This case study was written for a UN Women Guide on Temporary Special Measures in 2012.

The quota adopted for women in India’s village-level councils (Gram Panchayats) offers one of the most robust examples of the impact of gender quotas on governance and political life – particularly in single-member districts. One-third of village council membership and council chief positions are reserved for women as part of a series of constitutional reforms to devolve government – the quota has been in place since approximately 1993. The requirement was increased to 50% in 2009 in a bid to safeguard better demographic representation among minorities.

Prior to the implementation of gender quotas, India’s political environment, displayed a marked gender, social and ethnic imbalance among its elected bodies. Despite the country bosting a number of influential female political leaders, just over 5% of the members in its lower parliament were women and less than 5% in lower councils, or panchayats.[i]

The three-tiered Panchayat system introduced the 1990s is comprised of three levels: the village (Gram Panchayat), block  (Panchayat Samiti) and district level councils (Zilla Parishad).  Members are directly elected for a five-year term. Although the system had existed formally since India’s independence, it only became an effective body of governance in all states in the 1990s when a constitutional amendment established a country-wide three-tiered framework with regular elections (using the first-past-the-post system).

At the lowest tier, Gram Panchayats comprise between 5 and 15 villages. Each is responsible for the local administration of public goods, implementing development programs and responding to the needs of villages under its jurisdiction, from local infrastructure projects to identifying welfare recipients and resolving disputes. Each has flexibility in allocating funds. [ii]

Candidates are generally put forward by political parties and are resident in the villages they represent. After the council members are elected, members elect a chief or Pradhan from among themselves (the sole council member with a full-time appointment) along with an Upa-Pradhan or Vice-Chief. Council decisions are made by majority voting, and although the Pradhan does not hold veto authority,[iii] s/he has the final say on fund allocations and beneficiaries. [iv]

Quotas for women

The implementation of quotas was made possible by the move to decentralize and create a political structure that better included poor and marginal groups.[v] The system included quotas for two of India’s disadvantaged minorities, as well as women. [vi] The gender quota applies to all seats whether or not they are also reserved for minorities.

The constitutional amendment required states to reserve one-third of Panchayat council seats and leader positions, including the Gram Panchayat, using a rotation system.[vii]  The rules that govern the selection of reserved districts for the have varied by State, but all ensure random rotation and have generally been fully implemented.

Impact

Among India’s 2,65,000 village governing bodies, more than a million women have since been elected into the reserved positions in these panchayats.[viii] Studies have reported a broadly representative section of caste and class, with lower caste women are as likely to serve on the panchayats as lower caste men.[ix] While some women have been perceived as a stand-in for male relatives, this has not been extensively reported.

The randomized nature of this quota has allowed the causal impact of female leadership to be measured. Studies have been able to compare perceptions and policies in villages that have experienced the leadership of a female Pradhan once, or more than once, as well as those that have never done so.

The quotas have been credited for substantial electoral gains for women, suggesting that the policy has been widely accepted. At the lower levels this was seen for example, in villages with unreserved elections in the 2008 round of voting. Female Pradhan were elected in 13 % of such villages that had experienced a single term of female leadership, and 17 % in those with exposure twice, and even in 10 % of villages with no history of reservation. In general, evidence points to the greatest leap in impact taking place after two rounds, suggesting that it takes time for voters to adjust to quotas and update their mindsets.[x]. After two rounds of reservation, 3.3 % more women chose to run for office in unreserved districts.[xi] Further research shows that voter confidence in female Pradhans (and the ability of women to lead in general) grows with exposure to female leadership.[xii] The Pradhans themselves, when surveyed, were shown to match the confidence of male counterparts in executing their duties after approximately two years in the position.[xiii] This is reflected in the willingness of many to rerun for office.[xiv] While a backlash effect is sometimes seen among male voters, it has been usually eliminated after two rounds of reservation. [xv]

Early studies of the impact of the reservation on participation recorded nominal participation and a lack of influence among women council and Gram Panchayat members,[xvi] but later studies have documented more substantial impacts. A 2006 report from the World Bank found that in West Bengal, the election of a female Pradhan increased the general involvement of women in sessions.[xvii]

The popularity of the quotas has extended to the national level where quotas have been credited with easing the path of the divisive Women’s Reservation Bill or the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill, through India’s Upper House in 2010.[xviii] This bill seeks, through a similar rotation system, to reserve seats for women in parliament and the legislative assemblies. [xix] At this time, the bill remains lodged in India’s Lower House, which is comprised of almost 90 % men.[xx] Quota systems have also been introduced elsewhere as non-statutory measures; several law schools in India for example, have a 30% reservation for women.

The change in public perception can be attributed to performance.[xxi] Female Pradhan have overall been shown to provide more public goods, and to invest in services often highly valued by women, like better access to safe drinking water or indoor toilets.[xxii] They have not been linked to a softer response to crime – indeed reports about and police response to crimes against women tend to increase, pointing at the potential relation between women’s entry into politics and shifts in public discourse and action. Other studies have shown women to be less susceptible to corruption.[xxiii]

A positive role model effect has been indicated by the measurable change in girls and women’s educational attainment and aspirations in ‘exposed’ villages.  The gender gap in education among adolescents in such villages has been reduced overall resulting in girls spending a little less time on household chores.[xxiv]

These positive traits have been hindered in some states by a lack of broader policy reform in areas such as local labour market opportunities for young women.[xxv] Nevertheless, in 2011 a background paper for the World Development Report concluded that evidence from the Indian system shows that quotas do increase female influence on policy outcomes, particularly in water infrastructure, education, and investment in goods favoured by women.[xxvi] The results are better governance impacts for society at large, since these impacts have not been found to harm the provision of other goods. Women leaders, particularly in their second terms, have been seen to expand the scope of their investments, leading to a generally higher level of public service provision.[xxvii]

Mindsets however, remain a challenge: male and female villagers still largely exhibit explicit preferences for male leaders. The recent introduction of the 50 % quota in some states has also been divisive, largely due to the displacement of many sitting male members.

Nonetheless, the case of local government in India provides robust evidence that gender quotas do work effectively in single-member district systems where women are often the most under represented. The impact evaluations of these cases show that well-designed quotas can indeed have substantive impacts on changing mindsets, on governance and service delivery, on better representation of the interests and needs of women, and on the political empowerment of women and girls.

 



[i] In 1991, women constituted 5.2 % of the membership of the Lok Sabha and 9.8 % of the membership of the Rajya Sabha. See Shirin Rai, Class, Caste and Gender- Women in Parliament in India, http://archive.idea.int/women/parl/studies4a.htm, accessed 1 June 2012; and Chattopadhyay and Duflo, Women As Policy Makers: Evidence From A Randomized Policy Experiment In India, Econometrica, Vol. 72, No. 5 (September, 2004), 1409–1443. http://economics.mit.edu/files/792. The latter notes that across India, the fraction of elected local female leaders had risen from under 5 % in 1992 to over 40 % by 2000.

[ii] For an example of this quota’s mandate and provisions see the West Bengal Panchayat Act (WBPA 1973), subsection 3 section 34

[iii]  Joakim Persson, The Impact of a Quota System on Women’s Empowerment – A field study in West Bengal, India (2008), Department of Economics at the University of Lund, Sweden, http://www.nek.lu.se/Publ/mfs/191.pdf, accessed 1 June 2012

[iv] Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford, Gender Quotas and Female Leadership, Background Paper, World Development Report 2012; Gender Equality and Development. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / the World Bank. 2011

[v]The system had previously lent greater influence to upper castes and the landed elite, at the expense of more impoverished and less educated groups. See Craig Johnson, Priya Deshingkar and Daniel Start, Grounding the State: Devolution and Development in India’s Panchayats, http://www.uoguelph.ca/~cjohns06/publications/FinalJDS.pdf, accessed 1 June 2012

[vi] The quota for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes reserved seats according to the population ratio of each per district.  Esther Duflo, Why Political Reservations?, Department of Economics and Poverty Action Lab, MIT, (September 2004) economics.mit.edu/files/794 , accessed 1 June 2012.

[vii] These include president of the block level and Chairman of the district level councils, however most studies focus on the village councils.

[viii] Mian Ridge, Women Spreading Political Wings With Help of India’s Quota System, (27 April 2010), http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/28/world/asia/28iht-quotas.html?pagewanted=all, last accessed 1 June 2012

[ix] Ibid

[x] Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford, Gender Quotas and Female Leadership, Background Paper, World Development Report 2012; Gender Equality and Development. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / the World Bank. 2011

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Joakim Persson, The Impact of a Quota System on Women’s Empowerment – A field study in West Bengal, India (2008), Department of Economics at the University of Lund, Sweden, http://www.nek.lu.se/Publ/mfs/191.pdf, accessed 1 June 2012; Beaman et al, Female Leadership Raises Aspirations and Educational Attainment for Girls: A Policy Experiment in India. Science 3 February 2012: 335 (6068), 582-586. Published online 12 January 2012. http://economics.mit.edu/files/7504   ; Povery Action Lab, Raising Female Leaders, (April 2012), http://www.povertyactionlab.org/publication/raising-female-leaders, last accessed 1 June 2012

[xiii] Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford, Gender Quotas and Female Leadership, Background Paper, World Development Report 2012; Gender Equality and Development. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / the World Bank. 2011

[xiv] Persson notes that in a related study, no difference was found between this aspiration between men and women (an estimated 79% of both groups). Also in WB 2011, citing Beaman et al 2009.

[xv] Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford, Gender Quotas and Female Leadership, Background Paper, World Development Report 2012; Gender Equality and Development. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / the World Bank. 2011

[xvi] See Joakim Persson’s literature review in The Impact of a Quota System on Women’s Empowerment – A field study in West Bengal, India (2008), Department of Economics at the University of Lund, Sweden, http://www.nek.lu.se/Publ/mfs/191.pdf, accessed 1 June 2012

[xvii] See World Bank Development Policy Review “India Inclusive Growth and Service Delivery: Building on India’s Success” (2006); Joakim Persson’s literature review in, The Impact of a Quota System on Women’s Empowerment – A field study in West Bengal, India (2008), Department of Economics at the University of Lund, Sweden, http://www.nek.lu.se/Publ/mfs/191.pdf, accessed 1 June 2012

[xviii] Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford, Gender Quotas and Female Leadership, Background Paper, World Development Report 2012; Gender Equality and Development. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / the World Bank. 2011

[xix] 181 out of the 543 seats in the Lower House or Lok Sabha and 1,370 out of a total of 4,109 seats in the 28 State Assemblies; By drawing lots, each seat shall be reserved only once in three consecutive general elections.

[xx] The main argument presented is that quotas for women will further disadvantage lower caste and Muslim minority groups. However other analysts have linked resistance to quotas for women with male politicians’ fears of losing their seats. Male members of Parliament would need to give up about 180 seats in the lower house. Nilanjana S. Roy, For Indian Women, a Long Wait for Equality in Parliament, (3 January, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/04/world/asia/04iht-letter04.html?pagewanted=all, accessed 1 June 2012.

[xxi] The New York Times, referring to a 2003 study by Chattopadhyay and Duflo, reports that   “A study of 161 villages in West Bengal found that more women (31 per cent) than men (17 per cent) raised the issue of drinking water in panchayat meetings. And villages with a woman as sarpanch constructed or repaired a total of 24 drinking water facilities, while villages with a man in charge constructed or repaired 15. Men were more likely to discuss and invest in irrigation and vocational training programmes, like upgrading the skills of farmers.” Mian Ridge, Women Spreading Political Wings With Help of India’s Quota System, (27 April 2010), http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/28/world/asia/28iht-quotas.html?pagewanted=all, last accessed 1 June 2012; see also Chattopadhyay and Duflo, Women As Policy Makers: Evidence From A Randomized

Policy Experiment In India, Econometrica, Vol. 72, No. 5 (September, 2004), 1409–1443. http://economics.mit.edu/files/794

[xxii] Esther Duflo and Petia Topalova, Unappreciated Service: Performance, Perceptions, and Women

Leaders in India (October 2004), http://poverty-action.org/sites/default/files/unappreciated.pdf, last accessed 1 June 2012

[xxiii] Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford, Gender Quotas and Female Leadership, Background Paper, World Development Report 2012; Gender Equality and Development. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / the World Bank. 2011

[xxiv] Chattopadhyay and Duflo, find that, compared to villages that were never reserved, the gender gap in aspirations  was reduced by 25 % in parents and 32 % in adolescents in villages assigned to a female leader for two election cycles. See Women As Policy Makers: Evidence From A Randomized Policy Experiment In India, Econometrica, Vol. 72, No. 5 (September, 2004), 1409–1443. http://economics.mit.edu/files/792

[xxv] Ibid

[xxvi] Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford, Gender Quotas and Female Leadership, Background Paper, World Development Report 2012; Gender Equality and Development. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / the World Bank. 2011

[xxvii] Ibid