makes up the basis for the material improvements that we have observed.

Studied Villages and Methods

The economy and social structure in rural India and Tamil Nadu vary a lot depending on the kind of ecological setting in which it is embedded. In three of the studied villages – Rajendram, Poyyamani and Nangavaram North canal-irrigated agriculture dominates. These are “wet villages”, in which traditionally the brahmins owned the lands farmed by the scheduled caste tenants. Over the decades, a substantial portion of the lands have been taken over by the former overseers belonging to the intermediate caste Muthuraja, and by the scheduled castes. Some other peasant castes also own some land in these villages. Caste discrimination has declined to some extent with this development.

The other three studied villages – Naganoor, Kalladai and K Periapatti – rely on tanks and wells for irrigation, and have a sizeable proportion of lands under rainfed cultivation. These are the “dry villages”. In these villages, members of the intermediate Udaiyar, Gounder and Muthuraja castes still own almost all the land, and which is farmed by agricultural wage labourers, of whom a large proportion are dalits. Here discrimination against dalits is still practised in several ways.

In 1979-80, we interviewed 238 households, which constituted the main sample. In 2005-06, we have again interviewed the same sample households, except for five which we could not trace. Thirty-one of these households had out-migrated and have been replaced by 31 in-migrants. Of the 233 main sample households, 20 have left agriculture since 1979-80. The remaining 213 make up our sample of resident agricultural households in the study and constitute the main source of statistical analysis. This sample we call the agrarian population.7 Our data reflect their situation in 2004-05.

Our observations of the changes and the character of these transformations build on several methods. The most important is a household socio-economic survey with substantially the same questions asked in 1979-80 and in 2005-06 (Athreya, Djurfeldt and Lindberg 1990).

In 2005-06, we interviewed only the main sample of 233 households with a less elaborate questionnaire, which gave us more time for additional qualitative studies of various kinds. We have made several case studies of women representatives in the gram

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panchayats and of women members in SHGs. We have also used participatory observation and interviews with local informants to document and understand various aspect of social transformation.

Self-Help Groups

SHGs under the scheme called Mahalir Thittam (Tamil Nadu Women Development Project), almost all of them only for women, now function in all our sample villages.8 The government uses private non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as f acilitators with instructors called cluster coordinators who

o rganise the groups.9 SHGs save in rural public credit institutions and get loans from these as a group or individually at 12% interest. Group loans are used to lend to individual members at higher interest rates.10 The SHGs guarantee the loans collectively. No c ollateral in terms of land or property is needed, and they are c ollectively responsible for the repayment of the loan. If one member fails to pay interest and amortisation in a particular month, the group pays it.

At present, the government effort is to identify in each panchayat union an NGO that will be given the contract to organise SHGs with the help of trained animators called cluster coordinators.

The pattern is that women come together in groups of between 10 and 20 members. They save regularly, say Rs 50-100 per month for six months, after which time they can borrow as a group from the bank for internal re-lending at 24% interest. When this loan has been repaid, new group loans or individual loans can be taken.

We estimate on the basis of our survey that nearly half of all our sample households, or 45%, have at least one member in a SHG. The village-wise distribution of membership is shown in Table 1.

An interesting observation

Table 1: Share of Households with SHG Membership to Total (in %) is that the membership enrol-

Village Households with Some Female Member

ment varies from a low mem

in Any SHG as Per Cent of All Sample Households bership rate of only 18% in

Rajendram 54.4 Nangavaram to 61% in Poyya-Poyyamani 60.5 mani. The reason for the dif-Nangavaram N 18.5 ference is the presence of a Kalladai 52.5 professional NGO and enthu-

Naganur 46.9

siastic cluster coordinators,

K Periapatti 33.3

which was the case in four of

Total 44.8

the studied villages. As can be seen from the table, the percentage of member households is quite low in Nangavaram North and in K Periapatti. In these two villages there was no single strong NGO contracted to do the

o rganisational work. Instead, we found that several NGOs had made some half-hearted attempts at organising some groups.

The caste composition of SHGs also varies. In Poyyamani, one of our wet villages, groups are segmented in such a way that the intermediate castes have their own groups. As far as dalits are concerned, the two castes Pallar and Paraiyar also have their separate groups. According to our informant (a woman called Logambal), the main reason for this division is that there are different subsidies for entrepreneurial loans given by the government according to caste (dalits get 50% subsidy, while intermediate castes only get 33%). In the dry villages, however, we have found mixed groups, that is, women from both intermediate and dalit castes in the same group.11 The reasons for this difference between groups in the wet and the dry area is not obvious from our data, but one interpretation could be that dalit women in the dry area are more submissive, rarely get larger loans, and do not raise claims which offend the intermediate castes.

Many of these groups do involve at least some women belonging to the poorer strata, such as women from landless households who work as agricultural coolies. Most caste groups have SHG members, though the larger ones like Muthurajas, Gounders and Pallars form the vast majority of its members. Our survey shows that the mean income per capita is Rs 23,888 for member households, while the corresponding income is only Rs 14,574 for nonmember households. If we look at landownership, we find that among landed households 57% are members, while among landless, the membership rate is only 33%.

Thus, most of the women in the SHGs do not belong to the poorest strata of the population. They belong to households which are relatively better off than the poor. These are women from households with some resources and with the capacity to save as well as pay back loans at regular intervals.

It is interesting to note that only 20% of the female headed households had membership in SHGs compared to 48% among male headed households. None of the nine single-women households, interviewed as case studies, was a member of a SHG. The simple reason was that they could not save the required amount per month. Women from the wealthiest households on the other hand are also not involved in the SHGs. Other studies from Tamil Nadu and India report a similar pattern of membership (Kalpana 2004b: 55-56).

When it comes to loans, we find that 24% of all households have borrowed money either from the group or in a bank through the SHG scheme, i e, about half of those households which are members have taken loans. The mean size of the debt is Rs 7,874, with a maximum of Rs 30,000 and a minimum of Rs 500. The purposes of the loans, as stated by the households, are shown in Table 2. The average interest paid for these loans is 21%, ranging from a low of 9.6% to a maximum of 24%.

We find that the most important purpose is given as “other reasons” a category which also includes education. Next comes “Food and Household Expen-

Table 2: Stated Purpose of Loans Taken

in the SHG Scheme (in %) ses”, which includes medical
Agriculture: crop 10.3 care. We saw an example of
Other business 9.4 group solidarity when one
Other reasons 42.2 member of a Poyyamani group
Food and HH expenses 21.0 fell ill with cancer. The group
Family ceremonies 8.1 gave her Rs 10,000 for her
House construction 1.4 treatment and she now attends
Other combinations Total 7.6 100 group meetings with the help of a pair of crutches.

Business other than agriculture accounts only for about 10% of the loans, but by probing we found that the category “other reasons” also includes loans for starting self-employment activities. It is within these categories we find larger loans for, e g, purchasing a cow, a sewing machine, gem-cutting machines, or starting a small shop (most often, a tea shop). There is often a government subsidy at between 1/3 and ½ of the total money needed to make the purchase of a milch animal.12

Most often, these loans are taken individually. However, we also found a few cases where SHGs had together purchased gemcutting machines or taken a contract for stone quarrying and worked with this individually or as a group. In Poyyamani, the very ambitious and knowledgeable cluster coordinator, Logambal, has recently formed a milk cooperative society in order to increase the income from milk sales by selling to the cooperative dairy plant in Tiruchy town without any middlemen involved.

About 29% of the loans which are at the level of Rs 10,000 and above can be taken to be proper loans for self-employment activities. These have been made available to only about 7% of the agrarian households in our villages during the past 5-6 years during which the SHG scheme has been in operation. These households had an average per capita income of Rs 30,534, which is significantly higher than the average of Rs 17,527 for all households, which means that it is the relatively better-off families that have been able to take the larger loans.

Another way of understanding the importance of the SHG loans is to compare them with other sources of loans of the households. We estimate that the total credit amount owed by the sample of all households in all six villages in 2004 was about Rs 17 crore (Rs 170 million) from all sources. Of these only about 6% were borrowed via the SHG scheme. If we take only institutional loans, totalling about Rs 7.2 crore, 15% came via SHGs at an average interest rate of 21%. Institutional loans other than SHG loans, (totally Rs 6.1 crore), had a much lower average interest rate or 13%. Thus, the amount of loans distributed via SHGs is rather small and the annual interest rate is much higher than other institutional loans.

However, even if the amount is small – only 6% of the total loans of all households – it can still be noted that about one-fourth of the households have benefited from this source which is a significant phenomenon in the absence of adequate institutional credit from conventional sources like cooperatives and banks.

Self-Help Groups and Women’s Empowerment

Whether in mixed caste groups or single caste groups, it is quite clear that women get into a new experience by regularly going out of their houses and participating in meetings with other women even during evening hours. In achieving this, they have overcome some initial resistance from their husbands. During the group interviews conducted with the women, we were told that the husbands now cooperate better in this regard.

Through the SHG experience, women learn how to conduct a meeting. They meet with local government officials and members of panchayat boards. Some of them especially the group leaders, learn how to make money transactions in a bank.13 In the literature, this has been taken by some writers to mean a building up of women’s empowerment in terms of independence and selfconfidence and their thrift as entrepreneurs (Sudan 2005). Other writers refer to this as the build-up of social capital among the women involved. Al Mamun, who studied women in a rural Bangladesh Micro-Credit Programme, writes:

My observation is that both the NGOs (in his study) had a positive development of their members, it has led to a remarkable enhancement in social network formation and development, an improved status in

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family and community, increased mobility and to some extent also greater self confidence and feeling of identity for the women (2005: 40).

We also found that quite a few of the SHGs took interest in local village affairs of special concern to them, like drinking water supply, street lights, laying of proper roads, etc. They discussed these matters at their meetings and brought them to the attention of the panchayat board or the gram sabha. Some of the SHG members were also ward members of the panchayat boards and thus had direct access to the decision-making in the village. Very often, it was these women who came forward to join campaigns for street cleanliness and other attempts by the panchayat at making people participate in common activities.

However, there were also complaints by representatives of women’s movements at the state level that this meant an increased burden on the women, who were already doubly burdened with having to work in the fields and in the households. This is not a criticism of the SHG scheme per se but of the failure of the government to provide sufficient support services like easy access to drinking water, sanitation complexes within quick reach, anganwadis and crèches (balwadis) for childcare, etc. All these would reduce the burden and encourage women to participate in the SHGs for promoting self-confidence along with other advocacy work on woman’s rights.

Functioning and Sustainability of SHGs

Numerous SHGs have been started according to the statistics given by panchayat unions and NGOs, but many of them are new and it is an open question if they will function as well as the “model-groups” with savings, repayment and “profitable” investments. About half of the member households have so far not availed themselves of any loans. There may be two main reasons for this. One is that they and their group have not saved long enough to get a loan (normally six months). The other reason we found in our case studies, is that the bank and/or the NGO have not accepted the purpose for which the loan was to be taken. One may wonder about the sustained interest among these women to participate in a SHG in the long run if they cannot get any loan despite saving regularly and attending monthly meetings. Participation in public activities like street cleaning by the SHGs may thus also be a temporary upswing during the initial enthusiasm created in these groups. This in any event can hardly be set to constitute empowerment.

NGOs14 are costly agents in the sense that they require substantive funding for their activities and salaries to professional staff. However, some studies of NGO run SHGs argue that these are e ffective in fostering more or less successful small-scale entrepreneurships among women. A few even claim that these are the real women’s movements today (see, for example, Sudan 2005), which and suggests non-familiarity with mass movements of women led by organised political formations.

One important factor behind the observed presence and functioning of SHGs in the studied villages is the role of the NGO-employed cluster-coordinators or village organisers. These are persons from the village with a high school education, trained for this work and paid by the NGO, who regularly meet their

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c olleagues from other villages and the NGO staff. We interviewed four persons thus employed. We found them to be energetic, highly motivated and proud of the results. Being perhaps among the better paid women in these villages, they may also serve as role models for women entering into the public sphere.

The practice of borrowing from the bank at 12% rate of interest for re-lending to individual group members at 24% rate of interest leaves room for the NGO to make some money out of the transaction, most often taken as a cut of the loan received from the bank. This, in turn, gives grounds for suspicions and rumours about the cluster coordinator bagging some of the money personally while on a monthly salary of between Rs 1,000 and Rs 2,000. In one of the villages we studied, there was one incident, in which the cluster coordinator swindled all the money borrowed by one SHG she supervised. This, of course, led to the dissolution of the SHG.

In 2006, panchayat unions were ordered to start their own SHGs without the involvement of NGOs. A target of at least five such groups in each panchayat was set for the three women welfare officers in each block. The anganwadi workers were also asked to organise two such groups each near their centres. There are several problems with this new programme. There are no fieldworkers for this with the government. The three women welfare officers in each panchayat union have to do it themselves without any local cluster-coordinators trained for this purpose. The officials also say that they cannot find any women willing to join since those interested are already members of SHGs.15

In conclusion, we note that despite an impressive number of SHGs started in our villages, only a minority of village households, about 7%, have taken bigger loans making it possible to start some new business. Another 17% of the village households have been able to get smaller consumption/emergency loans. Most of these households belong to the middle income strata. There are few borrowers from the poorer strata and the poorest group of women is not at all reached by the programme.16 Moreover, the average interest charged for the SHG-loans is 21%, which is much higher than the average 13% interest rate charged for other institutional loans. This is far less of an achievement than the claims made by a recent official publication on development in Tamil Nadu, which says:

There is no doubt that the formation of SHGs has indeed strengthened the hands of poor women in the State in their struggles against poverty and social discrimination. The SHGs have also served as an effective channel of credit for the existing income generation programmes (Planning Commission 2005: 250).

This is not to deny the fact that SHGs have been useful in catering to some emergency needs of some households with regard to food, medicine and social purposes. They have been a source of cheap, even if small, consumption loans, enabling some households to avoid going to the moneylender. They have also enabled a few relatively better off households to start some businesses led by women.

Women in the Gram Panchayat

We observed a few panchayat meetings, interviewed 10 women about their participation in the panchayat bodies, and observed the local election to the village panchayats in October 2006.17

Two of the women interviewed are panchayat presidents, one is a vice-president, and the rest are ward members. Three of the ten women came from the dalit castes. These interviews show that there is a process of increased participation and influence on part of these women but also that there is still a considerable way to go before women can fully utilise the political space opened up by the provision of one-third reservation for women in elected local bodies.

In 2004-05, the presidentships in five of our six villages were reserved for women. We got the impression that in three of these reserved villages, the women presidents were mere figureheads and that the affairs of the panchayat were managed by their husbands (the so-called “proxy” syndrome). One exception to this is the meetings at the panchayat union, when these women are obliged to attend rather than their husbands.

We chose to interview the two women presidents, who seemed to be most active – one in a wet and one in a dry village. The female vice-president also interviewed by us belongs to the same wet village as the president we interviewed. What we found was a collaboration between husband and wife in running the panchayat. The husband would typically represent the panchayat to outsiders and the outside world, such as when arranging a contract for construction work undertaken by the panchayat. They would conduct the panchayat board meetings jointly and share the responsibility of representing the panchayat when dealing with the people of the village.

Case Studies

Padma, who is 29 and belongs to an intermediate caste, had lost her mother at an early age and grew up with her mother’s sister, since her father “never bothered about or supported her”. She studied up to the XIIth standard. At school, she fell in love with a dalit boy and got married to him. Her husband had a BA degree. Initially, her relatives objected to the marriage, but later came around and her husband is now a farmer on their own land.

Padma’s husband encouraged her to stand for the panchayat elections, since this was a reserved constituency for SC women. She was defeated in 1996 but in 2001 having spent about Rs 1,00,000, she was elected.

Her husband has a very good rapport with the local people and she shares the panchayat work with him. One source of inspiration is the previous woman panchayat president, who is said to have been very active and now often pays a visit to the panchayat office to see how things are working out.

Padma’s husband is a member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party. According to Padma, he does not involve the party in his local political work. Sometimes, he takes on a contract from the panchayat, which, she claims, helps the panchayat, presumably because he charges less than others would.

Padma claims to have been very active in getting funds for the construction of a cement road to one of the hamlets in the village. Recently, she took active part in petitioning for flood relief, only to find that some of those who did not get any relief blamed her for it. By her account, she has been able to get government houses for dalits and has helped between 30 and 40 people to get old age pension from the revenue department. She is very active in the local education committee and supervised the competition in e ssay writing on Gandhi Jayanthi in 2005. At the Pongal celebration that year (harvest festival in January), she had organised a campaign to promote health and hygiene in the village.

When we interviewed ward members and other women in the village, we found that opinion was divided about Padma’s work as president. Some said she was very active and efficient while others said that she was too dependent on her husband and that he was actually running the show.

Satiya, 38, grew up in a major town about 250 km north of the dry village in which she is now the panchayat president. At the age of nine she was sent to work in a textile factory as a child l abourer. At the age of 13 she was the sole breadwinner of the family and already a very independent person. She was, for all practical purposes, the head of the household. With only three years of education, she was at that time declared as illiterate, but now knows to read and write.

After marrying off her sister and brother, she herself married the son of one of the richest and most influential families in one of our sample dry villages. Her husband is a graduate in agriculture and an active farmer. They moved to their land outside the village and constructed a new house there, in order to live independently. Her father-in-law had already served as panchayat president in the village, so when her husband suggested that she should stand for election to that post, she was interested. Satiya’s brother-in-law is the village administrative officer with a good reputation, but his wife was not ready to contest.

Satiya regularly attends the panchayat office and conducts the meetings with the board there. She is also active in various schemes, like chairing one of the two watershed committees in the village. However, it is her husband who takes care of the d evelopment work and takes on the contracts. Satiya says that she is unable to prevent his taking over her functions.

Thus, it can be seen that both these women presidents had an extraordinary background, which might have helped them to b ecome more independent than most other women panchayat presidents. Yet, in both cases, the husbands play an important part in the functioning of the panchayat concerned.

Women ward members we interviewed, take care to attend the panchayat board meetings twice a month. They get Rs 25 for a ttending the meetings. A few go there with their husbands but most of them attend alone. Some are active while others do not say anything at all. Many of them complain that Rs 25 for each meeting plus the Rs 1,000 they get at Deepavali is not enough as compensation for the time spent in politics.

The presidents and some of the ward members have been given training by the government at camps in Chennai and Kanyakumari, and in some cases by local NGOs at Gandigram near Madurai. But most of them complain that they have not been given enough training to understand the workings of the panchayat and the government system. Other ward members, without any training, also had practically no knowledge about the panchayat system and what they were supposed to do as ward members. Quite clearly, this leaves much to be desired in the way these women are prepared for their task as panchayat ward members. A regular training programme would be necessary to

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enhance the quality of their participation (Manavalan 2000 and Narayana 2005).

One important support for women’s political representation is the widespread presence of SHGs in the villages. Since men are not present at SHG meetings, the women can discuss local village matters with some freedom and quite often do so. With a SHG member representative in the panchayat board, this type of a rticulation becomes more effective. It is sometimes the case that an SHG suggests to one of its members to stand for the elections and then backs her. Interestingly enough, it is also the SHG members who attend with regularity the general meetings (of the gram sabha) open for all villagers, which the panchayat has to organise three times a year. However, as we have seen above, the presence of well functioning SHGs varies from one village to a nother and so does their capacity to back women’s participation in panchayat bodies.

An important background to the increased participation of women in panchayat affairs is their experience of working outside agriculture. In 22% of our households, at least one woman now works outside agriculture. Twenty-five years ago some women worked in gem-cutting and as house maids, especially in the dry area. Now, dalit and intermediate caste women also work in factories (mainly textile work), stone quarrying, construction work (in Tiruchy town and other nearby urban areas) and work in the lower rungs of the local public welfare system (as nursery teachers and assistants, aganwadi workers, assistant nurses, etc).

In this way, some women get out of the family-patriarchal s ystem of agriculture, and get subjected to a different discipline, especially in factories. What is important is that they then work in teams with other women and that they move freely in public on their way to and from the workplace. However, factory or other non-farm work does not give them more, but less time to participate, for example, in panchayat meetings (cf Hust 2004: 267-68). So it is more on the social and psychological level that these experiences may have an effect on women’s political representation: Women now occupy many more roles in the public economic sphere as compared to earlier.

Local Elections

The motives for standing for elections to the panchayat are mixed. Some of the women in the panchayat board that we interviewed said that they themselves wanted to work for improvements in the village. Some referred to the wish of their husband or the political parties of which they were members. Others r eferred to the status of their family in the village and the wish of the family to be represented in the panchayat. (Other studies which have noted a similar pattern are Nolle 2007, Athreya and Rajeswari 1998.)

We were particularly interested in the functioning of the reservation system for women: Who were the candidates? How did they contest and with what leverage? What role did the numerous women’s SHGs play in these elections? We found that the e ntry of women as well as dalits was constrained and determined by gender, caste and class relations.

Local village panchayat elections follow a different logic than state elections. In the latter larger political issues related to

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w elfare policies have come to play an increasingly important role. The rudimentary welfare state, that we have observed in our studied villages with functioning low price shops, schools, nurseries, preventive health schemes, etc, has come about as a result of various popular mobilisations by the different political parties.

In the local elections, however, most candidates build their following on their local influence. They emphasise their personal image to convince the electorate to vote for them. Sometimes, more specific promises are made, such as construction of a road or provision of drinking water, etc, tasks which fall within the ambit of the village panchayat.

The main determining factors are caste (family lineage), and class and the alliances between these that various candidates can form in order to win a majority in their ward or village constituency. There is often an element of co-option in these electoral alliances. The power of the landowning dominant castes in the v illages is such that they often strongly influence the selection of dalit candidates in multicaste constituencies reserved for dalits and also help in financing them. In return, they expect to be able to have a strong influence on the decisions that the new panchayat board will take. The election of especially dalit women representatives follows the same logic. This pattern was particularly visible in the dry villages we studied, where wards had a mixed caste population.

Thus, there is a perpetuation of dependency relations, which has been observed more generally in local elections and functioning of the emerging panchayati raj system.

...if participation leads to reproduction of power relationship, identical or similar, or perpetuates the dependency relationships between have and have-nots, it cannot be construed as real participation (Narayanan 2003: 2484).

As we have seen above, in some instances, women’s SHGs in the villages participate in local body elections, when one of their members is in the fray, by campaigning for that person. On their own, however, they are rarely able to win these battles since caste and class influence weigh so decisively in the final outcome.

First of all, there are considerable economic stakes involved in local body elections. Being a ward member or president of the village panchayat offers the opportunity to access and control village funds and contracts for construction works, etc, and the “extras” that can be made out of these transactions. Sometimes, presidents and ward members themselves take on contracts.

Money plays a role in all contests to provide food and drinks, pamphlets, travel, remuneration of the candidate’s followers, etc. Money is also used for buying out potential powerful opponents, that is, to make them withdraw from the contest. In cases where there is only one powerful candidate for the ward or president’s post, money, of course plays less of a role or an indirect role: prospective candidates realise that they are up against a powerful and wealthy candidate and become reluctant to contest, not least in view of the considerable sums of money they would have to spend and the low odds of winning.

Our interviews with women ward members revealed that they had had to spend considerable sums for their election, which among other things make it almost impossible for poorer households to field a candidate and win. It was also clear that some of them did not want to stand for a second term because of the costs involved.

Party politics is legally banned in the local elections at the level of the gram panchayat but plays an indirect role, since many of the candidates are members or sympathisers of political parties and get unofficial backing from them (and sometimes money for their campaign), which is then later used in village panchayat politics, where many issues are settled at the higher (block and district) levels, where party politics play a much greater role.

In the case of town panchayats and block panchayats, political parties are allowed to contest, which they do. In this, the usual arithmetic of caste and class plays an important role in the selection and backing of the candidates. However, as we could see in one of our study villages, Nangavaram North, a town panchayat, party influence is not all that pervasive. Out of eight seats, the political parties only managed to win five seats in October 2006, three seats going to independent candidates, illustrating how other factors and considerations than party politics can affect the outcome. Interestingly, SHGs were quite active in supporting one successful independent woman candidate during her campaign in Nangavaram.

The ban on party politics in village elections in Tamil Nadu is motivated by the idea that civil society organisations should be allowed to play a more important role locally. This is meant to help fight local corruption, since “party politics” is considered to be something bad in itself. But since, especially in Tamil politics, parties have shown themselves as something more than just driven by caste and patronage, it may well be that such political parties represent the main avenue to cater to the needs and interests of poorer people.18 The popular discourse about participation and decentralisation through modern civil society organisations is far removed from the reality of the villages that we have studied, where besides the State organised SHGs there are hardly any such organisations present.19

Being a Woman on the Panchayat Board

All presidents and ward members we interviewed complained about the paucity of funds available with the panchayat. Most of the budget is used for running expenses, most of all the electricity bill and wages to the clerk and sweepers. The rest is spent on repair and maintenance of street lights, drinking water facilities and maintenance of streets. Whatever extra is provided by the panchayat union and the district collector is used for new constructions of public buildings and roads. Our estimate is that of the many schemes for rural development financed by the state and union governments, the panchayat has control over only about 1/3 to ½ of the schemes.

This is also why all of them experience frustration in not being able to finance all the needed things in the villages. The public presumes that presidents and ward members have the power to influence the higher levels of the panchayat system and the b ureaucracy to allocate more money to their village. For example, in the floods in November 2005, people also thought that the village panchayat was responsible for selecting those who were to get flood relief, which was not at all the case. What presidents and ward members did was to petition the revenue authority on behalf of all the flood-affected people in their village.

All the women interviewed complained about the burden of their political participation in addition to being a wife, running the household, and working full time to support the family. They also claimed that since men did not do any work in the household, the men had much more time for politics. When encouraging women to enter the political system, one must also make provision for the time they need to participate. This means that other members of their households, including husbands and other males need to take more responsibility for the household chores including cooking and looking after the small children. We have noted some cases where men did do these tasks when their wives went for meetings of SHGs.

Overall, we found that women could participate in local political bodies only if their husbands agreed to cooperate. The agreement included a division of labour, including the man actually representing and carrying out more or less all the various responsibilities. In no case did we find that a woman could carry out all the functions without the husband’s intervention. (Similar results and views were reported for urban councils by John 2007, by Nolle from a study in Karnataka 2007 and by Hust in Orissa 2004.) The term “proxy”, which is common in the Indian debate about women’s political representation is, however, too much of a simplification of these quite varied relationships (John 2007: 3989).20

Of the eight women who were asked if they wanted to stand for elections again, only one said yes (she wanted to become the panchayat president). This reluctance may at least partly be related to the fact that the particular seat may not be reserved for women in the next election due to the policy of rotation. The fact that they cannot be re-elected after 10 years means that newer women have to learn and be trained for the job and much political experience is thus lost.

Given the rather massive entry and presence of women in the local bodies we may now ask what changes there are in the working of the panchayat and the local government, if any? It is, however, very difficult to measure the influence of women’s entry, especially since we do not have any base-line study of 25 years ago to compare with. Moreover, the reservation policy has been in force for only about 10 years so it is too early expect more than a good beginning.

We think women have contributed to more active panchayats. Their attendance at panchayat board meetings is better than that of men, as far as we could see. The kind of activities discussed at the board meetings seem to be more geared to the welfare of children and women than earlier, like the local schools and nurseries, drinking water facilities, street conditions and street lights, etc. Similar assessments have been made in some other studies (see Rai et al 2006, Chattopadhyay and Duflo 2004a and b, and Beasley et al 2005). In this way one could say that they have attained “critical mass” and are able to influence the agenda of the board.

However, this does not mean that women consciously act as a united group in the interest of all women. John (2007: 3991-92) reports from her study that there was very little of “we-feeling” among women councillors in Delhi and Bangalore. She points out “In fact, when the question of acting as a group was posed to the councillors, many of them did not even understand what we meant”. This is hardly surprising. Even in the democratically

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“ advanced” Scandinavian countries with a high proportion of women in the legislative assemblies, political and other differences among these women representatives often prevent them from acting jointly to further women’s collective interest.

Our interaction with women political representatives also taught us that at least on the personal level they had experienced a positive change. They had learnt how to sit among men in panchayat meetings, how to speak at such formal meetings and at gram sabha gatherings. Some of them had also learnt how to a pproach and deal with government officials. Kudva, studying Karnataka, has made similar observations (2003:459).


Microcredit distributed to SHGs of women, often through intermediaries, has been implemented in many parts of Tamil Nadu. In our six villages, SHGs have a strong presence, covering about half of all households. Many of the SHGs seem to function well. They gather women outside their own homes in meetings, where not only credit but also community concerns such as drinking water, street lights, crèches and schools are discussed. The SHGs also provide a platform for women’s active participation in local politics. But these aspects should not be exaggerated, as their effects are fairly modest.

SHGs cater to the need of many households for short-term smaller loans at rates lower than those charged by traditional moneylenders. Larger loans for starting small businesses are given to much fewer women but are still important for the development of women’s self-employment in the local economy. However, as we have also found through our survey, it is not the really poor households who are involved in these groups or can borrow from the banks or credit cooperatives. It is the medium income households that are members. When it comes to larger, entrepreneurial loans only 7% of the village households have been able to avail themselves of these. These households are above average income households. Thus, the claim that microcredit is reaching the poor in the studied villages is not confirmed by our data.

Women’s entry into local politics through the mandatory reservation system seems to be more important than the SHG-programme in furthering women’s empowerment with lasting effects. The SHG scheme is a political programme, which requires active funding and vigorous NGOs to function well and is thus subject to political conjunctures, that may fade away after the first enthusiasm. Reservation for women in local government bodies is guaranteed by the Constitution and has now functioned over a period of more than 10 years.

Women’s political representation in local government has no doubt received a rather spectacular “jump-start” with the massive entry of 33% of the seats including the positions of president and vice-presidents. It is a process of learning the game of politics in which training and resources play an important role. It helps women act in public spheres and express issues of concern. In the panchayat women may learn to interact across caste and gender and discover what people from other backgrounds are thinking. Actual participation and learning from others is the critical “mass” that is needed for women to have an impact in governance.

At the same time, this process suffers from the same bias as we have seen in the case of microfinance. It is the more affluent women who can be active in panchayat politics, since money plays such an important role. Moreover, women’s participation is constrained by male influence over their candidacy and functioning in the various boards, as well as by their caste- and class positions. They are also, like their male counterparts, constrained by the paucity of public funds for local development, which leaves many demands unmet.

Nevertheless, on the basis of our empirical findings we can say that the reservation for women in local politics has not only changed the conditions for local collective action but has led to several potentially positive advances for women as well as for the local political system and administration.

What we have observed in our six studied villages regarding women’s entry into politics and into microcredit groups signal significant social changes. These changes go in hand with other changes, which are mutually reinforcing the empowerment of women. Women are now much more visible in the non-agricultural sector, whether as workers in various trades or as selfemployed petty entrepreneurs, and in educational institutions as teachers and students. They also benefit from the emergent, even if rudimentary, welfare state. However, visibility should of course not be confused with power. Women still own a very small proportion of assets including land, have significantly lower literacy rates than men, continue to face domestic and other forms of violence, and face strong son preference. It is also important to note that since our quantitative economic data relate primarily to the two point in time, 1979-80 and 2004-05, it would be hazardous to draw generalisations about the extent of women’s “empowerment”, itself a term subject to most varied interpretations.

Notes in the Scandinavian countries. India seems to be Water Resources Studies (SaciWATERs), Hydera1 For a comprehensive recent evaluation of the Self

one of the successful examples increasing wom-bad in India. We want to thank our field staff for Help Groups scheme across India, see Prasad

en’s local political representation in a fast way, their invaluable work in the project: N Jaya( undated).

the reasons being its legal backing in an amend-kumar, Research Associate, S Mariasusai who ment to the Constitution in 1993 and a strict all worked as Research Assistants; D Kathirvel, 2 This needs to be qualified by the observation that, i mplementation (2005). For an international com-R Gopinath, P Sridhar, T Senthil Kumar, R Chelwith the National Rural Employment Guarantee

Scheme, there is now again additional funding

parative study of quota systems, see Dahlerup ladurai and Arivukku Arasi who worked as Field for rural wage employment (Negi 2010). The (2006). Investigators. Louise Nolle, working with the scheme, notwithstanding teething troubles and 4 A recent study of women in local politics in Karna-Swallows in Demark, has given valueable comcorruption, is especially important since it is taka claims that at least the last two questions can ments on a draft of this article. based on an Act and cannot easily be stopped by be answered in a positive way (Kudva 2003). 6 It is important to stress that what we have are the government. The NREGA has important posi-5 This research has received financial support from data at two different points in time, and comparitive implications for women’s empowerment. the Swedish Research Council, Sida’s Research sons relate only to these two time points in res

3 Dahlerup and Freidenvall has written about the Council for Developing Countries and Swedish pect of variables like income. Also, agrarian worldwide trend of introducing gender quotas in South Asian Studies Network (SASNET). The households as defined in our study include all political elections which is an interesting change project was affiliated with Lund University, Sweden households which derive some proportion (strictly from an incremental track practised, for example, and South Asian Consortium for Interdisciplinary positive) of their income from either cultivation

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or agricultural wage labour or other income from agriculture.

7 Because of the increase of industrial and tertiary sector jobs in and around the villages, there is now a sizeable non-agrarian population, which we have not studied.

8 The most important of the government programmes using the SHG approach is the Swarna Jayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY) launched in 1999, according to Chakrabarti (undated).

9 This is a kind of outsourcing, a contract, in which the NGO is paid for the actual organisational work.

10 A good description of the programme is found in Planning Commission (2005: 247-50). Sudan (2005) gives a good overview of the entrepreneurial aspects of SHGs and its problems.

11 A rapid appraisal of the Tamil Nadu SHG programme found that the involvement of the scheduled castes and tribes was less than the Integrated Rural Development Programme (Kalpana 2004b: 56).

12 Some dalit women had received Rs 10,000 as subsidy in addition to a loan at Rs 10,000 to be able to purchase milch cows.

13 These findings are also reported in the rapid appraisal from Tamil Nadu (see Kalpana 2004b: 51).

14 The right concept to be used here is actually NGOs in the role of “Public Service Contractors that function as market oriented non-profit business serving public purposes”, Mälkiä and Hossain (1998: 40).

15 The NGO GRAMIUM, with which we have interacted closely, thinks that some women who are already members of existing SHGs will join the new groups formed in order to get new loans. However, since there is no field organisation with the government, these groups will sooner or later be handed over to the NGOs for efficient management.

16 Banerjee et al (2009) report similar findings from urban slum study in Hyderabad, that is, there were no visible short time poverty reducing e ffects of microcredit. However, this does not mean that there could not be long time effects like providing more employment opportunities for the poor in viable small-scale firms based on microcredit.

17 It may be noted here that one of the authors (Venkatesh Athreya) had earlier been involved in a larger study of women’s participation in p anchayat politics in Tamil Nadu (Athreya and Rajeswari 1998).

18 Caste, of course, continues to play an important role in state electoral politics, but then caste often changes character to mean larger groupings, like dalit or backward caste confederations (cf Shah 2004:300).

19 According to Harriss, political parties, with all their shortcomings, represent the most important voice of the poor (cf Harriss 2006). Manor observes that political parties make local politics more transparent when it comes to accountability compared to the “a jumble of sometimes shifting factions and alignments without labels”. Party politics help to integrate local councils with representative structures higher up and help manage conflicts between these. Moreover, local councils serve as training grounds for ambitious local politicians before they enter higher levels. They also offer opportunities for opposition parties to win and govern some parts of the political system (Manor 1999: 74-76).

20 The Tamil Nadu state government seems to be quite aware of the proxy problem and tries to stop the worst forms of it, like the husband chairing the village panchayat meetings or going for meetings at bloc level (Cf The Hindu, 20 January 2010: “Proxy Village Panchayat Presidents Warned”).


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