Panchayat Polls 2022: A Textbook Case on How Odisha Strengthened Women’s Participation and Empowerment

By Pratibha Nepak

Bhubaneswar: Today, women have the equal right to participate in political processes that influence them, their families, and their society at large. There is no second thought that states and countries with increased women’s participation and leadership in the democratic process tend to be more inclusive and responsive. Despite constituting half of the population, women have been marginalized and are away from the decision making process in democracies for ages. The challenges before all now is strengthening women’s rights and empowering them politically for an all-round development.

Supporting women’s participation at the grassroots level democratic institutions has the ability to change the situation and bring in a level playing field for the women. Odisha under the leadership of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has been championing the cause of women empowerment through political intervention. The recent success of women candidates in the three-tier Panchayat polls in Odisha indicate a paradigm shift in the way women were placed in the political space.

The year 2022 is going to be a watershed year as far as the strengthening of democracy and empowerment of women at the grassroots level is considered. Away from the political hustle and bustle of the elections to five Indian state Assemblies, Odisha silently curated a revolution and strengthened the upside curve of women empowerment at the grassroots level. While Odisha has the distinction of being the first state in the country to implement 33 percent reservation for Women in Panchayatiraj Institutions as early as 1991, it is also the first state in the country to raise that percentage to 50 percent in 2011. But in 2022, all records have been broken and women in Odisha have created history. More than 65 thousand women have made it into the helm of grassroots level politics in the state through the Panchayatiraj elections. And the credit for this silent revolution goes to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik who has been an ardent campaigner of women empowerment in the state and country.

The recently held Panchayat Elections in Odisha have proved once again that the state has no competition when it comes to empowering its women – politically, socially and economically. The political empowerment of women in the state is clearly visible at the ground level with more than sixty five percent women being elected to the various posts in the three-tier Panchayatiraj system. While the statute calls for fifty percent reservation for women in the rural polls, the performance of women has excelled more than that. The Biju Janata Dal which clean swept the elections, had given tickets to more number of women candidates than men and the results were also in tune. For example, out of the 67 Zilla Parishad zones of Ganjam district that the Biju Janata Dal won, 40 winning candidates are women. The statutory reservation is for just 35 seats.

The scenario is also same in all other districts. While the reservation for women is for 50 percent seats, the Biju Janata Dal gave tickets to 70 percent women. Another positive aspect of these elections is the number of female voters has increased when compared to the previous elections. The Biju Janata Dal, which won all the Zilla Parishads of the state, has gone a step ahead and Women heads of 70m percent of the ZPs. 21 women members have been elected as the ZP presidents. This proves that what Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik says actually does in reality. This higher representation of women in the grassroots level democratic institutions will have a cascading effect and there is no doubt that in the coming days, the number of women playing active role in the state and national levels will increase significantly.

A part of a broad strategy to politically empower the women, Naveen Patnaik has chosen to appoint women to head the Zilla Parishads of Mayurbhanj, Ganjam, Balasore, Bargarh, Boudh, Bolangir, Koraput, Malkangiri, Keonjhar, Sundargarh, Sambalpur, Rayagada, Angul, Dhenkanal, Puri, Jajpur, Jharsuguda, Kendrapara and Khordha. These women leaders will be at the helm of affairs in bringing development to their areas. The far flung and remote areas dominated by tribals have also seen a massive participation of women in the polls. Districts like Malkangiri, Koraput, Rayagada, Kandhamal, Mayurbhanj etc., have seen a major transformation in the recently held polls in terms of women coming forwards to voting and getting elected to the various posts.

At the national level politics too, Biju Janata Dal Supremo Naveen Patnaik had created history by giving 33 percent tickets to women during the 2019 General elections – a step that was envied by many other state and national political parties. The reservation policies of Odisha and the women centric policies of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik clearly have a strong impact on women’s representation. More number of women leaders at the ground level means the focus at the ground would be on the development and upliftment of women and their empowerment in terms of economic and social.

Affirmative action in favour of women has added a new dimension to their empowerment. Reservation of seats for women in Panchayati Raj institution has not only promoted gender equality but has brought a great change in the status of rural women, empowering them in terms of self confidence, political awareness, political participation and affirmation of a definite identity. In the last two decades an environment has been enabled in the state for change of mindset in support of women empowerment.

The process of empowerment of women in Odisha is not just limited to their participation of women. All the policies of the state Government are made keeping in mind the empowerment of women. The most important initiative the government of Odisha under Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has taken is the Mission Shakti. The initiative has successfully transformed the lives of more than 7 lakh women of the state by creating exclusive Women Self Help Groups. Today, the Mission Shakti has grown into a revolution. While it has been improving the economic lives of the women, the rural economy is also getting a boost through grassroots economic activities. The Government of Odisha has created a mechanism that creates employment opportunities exclusively for the SHG women in various government departments. In the last two years alone, about ten lakh women have contributed to various procurements by 13 government departments.

The process of empowering women with the help of decentralized rural governance through Panchayatiraj Institutions is the need of the hour for a country like India. The prevailing participation of women in the country’s political system despite the presence of a statutory reservation, needs to be improved a lot. While statutes help in some way, proactive steps taken by the political leadership like Naveen Patnaik has a greater role. While Odisha is leading the grassroots level democratic transformation for the women, the same can be expected to be imitated by others in the coming days.

(Pratibha Nepak is a freelance journalist who writes extensively on women issues.)

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