Tamil Nadu was one of the last states to hold panchayat elections under the 73rd amendments. It brought a new cohort of elected representatives, most of whom were from non-political backgrounds. Reservations for women (33%) and socially excluded communities (SCs and STs) provided an unprecedented opportunity for these sections.

Implementation revealed structural flaws, insufficient devolution, under-resourcing financially and otherwise, an ill prepared administration extending turf and capacity gaps in the elected representatives. SCs who dared to stand for elections were intimidated into withdrawing and even murdered when they didn’t. Elected women, SCs and STs (including presidents) often had to sit on the floor of the panchayat offices, were prevented from signing cheques or hoisting the national flag and were humiliated by others including the village clerk.

Voluntary organizations seized the opportunity to empower the newly elected representatives, particularly those from the vulnerable sections. Thousands were trained. They were organized into Tamil Nadu Federation of Women Panchayat Presidents and another federation SC and ST elected representatives. These created a peer support group as well as a safe space for them. The supporting NGOs formed an alliance to coordinate support.

This has resulted in 38% of the seats being filled by women (5% more than the reserved seats). Their demands are articulated in annual conventions of the federation. The elections of April 2017 will see 50% reservations for women—one of the key demands of the women panchayat presidents’ federation.