India’s population of nearly 600 million had been voting for a new national government under a controversial set of rules. Due to a recent change in the law a certain number of local councils positions must be held by women and persons from the lower castes. This practice, while generally successful, has not been met without resistance. There practical complaints that the people being elected don’t have the schooling to lead. The biggest hindrance though is the 2,000 years of tradition that prescribe a radically different world order.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In the north Indian village of Kanwra, the slow, arduous way of life has not changed for centuries, it seems, for people like Ramwaiti. In India’s rigidly laddered rural society, Ramwaiti sits on the bottom rung, a caste of cleaners, whose job is to sweep and pick up garbage in homes where they aren’t even allowed indoors. However, two years ago, Ramwaiti, a woman of few words and no formal education, was elected president of the village council, essentially the mayor. “A group of people came to me and asked me to run,” she says, “so I did.” Ramwaiti’s election is the result of a controversial 1993 amendment to India’s constitution. It brought affirmative action or reservations to local government at two levels: Caste and sex. The act mandates that on a rotating basis, one-third of India’s half million villages must be led by women, a set percentage of them from lower castes. Throughout the subcontinent, politics have been a male and upper-caste domain. Village councils set priorities, like roads, schools and sanitation. Council presidents are supposed to then work with regional bureaucracies to obtain the grants to fund them.
RAMWAITI: (speaking through interpreter) We should do all the development work. We need roads and water pumps. We need new rooms for our school. I have worked to bring grants to the village.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In Kanwra, Ramwaiti talks about the village needs, but few believe she could do much without Mr. Satya Dev, an upper- caste political ally and veteran of village politics. Dev himself takes credit for bringing water pumps, for creating a road around the village, and in helping keep the village books, which register things like land transactions and tax collections.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: This is your signature and this is the thumb print of the mayor?
SATVA DEV: Yes.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: However, critics say it is Dev, not Ramwaiti, who really pulls the strings in the village. Chedda Madl is a high caste farmer and retired village chief himself.
CHEDDA MADL: (speaking through interpreter) This mayor, she’s illiterate. She’s from the weaker sections of the society. She cannot be expected to put up any resistance. She is completely in the hands of Mr. Satya Dev. All the projects are for his personal benefit.
RAMWAITI: (speaking through interpreter) No, not at all.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Ramwaiti insists she is not influenced by Dev, and he denies getting any personal gain. But even though they’re allies now, Dev opposes the affirmative action system that put Ramwaiti in the mayor’s job. He likely won’t support her in the next election when the mayoral seat will no longer be reserved for a lower caste woman.
SATYA DEV: (speaking through interpreter) They should educate these people before letting them into positions of power. There should be a minimal level of, maybe tenth grade.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Although most political parties in India say they approve some form of set-asides, Vinod Mehta, editor of the news magazine Outlook, says at ground level, it’s met with resistance.
VINOD MEHTA, Outlook: You’re taking on 2,000 years of the way the village has been run and now you’re saying it must change. I think there will be lots of resistance, there will be lots of attempts to sabotage it, but I don’t see actual violence, too much actual violence. But I see institutionalized efforts to sabotage it, yes.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But Mehta says there are places where the reforms have taken hold. Kerala, the lush coastal state in the south, is one. At the village hall in Mattathur, the council president is also a low-caste woman. But Mani Kuttapan confidently calls to order this meeting to discuss the problem of alcoholism.
MANI KUTTAPAN: (speaking through interpreter) We have to all work together. It is my job as panchayat president to bring the whole community together on this issue.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Kuttapan took over the job earlier this year, assuming the second half of a six-year term she won in a power-sharing pact with Vasantha Kumari, an upper-caste woman. Kuttapan says her priority is to get information to lower-caste communities, officially called scheduled castes.
MANI KUTTAPAN: (speaking through interpreter) Scheduled caste people have long been looked down upon, so the government has put in place a number of schemes to help them. But people need to be made aware of these things that can help them.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Both Kuttapan and her upper-caste political partner belong to the state’s long-ruling communist party, which prides itself on bringing nearly 100 percent literacy to Kerala. Even in this lower-caste section of the village, children can be seen with books, catching the day’s last light in front of their unelectrified homes. Village President Kuttapan herself has a high school education. However, the State of Kerala has relatively low private investment and high unemployment, a problem especially for women according to Vasantha Kumari.
VASANTHA KUMARI: (speaking through interpreter) Women are treated like second-class citizens, because they are not earning. So our objective is to include employment as part of the council plan, to organize self- help groups so women can borrow from each other, instead of from money lenders, who they are forced to go to.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Among the small cottage industries that have been developed to help women are basket weaving, using the abundant palm fiber and chips made from the native jack fruit, which are sold in larger cities in South India. Yet even in relatively progressive Kerala, the playing field is far from even between the sexes. In this chip factory, for instance, men are paid about 25 percent more for than their female work mates, a common practice throughout India.
VASANTHA KUMARI: (speaking through interpreter) This is the first time a woman has become village president. This has been ruled by men, this has been dominated by men, so it is not easy to change the situation in three years. It can only be changed over a longer period of time.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And even though her lower-caste partner says she feels supported as the village president, Vasantha Kumari says it will be a long time before lower-caste people gain widespread acceptance.
VASANTHA KUMARI: (speaking through interpreter) There need to be reservations for women and also for scheduled castes. Political parties are not interested in fielding women candidates and scheduled castes unless there are reservations. So reservations are a must.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Even though the pace of change may seem slow, many experts predict women like Vasantha Kumari and Mani Kuttapan, will grow as a political force on the national scene. Set-asides or reservations, like programs to help women in general, have the support in principle of most political parties and in practice of many non-governmental organizations.