Should we have Reservations about Reservations?

An analysis of the impact of reservations for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions drawing from field observations in Uttar Pradesh

It has almost been three decades since the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act 1992 was passed, which granted 33% reservation for women in Panchayati Raj institutions (PRI). The move was heralded as a watershed in the history of state initiative on political empowerment of rural women”.[1] The rationale for these reservations was to give women a platform to directly participate in decision-making in local self-government from which they historically have been denied. However, as Sudha Pai noted, participation of women in these institutions does not exist in the abstract but is heavily interwoven with ideological and cultural factors where social inequality and oppression are reflected and maintained.[2]

In this short article I will argue that reservations for women have not gone far enough to empower women once they enter in to these positions. I will demonstrate that the lack of support for these women in the form of training and education in a strongly patriarchal society has led to the emergence of the Pradhan pati’, or proxy husband, which has essentially undermined the very purpose of reservations. It has also led to negative stereotyping of women as being uninterested or incompetent in their roles. Further, the high rates of illiteracy amongst women, combined with policies such as the two child norm, serve to further limit women’s ability to participate in these institutions. Lastly, I will make some recommendations as to how to maximize women’s leadership in tandem with reservation. I will conclude that we are right to have reservations about reservations but that they can be overcome when we understand the issues associated with women’s political participation in its entirety and do not try to artificially remove it from the complex web of social and historical structures in which it is embedded. Then and only then can we propose effective solutions.

Research Methodologies

I will draw my research from both academic literature as well as my own field research, conducted on behalf of Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana[3] (RGMVP) for my Experiential Learning Module (ELM), which is a study of women as leaders who have contested the Panchayati Raj elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP), namely, in the villages of Raebareli and Amethi. RGMVP is a flagship poverty reduction and women’s empowerment programme operating in 49 states of UP. Initially started as small micro financing units, RGMVP organizes rural women in to Self Help Groups (SHGs) which are managed by the women themselves and facilitated by field officers from the organisation. These SHGs enable women to alleviate poverty by saving money and permitting small loans, as well as empowering them through livelihood enhancement, promotion of better health behaviours and sensitization to deep rooted social prejudices and hierarchies. In recent years, a link between women who are SHG members and women who have contested and won seats in PRI has been observed by RGMVP, who pitched the project as an ELM to delve further in to the connection between the two. We have undertaken a qualitative and quantitative study through surveys, long interviews and focus groups of both SHG members and the pradhans. The observations drawn from this project are still rough field observations and have not been yet properly compiled. However, I feel that they will be valuable in providing up-to-date and on-the-ground reflections on how the system of reservation is functioning at present.

Reservations in a Patriarchal Society

The Pradhan Pati’ Phenomenon

One consideration that reservations did not fully take in to account was the rigid patriarchal society in which these women in rural settings are contesting their seats. Although reservations are definitely a step forward in mandating that women take up their rightful role in political processes, they are liable to manipulation due to the extremely male-dominated attitude to the exercise of any decision-making function. As a result, many women do not contest these positions in their own name, but rather, are coerced, manipulated or simply mandated to run by their husbands (or family) with the expectation that if they win, their husband will govern on their behalf. This phenomenon has been known as the proxy husband phenomenon, or Pradhan pati’. It was noted as early as 1995 that that most women in reserved constituencies were surrogates for male family members and exercised no powers and function.[4] A study report by the Planning Commission in 2008 noted that (t)he proxy representation in panchayat has become quite common.”[5] In our field work, out of the ten female pradhans that we have interviewed eight are what we would deem Pradhan pati. When asked their reasons for running they said that they were asked to by their husbands, they had little to no knowledge of their role or the development priorities of the village and their husbands attended the meetings. Often when we would interview these pradhans their husbands would be present and answer on their behalf and speak about how he had won the seat and the work he had done as a pradhan. It is naïve to assume that by implementing reservations for women in these roles, that women would immediately be permitted to take up these positions and lead with confidence, when they are considered second-class citizens by their male counterparts. When we asked the women if they had received any training as to the nature of their role and the grants and schemes that they could avail of, most said that they had not, even though there is supposedly a training programme once they have won their seat. As TH Marshall has noted (p)olitical rights gave potential power whose exercise demanded experience, organisation and a change of ideas as to the proper functioning of government. All these took time to develop.”[6] However, government has done nothing to unlock this potential power or develop the competencies and experience of these women once in these positions.

This has been the biggest pitfall of reservations and the government has not done enough to ensure that women are properly trained and supported once elected, leaving them vulnerable to influence by Pradhan patis. Government has relied too heavily on NGOs and SHGs, such as RGMVP, to supplement the information that these women receive about PRI.


One of the biggest reasons put forward for the prevalence of Pradhan pati was that women were not educated enough to govern correctly and therefore, needed the help from their husbands, who were generally more educated than them. Indeed, of the 100 women SHG members we interviewed during our field research the majority of them were illiterate and said that they would not run for PRI because of this reason alone. Indeed, it has been noted that the education levels of pradhans in reserved constituencies are far below those of unreserved constituencies.[7] Illiteracy greatly hinders a woman’s capacity to assert her leadership, such as engaging in meetings and accessing grants and schemes that could be beneficial to the realization of projects.

The Two Child Norm

Reservations for women have been further hindered by the enactment of measures such as the two-child norm for elected representatives, which prohibits people from contesting or holding seats if at the time of running they have more than two living children. The rationale for this measure is to promote the two-child norm and as these people are elected leaders, they will be considered models and others will follow in their footsteps.”[8] A number of states, including Rajasthan, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Himachel Pradesh and Maharashtra implemented this for PRI. However, Niramla Buch has shown that the two-child policy has made women its unintended target, with women forced to conceal their pregnancies, undergo abortions or face desertion by their husbands in an attempt for them to retain their seats. Indeed, she remarked that there was a misplaced belief that an Indian woman elected to a panchayat becomes so empowered that she could freely decide the timing and number of children irrespective of her family’s wishes and social pressures for producing sons.”[9] Hence, the law to empower women is seen as being circumvented by these imaginatively anti-democratic population policies.”[10] The two child norm was not enforced in UP and as such, it was not an issue for the women candidates we encountered.


This article has covered some of the most pertinent challenges to increasing women’s political participation through reservation, although there are many more such as harassment and caste politics which I have not discussed. I will now provide some brief recommendations on how to strengthen the impact of reservation.

Mandatory training and education

To try to combat the Pradhan pati phenomenon, compulsory training for women once they have entered in to PRI is necessary to orient them with the nature of the role and responsibilities, as well as the grant schemes and other procedures that they must be familiar with. This education, combined with the increased decision-making powers of women may help to slowly eradicate the Pradhan pati over time. Also, this training could be incorporated within the SHG model, so that the information is filtered down through the organisation and women become able to educate each other and build confidence. Literacy levels for women also need to be encouraged. One woman pradhan who was leading in her own right had an undergraduate degree and was a confident speaker and a fantastic leader. Only when women are at the same level of education as men that the men will not be justified in saying their guidance is needed.

Transportation to Meetings

Many of the pradhans reported that they could not attend meetings because they were held far away from their homes and transportation could not be organised for them to travel. If we truly want to encourage women’s participation in PRI, women’s transport and safety need to be accounted for. Safe and secure transportation should be organised for women so that they may travel to these meetings.


Many of the pradhans said that their husbands attended meetings because they had to stay at home to care for the children. Women are disproportionately responsible for the care of the house and of the children and without due consideration of this burden, no progress in their political participation will be made. Childcare could be provided to ensure that women can conduct their duties at meetings without making them feel that they have neglected their children. One female pradhan who lived in a joint family said that her family were very supportive and looked after her children when she was attending to her pradhan duties. This should also be encouraged.

Two Child Norm

As previously discussed, the two child norm discriminates against women the most as being the vessels of pregnancy and makes them even more vulnerable in these positions. This norm should be repealed immediately.

Banning of husbands at meetings

One suggestion made by Kumar Pradhan and Dutta[11] is to suspend women pradhans who do not attend meetings or whose husbands attend in their place. This suggestion again, misunderstands the challenges women face in attending meetings and makes assumptions as to the agency she has to demand that she attends the meetings herself. A better recommendation, albeit one which is more drastic and which would require strict policing would be to ban husbands from attending the meetings of their elected wives. This would reinforce a strict no-tolerance attitude to the Pradan pati tendencies.


Reservations have drastically changed the landscape for the political participation of women. However, for their participation to be true instead of token, steps, such as discussed above, need to be taken to encourage, train, support and guarantee the exercise of her functions once she has been elected.

  1. Pradhan, Kumar Sanjay and Dutta,Geetanjali.: Empowerment of Women in India through Panchayati Raj System,” The Indian Journal of Social Work, October. 2008, Vol-69, No.4, pp.559-577. 
  2. Pai, Suda, COMMENTARY-Pradhanis in New Panchayats Field Notes from Meerut District, Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 33, Issue No. 18, 02 May 1998 available at
  3. last accessed 16 February 2018.
  4. Permission has been obtained from RGMVP for use of these observations in this essay.
  5. Pradhan, Kumar Sanjay and Dutta,Geetanjali. p. 568.
  6. Empowerment of Women through Participation in Panchayati Raj Institutions: Some Structural Impediments and a Training Strategy”, Study Report, 2008, Institute of Social Development, available at last accessed 18 February 2018.
  7. Marshall, T. H. Citizenship and Social Class, And Other Essays. Cambridge: University Press, 1950. 
  8. Besley, Timothy, Pande, Rohini, Rao, Vijayendra, The Impact of Women’s. Reservations on Panchayats in South India. World Bank. Radu Ban. London School of Economics. September 2004 available at last accessed 15 February 2018.
  9. Buch, Nirmala, Law of Two-Child Norm in Panchayats Implications, Consequences and Experiences, Economic and Political Weekly, June 11, 2005, available at last accessed 18 February 2018.
  10. Ibid p. 6.
  11. Mohan Rao Two-Child Norm in Panchayats: Many Steps Back’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XXXVIII, No 38, pp 3451-53, August 16 2003. 
  12. Pradhan, Kumar Sanjay and Dutta,Geetanjali. P. 575.

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