Decentralised Governance, Gender & Affirmative Action in Rural Drinking Water Management

Article excerpt

The Project

This research project looks at the gendered terrain of water governance in India where decentralization policies coupled with water sector reforms from the early 1990s sought to shift the role of the state from a supply driven provider of water services to one which is facilitating demand and enabling community management. At the core of this process of institutional restructuring is the realization that water is no longer a free good and that decentralized governance is the only way to ensure sustainable, equitable and efficient water delivery. Based on the principles of cost recovery from users, the new institution-Pani Samiti (Village Water & Sanitation Committee-VWSC) is meant to address management inefficiencies through participatory planning and inclusive decision-making. Mandatory 50 percent seats are reserved for women in the Pani Samiti and among them Dalit women too claim 15 percent reservation, corresponding to Dalit men in the rest of the samiti. Women's and other marginalized groups' participation is seen as integral part of this process. Our concern is to assess whether this process empowers women and what more is needed to make this affirmative action become meaningful for strengthening women's agency as a rightful citizen being able to manage the affairs which concern them the most.


It has been noted by several authors that the simultaneous concentration of power at the global level and the localisation of politics in development is not a matter of coincidence. There has been an animated debate about whether democratic decentralization improves development performance because it provides impetus for popular participation and accountability into local governance, which forces it to be more responsive to citizen desires and more effective in service delivery. The study by Blair (2000) from six countries (Karnataka being from India) found that democratic local government increases participation and representation but does not necessarily enhance the empowerment of non-elite groups. Nor does it make the distribution of benefits more equitable or reduce poverty. The problem, as pointed out by Mukhopadhyay (2005), is that the discourse on decentralization assumes, to a large extent, that once the institutions of governance have been engineered to bring these closer to localities, participation and voice will follow. Nonelite groups in society will automatically raise their voice and demand accountability and share in public goods. Mukhopadhyay cites Heller (2000) saying that it is a technocratic vision. Alternately, what is required is that decentralisation has to be driven by social movements, not by political parties or by labour unions, but by action which would build the local capacity, grass-root institutions and extra-parliamentary arenas of participation. Heller posits that there are two polarized assumptions; one from the world of technocrats and another from anarcho-communitarians. The truth rests somewhere in between. On the one hand, decentralisation entails complex changes in administrative, financial and decision making systems that require a high level of technical expertise and coordination. On the other, the basic premise of decentralization that is brought closer to people and therefore is more responsive to real people's needs and interests is undermined without strategies to mobilize 'voice' of subordinate groups in society, and the forging of institutionalized spaces for participation and accountability.

Decentralisation & Gender

Most work on gender dimensions of decentralization focuses on the connection between the subordinate power of women in the private domain and possibilities and limits to the exercise of power in the public sphere, in the world of politics, decision making and governance. Some studies (e.g. Evertzen 2001) assumed that local politics is easier for women because eligibility criteria at the local level are less stringent and local government is the closest to women's spheres of life, and easier to combine with rearing of children (Beall 2006). …