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Mainstream, VOL LV No 12 New Delhi March 11, 2017

Panchayats, Women and Sustainable Development Goals

Reaching out to the last person

Sunday 12 March 2017


by Bidyut Mohanty

The following article is being published against the backdrop of the International Women’s Day on March 8.


The current century saw new concerns of the people of the world, such as gross inequality cutting across caste, class, ethnicity, and gender, conspicuous consumption and production, agricultural crisis, degradation of natural resources leading to greenhouse effects and extinction of other species at large, and various forms of conflicts throughout the world. World communities, as represented by UN bodies, became aware of the new disturbing trends and started thinking about the Millennium Develop-ment Goals (MDGs)—2000, and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—2016-30. Unlike at the time of formulation of the MDGs, this time the local governments may play an important role since a lot of bottom-up thinking has gone into formulating the SDGs, particularly at the level of setting the priorities, executing the plans, monitoring local firms and communities. The local governments being nearer to the ground realities, these institutions are better placed for such purposes.

It is important to realise that before the initiation of all the above goals, panchayats in India were already earmarked for the devolution of 29 subjects—having in fact the rudiments of all the above goals. It is equally important to emphasise the fact that women in panchayats take keen interest in fulfilling the delivery of basic services including monitoring the PDS, low-cost shelter, drinking water, and other aspects which are necessary for fulfilling some of the vital SDGs.

In this paper we will not only compare and contrast the various MDGs and SDGs with 29 subjects but also deliberate upon the different gains and challenges the local government actors face while executing those. It is our contention that unless the local government system in general and the capabilities of elected panchayat women in particular are strengthened in terms of knowledge, financial power, administrative power and trust from the public; proper infor-mation to fulfil different targets to achieve the goals can’t be collected nor can the goals be achieved within fifteen years. One ray of hope is the fact that the Fourteenth Finance Comm-ission has been relatively more liberal in allo-cating some additional funds recently. The Commission recommends not only to allocate 42 per cent of the Central pool, but also the State to give more power to the local bodies. Further, it also advises the latter to mobilise their own resources by raising local tax and other avenues.1 Based on that, the State of Kerala has already started preparing the bottom-up planning which is the need of the hour.

MDGs, SDGs and Panchayats

Most of goals assigned to eight MDGs—2000-2015; 17 SDGs to be implemented thereafter by 2030; and 29 subjects listed in Schedule XI of the Constitution of India for devolution to the panchayats have a lot in common. (See Annexures 1, 2 and 3)

Goal number 1 ‘no to poverty’ and Goal number 2 ‘no to hunger’ of the SDGs are over-lapping and have a relatively wider meaning. The definition of poverty is wider as it involves ensuring equal rights to economic resources as well as access to basic services such as safe drinking water, education and shelter under target number 1.4 including implementation of social protection systems and measures.2 In order to fulfil Goal number 2 it is imperative to double the productivity of agriculture as well as the income of small farmers, women and indigenous people, among others, through equal access to land and other major inputs. In case of panchayats, on the other hand, it very much depends on improvement of ‘agriculture’, including ‘land’, ‘minor irrigation’, ‘utilisation of minor forest produce’, ‘poverty alleviation programmes’ and ‘public distribution scheme’. Besides, the emphasis is also on creation of water harvesting structures, and deepening of traditional water bodies to enhance agriculture.

Kerala has taken the lead in the panchayats to start cooperative farming by the women’s groups in order to give them dignified jobs locally. In addition, giving power to collect minor forest produce under the Pesa Act does contribute towards creating income. But without linking it with the market, and sustainable diversification of agriculture as well as manu-facturing value added agro-based product and not depending on the local produce retards the whole effort.3 Further alleviating hunger also means supervising the Public Distribution System, monitoring of the Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) and Mid Day Meals (MDM), assurance of additional jobs through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Goal number 6 is akin to the panchayats’ role of ensuring safe drinking water and sanitation under points 11 and 23 out of the 29 subjects.

Similarly, one finds some sort of commonality between the aspects of ‘reduce child mortality’ and ‘improve maternal mortality’ of the MDGs (4 and 5) and ‘good health’ and ‘wellbeing’ of the SDGs (3) with the activities of ‘health and sanitation’, ‘family welfare’ and ‘tribal welfare’ (23, 24 and 27). Recently for panchayats more focus has been on the maternal health and reduction of infant mortality through the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) but the SDGs focus on the health of all age-groups and for male and female as well as on reduction in deaths due to infectious and non-infectious diseases.

‘Women’s empowerment’ and ‘gender equality’ of the MDGs and SDGs are at par with the women and child development programmes assigned to panchayats. Quality education of the SDGs and monitoring education as in the 29 subjects should be read together. The quality education can be assured when definite indicators are identified. The Right to Education Act—2009 aims at achieving these objectives through the panchayats. Among the weaknesses of the present education system are its aversion to physical work and the system being devoid of human values. Education as a comprehensive attainment that respects all forms of labour has to be emphasised. Going beyond the universality of literacy and achieving quality education for all is a laudable objective under the SDG number 4. Goal 7 of sustainable growth requires, among others, creation of decent jobs which goes against the use of unsuitable technology for utilising the mineral resources leading to unnecessary destruction of forest and displacement of the tribals.4 The panchayats under environment protection can prevent this.

The SDG goals on environment and related issues, namely, 13, 14 and 15, are more compre-hensive compared to the MDGs since they aim at protecting the animals of sea, and those of land as also taking cognisance of the greenhouse impact in the case of the universe at large. However, both the tasks of local government and those of the SDGs will not bear fruit unless devolution of the three ‘f’s, namely, finance, function, functionaries, to the panchayats by the higher tiers of the government is done in letter and spirit and global partnership is ensured.

In other words, the Panchayati Raj Institutions as well as women in panchayats are more or less familiar with the above issues having their feet firmly on the ground confronting the whole world, but their effort has to be synergised with other sectors of the government. Only then perhaps we will be able to get accurate data from the field about the various needs of the people, such as diversification of agriculture, locally available nutritious food, dignified job as well as health, sanitation and safe water. In addition, prevalence and prevention or outbreak of various kinds infectious and other types of diseases have to be closely watched and their prevention and treatment planned along with the panchayats to take prompt action. The required amount of resources must be provided for meeting all the seventeen goals in every panchayat.

Uniqueness of SDGs

Undoubtedly, the MDGs and SDGs are more inclusive, universal and they require an effort on the global scale. The goals of the SDGs in particular are based on the principles of human rights, equality and sustainability and deal with five ‘p’s, that is, people, peace, prosperity, planet, and partnership. The goals can be achieved only when the people of the world have a shared commitment—united will to end conflict, reduce conspicuous consumption and production, harness sustainable energy, care for every type of animals beyond anthropocene, promote all forms of equality in all spheres among individuals and groups.

Indeed the SDGs’ tasks are much more formidable for which there are 169 targets and numerous indicators and for which efforts are still under the process of finalisation. Besides, each target has many indicators for which data is lacking. Many people think that if India, having 1.2 billion people, can achieve some of the SDGs, the world will be better off. But would India be able to achieve the goals having myriads of problems at every level? First of all, the indicators require detailed data and synergies with all the line departments, NITI Aayog and, last but not the least, Panchayati Raj Institutions.

Secondly, to fulfil goals like gender inequality, the women not only need political represen-tation in higher tiers of government but also a change in the cultural attitude of the society. Finally, as mentioned above, the local govern-ments are more familiar with the goals than others and if these institutions can be trusted upon, then it would be easier to fulfil some of the goals with suitable data, policies and implementation. Secondly, the Fourteenth Finance Commission has allocated additional resources of Rs 85 lakhs for the panchayats which can be utilised to deliver the basic services. Based on that the State of Kerala has started formulating the bottom-up district planning.

Women in Panchayati Raj System

It is interesting to note that the Global Network of Cities—Local and Regional Governments is of the opinion that local governments form an important bridge between the national govern-ment and communities and will have a central role in a new global partnership. In particular the local communities have a critical role in setting local priorities, and implementing those.

It is a well-known fact that the structure of the panchayats is saddled with various systemic problems. Women are subjected to various types of discriminations, such as caste, class and patriarchy. The caste leaders and bureaucracy try to dominate them at the institutional level, where the husbands also don’t spare them.

Secondly, they work in such institutions where almost no power has been handed over to them. For example, except during the panchayat elections, the representatives are made to do many kinds of activities including record-keeping for the State Government. At best sometimes their work is to monitor the implementation of different developmental activities. Even there the government functionaries have taken over.

For instance, the pradhan/sarpanch of the panchayat used to notify about the availability of work in the gram sabha, identify labour, keep job cards and make payments under the MGNREGS. But now the Rozgar Sevak has taken charge of making the list of 100 labourers, identifying the work to be done without taking into confidence the gram sabha or pradhan. Secondly, the payment is done from the State Finance Department directly. Sometimes the payment takes months together and people are not opting for the MGNREGS work.

No doubt there were many irregularities leading to corruption in the previous mode of action. But instead of rectifying the system the State and Central governments tried to sideline the local government actors. In many areas, the Rozgar Sevak does not have any accountability to the local people as the pradhan used to have.

Similarly the Prime Minister always talks about Swachh Bharat but never mentions the role of the panchayats though the panchayats are supposed to be the nodal agency for this. One can multiply such examples. Besides, there is much evidence to show that despite reservation the upper-caste and middle-class families directly and indirectly manage to control the panchayat affairs. In some places, the Dalit and tribal communities are not allowed to function independently or are compelled to quit or face severe violence.

Elected women representatives face additional constraints since they are subjected to the patriarchal value system and are still double-burdened with domestic obligations and give relatively less time to the panchayat work. Besides, many State governments have put additional conditions such as two-child norm, minimum educational qualification etc., which exclude those who deserve to be included in the development process.

However, many new trends have emerged and like male pradhans, female pradhans also are becoming successful implementers of the developmental schemes and try to increase the productivity of land, regenerate social forestry and provide basic services such as food security, supply of safe drinking water, monitor food security, ensure presence of teachers and protect forest.5 The research journals are full of such success stories. The field studies conducted by the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS), New Delhi in the tribal areas of Odisha during the period of 2013-15 revealed how tribal women took advantage of new schemes and used the institution of panchayats to protect their rights. In many places, they have become part of the self-help groups and take the help of their husbands too but holding the rope of the decision-making firmly in their hands.6

In yet another survey report on their perception of violence, conducted among 260 elected women representatives from eleven States by the ISS, New Delhi, it was revealed that a significant percentage of women felt that the husband’s beating for burning rice while being cooked is indeed a crime. Similarly they also were of the opinion that to beat up or scold for any offence committed by them should be considered a crime.

In 2013 another survey was conduced by the same Institute among 500 elected women representatives and it showed that most of the women knew about the role of the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) and institutional delivery as well as the amount of remuneration. They were encouraging the other women to avail the opportunities. They were also aware of the Standing Committee of Health and Sanitation and tried to spend whatever money was given to them. But all of them said that the Line Department controlled the money part.7

In other words, elected women represen-tatives have a rising level of consciousness and are trying to bring forward gender equality and peace though on a limited scale. But unfortu-nately a very insignificant percentage of women said that female foeticide was an offence and it should be prevented. It was conducted in 2015.8

Thus the women in panchayats not only know about some aspects of the SDGs in their own way but are also fulfilling some of the objectives in spite of many hurdles. However, it should be pointed out that the tribal women sarpanches of Odisha, whom we interviewed in 2013-14, were not aware of the Millennium Development Goals though they knew all the aspects of the goals in their own way as their activities and needs of daily life.

Way Forward

The UN authorities have set the timeline for the SDGs to be fulfilled by 2030. Given the enormity of the complexities of the goals and lack of data as well as resources, the authorities of Niti Aayog express their helplessness. But the experience of grassroots democracy, as discussed above, gives a ray of hope of collecting data from the grassroots level.

At the same time it has to be remembered that most of the tribal elected representatives (both men and women) are still lagging behind in both knowledge and consciousness; and are not given a key role in the development process. The gram sabha is riddled with caste, class, ethnicity and is not trusted upon. The members of panchayats do not realise that they are accountable to the gram sabha and think themselves as the implementers of the welfare schemes and this may not always be suitable to the local conditions. They have to be more responsive to the total welfare of the downtrodden of the panchayats. Secondly, women mostly cherish the patriarchal values; hence they become insensitive to such crimes like faemale foeticide. The progressive educational curricula, gender sensitive media and even forward looking spiritual gurus can play an important role in reshaping the cultural values.

Finally, along with the financial resources, putting faith on the elected women represen-tatives as well as expanding their capabilities to think, plan and implement a sustainable development programme for the area would go a long way to fulfil some of the SDG goals.

Thus panchayats are uniquely placed at the grassroots level and have recently been given responsibility for implementing several right- based essential services. Therefore, they have a clear capacity to pursue the SDGs. Constitutionally mandated not less than one-third representation to women enables them to overcome many cultural constraints and create new consciousness among both men and women about their rights. No doubt despite such possibilities there are many limits because even now the political system does not treat the panchayats as the fulcrum of the socio-economic transformation but mainly as a mechanism of delivery service. With the coming of the SDGs there is a new context to reconsider panchayats as the critical democratic institutions with women playing a catalytic role.


Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

1. Eradicate extreme hunger and poverty.

2. Achieve universal education.

3. Promote gender equality.

4. Reduce child mortality.

5. Improve maternal health.

6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.

7. Ensure environmental sustainability.

8. Develop a global partnership for development.


Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

7. Ensure access to affordable reliable, sustainable modern energy for all.

8. Promote sustained inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation.

10. Reduce inequality within and among the countries.

11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production pattern.

13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impact.

14. Conserve and sustainably use the ocean, seas and marine resources, for sustainable development.

15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forest, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt bio-diversity loss.

16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.


In the Constitution, the following Schedule shall be added, namely,


(Article 243G)

1. Agriculture, including agricultural extension.

2. Land improvement, implementation of land reforms, land consolidation and soil conservation.

3. Minor irrigation, water management and watershed development.

4. Animal husbandry, dairying and poultry.

5. Fisheries.

6. Social forestry and farm forestry.

7. Minor forest produce.

8. Small scale industries, including food processing industries.

9. Khadi, village and cottage industries.

10. Rural housing.

11. Drinking water.

12. Fuel and fodder.

13. Roads, culverts, bridges, ferries, waterways and other means of communication.

14. Rural electrification, including distribution of electricity.

15. Non-conventional energy sources.

16. Poverty alleviation programme.

17. Education, including primary and secondary schools.

18. Technical training and vocational education.

19. Adult and non-formal education.

20. Libraries.

21. Cultural activities.

22. Markets and fairs.

23. Health and sanitation, including hospitals, primary health centres and dispensaries.

24. Family welfare.

25. Women and child development.

26. Social welfare, including welfare of the handicapped and mentally retarded.

27. Welfare of the weaker sections, and in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

28. Public distribution system.

29. Maintenance of community assets.”


1. http://iksa.in/gs3/14th-finance-commission-summary-of-recommendations/2044/

2. Interestingly even though it does involve in depending on subsidies which is just one of the targets but not the principal one unlike in the case of panchayats which heavily depend on PDS to alleviate poverty. Instead of that it takes recourse to the dignified job and improvement of agriculture.

3. In fact, the tribal area is full of highly valued forest produce such as jaw, bajra and ragi which are sought after by the middle-class people instead of wheat and rice but the tribals are thrust upon rice and wheat! Similarly different oilseeds, including Neem, ginjali and niger and turmeric, are used to protect the face of fashion-conscious women in the city. Besides the locally grown pineapple, orange and jackfruit are sold at a distress price by using appropriate technology just like in Himachal Pradesh. In other words, Smart India can start in the tribal areas using the young women and men by imparting them with some skill, instead of bringing them to the city. The local panchayat can be the store-house of the knowledge to facilitate the information.

4. That displacement propels women and men out of the secured livelihood to uncertain domestic workers class in the city having no workers’ rights.

5. Vani Kulkarni and Raghav Gaiha, “Is Empowerment of Women ‘will—of the Wisp’?”, November 10, 2015. http://www.ipsnews.net/

6. The Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, conducted intensive study of three blocks of Mayurbhanj and two blocks of Rayagada which have 55 per cent of the tribal population. Altogether we interviewed 44 female sarpanches and 18 male sarpanches constituting 10 per cent of the total sample. We also selected 12 case studies out of which four are male sarpanches and eight female ones. Both form of evaluation studies revealed that both men and women are taking the advantage of the Panchayati Raj System to fulfil the developmental goals even within limited authority!

7. Bidyut Mohanty, ‘Report of Survey on National Rural Health Mission (NRHM).: To What Extent are the Panchayats Participating in Health Policy?’, http://www.mainstreamweekly.net/article4000.html

8. Bidyut Mohanty, ‘How Do Women in Panchayats Perceive Violence? A Survey Report’, http://www.mainstreamweekly.net/IMG/pdf/how_do_panchayat_women_perceive_violence_bidyut-mohanty_.pdf

The author is the Head, Women’s Studies, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. She can be contacted at e-mail: bidyutmohanty[at]issin.org

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