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Prasanna Mishra

Odisha is among twenty states where 50% of the elected seats in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) are reserved for women – higher than the minimum percentage stipulated in Clause (3) of Article 243D of the Constitution. As per a PIB release relating to the Ministry of Panchayati Raj dated 23rd September, 2020, out of the total PRI Representatives numbering 107,487 in Odisha, Elected Women Representatives (EWRs) numbered 56,627. The state is now on Election mode for Panchayats to elect representatives for 853 Zilla Parishad seats, 6794 Sarpanches and 91,913 wards and is all set to elect over 50,000 women representatives to various PRIs of the state. The Municipal Elections are expected to follow. Office of the chairperson in 54 Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) has been reserved for women candidates. This time, the post of mayor, chairpersons of municipalities and NACs will be elected directly by the people following an amendment of the Odisha Municipal Rules, 1994. These initiatives look impressive.

Thousands of women from all segments of population elected to local bodies for many years, by now, have surely ensured greater participation of women in the state's political space. How far it has impacted the quality of governance, particularly in the context of the BJD Government spending huge amounts of money in its programmes for women empowerment, needs a review.
A closer look at the safety of women and dignity associated with it, however, tells a sad story. Three cases of sexual abuse of children of five years and below in Puri in the first month of 2022 have raised serious concerns over safety of children in a state that has been boasting of women empowerment for decades. Children and women in Odisha face increasing vulnerability to sexual abuse betraying widespread perverse societal tolerance to a ghastly behaviourial aberration. There is no evidence that correctives have been applied and the government has a zero tolerance policy to such incidents.

National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of Ministry of Home Affairs in its Report on Crime in India for 2020 reports 12,605 cases from Odisha of assaults on women with intent to outrage the women's modesty. Total number of such cases in India was 81713. Odisha was at the top, accounting for 15.4% of such cases, while Gujarat and Tamil Nadu each reported less than 900 such cases. Women-centric cyber crimes in Odisha was yet another area of grave concern. The state earned the dubious distinction of being at the top with 526 cases in 2020 against the country's total of 2302 such cases - accounting for 22.84%. 

Both in the areas of pendency of cases under trial and conviction of cases involving crimes against women in Odisha, the picture is a matter of great concern. While the number of cases pending trial was 114155 and 22729 cases of 2020 got added to it, only 144 cases ended with conviction and 1427, with acquittal. Rate of conviction was only 9.2% and pendency was at 98.9%. In the cacophony created by the government's publicity- overdrive on women empowerment, these indicators of acute distress of Odisha’s women are getting buried with no sign of remedial initiatives. As regards the safety of children, the situation is again chaotic. Out of 50,606 cases of kidnapping and abduction of children reported in India in 2020, Odisha accounted for 3915 cases coming below four states– West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

Despite such a pathetic situation, the state is yet to give a close look at the special talent women possess and harness it for improving the quality of governance. Mere swell in number of elected representatives does not enhance quality unless government has a strategy and works on it.

What are the valuable traits women administrators/ leaders possess?

Harvard Business Review Research in a research report by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman on why women are better leaders during a crisis, published on December 30, 2020, indicated that women leaders exhibited higher learning agility, were better in inspiring, developing and motivating others, built better relationships, displayed high integrity and honesty, communicated more prolifically and powerfully, were better in collaboration and teamwork, better in taking decisions and championing changes, better in solving problems and analyzing issues, better focused on customers and more effective drivers for results, valued diversity and developed strategic perspective. The gap between men and women in the pandemic, the study found, was even larger than previously measured, possibly indicating that women tend to perform better in a crisis. 

With such preponderant evidence about the special traits of women as leaders, it would be a pity if Odisha does not use the women administrators at the cutting edge level in a much more focused way to tone up governance quality. A good idea would be to select one district and man all key government positions like District Magistrate, SP, DFO, Chief Medical Officer, BDO, Tehsildar, Officer-in Charge of Police Station and monitor its impact on delivery of services to citizens; on corruption and on crime. Since the state has an adequate number of women at these levels, all women deployment even in a few districts would pose no problem; but, to start with, the Government may choose only one District as a pilot project.

As regards the benefit Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) would bestow on the citizens and the city by having a Woman Mayor, much depends on whether government would adopt the “business as usual” attitude or use the opportunity of utilizing the special leadership traits of a woman leader to the advantage of the citizenry and the city. The city surely does not benefit with a Rubber Stamp Mayor. Selection of the candidate should be only merit-based and the incumbent should enjoy functional independence without political bosses breathing down her neck. Whether the woman Mayor of Bhubaneswar would be a game-changer would depend on the Government's objective– to let slums win or a modern city emerge.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. The author can be reached at lonewalker.1942@gmail.com)

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