In economies such as India, a significant concern is the inability of large sections of the population to access essential services such as water and education, or the reality that they receive poor quality services, often at high costs.This problem is particularly acute in rural areas where low literacy levels, coupled with limited access to drinking water, have led to serious concerns like widespread migration in search of low-skilled jobs, low productivity of labor, and gender discrimination.
This paper explores the following: a) Does women’s political agency play a role in improving the provision of services? b) If there are effective alternate institutions operating within villages, will they help improve the functioning of the elected Panchayats? c) Does the choice of the service provider matter for households? d) What will be the economic impact, at the household level, of improved access to services?
Based on large survey data from the ARIES/REDS database and interviews across several Indian states, the authors have found that despite operating in a very poor system and being poorly staffed and funded, local governments have been able to make significant contributions to the quantity and quality of basic services such as water and education, and are playing a significant role in the identification and resolution of related problems. The quota or reservation for women running and being elected in local governance bodies has had a positive effect on the availability and quality of education and water in rural areas, with girls and women benefitting the most as they would have traditionally been the ones spending long hours fetching water, for instance.
The study also finds that the quality of education in public schools, and those run by the local government or the Panchayat, is significantly related to governance, and the involvement of the child’s parents (in particular the mother) in the management of schools is important. Village level literacy is significantly enhanced if households choose private schools over public and Panchayat-run schools. It also found that women’s representation in local governance bodies reduces barriers for women in the labor market and allows them to bargain for higher non-farm wages. If the time spent in fetching water is reduced due to improved provision of water services, then women in particular use the time saved for more productive activities.
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