One of India’s largest states, Madhya Pradesh is also one of its most backward. Formed in 1956 as an amalgamation of various provinces on a primarily linguistic basis, the state has 48 districts with a population of over 6 million people. Though it is richly endowed with natural resources, its very size, agro climactic zones and terrain prohibit an effective state wide delivery of the benefits derived from these sources. It is wracked by food shortage, water scarcity, poor health indicators, lack of educational facilities and the highest rate of crime against women and children in the nation (according to the National Crime Records Bureau and the National Women’s Commission).
However, Madhya Pradesh has a remarkably strong PRI system. It was the first state to implement the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution. The infrastructure of local governance is sound and women have been given a say in the democratic process. The State has now reserved 50% of seats in PRIs for women, one of the first few states in India to do so. It also withdrew the harmful two-child norm, which was a great hurdle for women in PRIs. Elected women in most other states are still fighting this battle.
Unfortunately, the PRI system is not separate from the social structure of Madhya Pradesh, where women suffer immense discrimination in the political field (and in the economic and social ones as well). The State has a highly patriarchal societal structure, which is reinforced by the conservatism of a largely feudal history. Women are denied the right to own resources and even access to these, even though they contribute significantly to the family income. Politically, women are present in local institutions but are unable to exercise effective power. They are also victims of crime and violence, and though the 2001 Census recorded a sex ratio of 919 females per thousand males, indicators suggest this number will fall, resulting in more women becoming targets of violence.
The 23,040 Gram Panchayats are run by 3,88,829 elected representatives, of whom 1,34,368 are women. They constitute 33.9% of the total number. The provision of 50% reservations will come into effect in the next elections. While this is a commendable achievement, it poses a huge challenge in the context of Madhya Pradesh. This is because the state government only provides minimal capacity building for the President, Vice-President and Secretaries of Panchayats and none at all for Ward Members. With so many women being elected in the upcoming 2009 elections, the need for capacity building will be huge. Additionally, an intensive pre-election campaign is a priority to ensure election of sincere candidates and curb violence against women during the election process, which is very high in the State.