Saumya Jyotsna | Mar 9, 2022 | 5 min read
Councillor Surbhi Shikha's husband (left) dominates the workings of her ward, seen here supervising a vaccination camp (Photo sourced by Saumya Jyotsna)
Despite being elected to chair wards and panchayats in Muzaffarpur, male members of their families assume power and perform their public duties.
Muzaffarpur: In October last year, the plight of women in politics in Bihar was brought to light in a public court held by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in Patna. Pinky Kumari, a ward member of Khutaha panchayat in the Bhagalpur district, demanded action against her husband for hindering her work as an elected representative.
“I want to implement the drinking water supply scheme under your dream project ‘Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal’, but my husband is hampering my efforts. Please take action against him for creating such hurdles in government work.”
While the Chief Minister instructed panchayat officers to take action on Kumari’s complaint, hers isn’t an isolated incident. Kumari’s predicament mirrors the helplessness of thousands of women across Bihar, who—despite being elected to the posts of sarpanch in panchayats, as members of panchayats or as ward councillors in municipal corporations—are forced to relinquish their power to the men in their family. In fact, a tour of rural Bihar will fetch you examples of husbands, fathers-in-law, brothers-in-law and other men carrying out the responsibilities that were, in reality, handed to these women, rendering them mere rubber stamps with no real authority.
Reservation seemingly a farce
In an attempt to augment women’s participation in public affairs, the Bihar government implemented 50% reservation for women in panchayats in 2006, hoping to ease their access to the chair and populate at least half of the 2.6 lakh panchayat seats with women. Under this reservation, in the Muzaffarpur Municipal Corporation, 25 of the 49 wards have female councillors. However, they remain elected representatives only by name because, in reality, their roles remain restricted to their homes, while their public duties are performed by their husbands. Reduced to the stature of puppets, their significant others are called to corporation meetings and make decisions in the name of the true public representative.
Nirmala Devi, the elected head of Ward 19, is one such example. A local resident told 101Reporters, “I once approached Nirmala Devi for some work, when her husband openly said he was the one who did the actual work.”
Similarly, councillors Shahnaj Khatoon of Ward 12 and Surbhi Shikha of Ward 30 aren’t the ones in positions of power. Their husbands dominate the workings of the wards under their wives’ ambit. In fact, Shikha’s partner even openly shares photos of his unjustified authority on Facebook; he can be spotted at Covid-19 vaccination drives as well as at road construction projects.
Such is the plight of several female ward councillors in Bihar, with local residents attesting to their situation. One Ranjan told 101Reporters that when they have issues to address, civilians are made to meet their councillors’ husbands at civic bodies, while the women stay home. Her role is reduced to merely signing papers at corporation meetings at the behest of their male counterparts.
A handful in real power
While it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that the majority of the women, elected to municipal corporations and panchayats under the reservation, are unable to assume power, there are a select few who take charge.
Ranju Sinha, the elected councillor in Muzaffarpur’s Ward 29, is well aware of her responsibilities—from taking stock of the state of her ward to overseeing Covid-19 vaccination drives and other projects.
“Women get a chance to come to power because of reservation,” she told 101Reporters. “But when they do, they remain ignorant of how they must carry themselves, speak at corporation meetings and perform their duties to ensure their participation. That is lacking.”
The councillor for Ward 42, Archna Pandit, lamented how hard it is for women to shine through in our male-dominated society.
“Girls are born in their father's shadow and then move on to their husband’s. They get accustomed to being dependent on others, because of which they don’t assert their rights,” Pandit emphasised. “Women have to prove their ability and raise their voice for their rights.”
Reservation far from the solution
“Politics has always been a male-dominated field, with the power always in their hands,” pointed out Kanksshi Agarwal, founder of the Netri Foundation, an organisation that helps train women to be better prepared for politics. “Politics involves being acquainted with the people and the social system. Given that women aren’t allowed the same freedom of movement as men, the latter develop a stronger social identity and greater affinity for politics.”
While Agarwal believes that reservation offers women the first step to climb the political ladder, which, in turn, inspires other women to get involved in the affairs of the state, several experts believe that reservation alone isn’t the solution.
Kundan Kumar Verma, a researcher from the University of Bihar who has studied the progress of the five-year plan and rural development in depth, said that lack of education among women was the primary reason men continue to assert their dominance in local governance.
“The situation will not see any change till women are made aware of their rights and develop confidence,” he added.
Additional Public Prosecutor Sangeeta Shahi echoed his views.
“Most female representatives are illiterate or poorly educated, due to which they are unaware of their rights,” said Shahi, who is also the president of Muzaffarpur district’s Women’s Advocates Association “They are not well-versed with government policies and show no interest in politics. They stand for elections at the behest of their families, after which their husbands assume power.”
Government officials were unwilling to share their comments on the prevalent situation in Bihar. Muzaffarpur Municipal Commissioner Vivek Ranjan Maitrey and Municipal Corporation Mayor Rakesh Kumar both declined to comment on women in politics in Bihar being pushed to the sidelines.
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