Political Reservation and Substantive Representation: Evidence from Indian Village Councils

Reserving political seats for women increases female electoral participation and responsiveness to women’s policy concerns.


In India, female representation is approximately 10 percent in state and national legislatures. While studies have linked female political representation to changes in policymaking, particularly those policies targeting women, other studies show using gender quotas to increase women’s electoral representation may not be the most effective way to empower women and improve democracy. In India, a 1993 constitutional amendment reserved 33 percent of village leader positions for women and this reservation system is rotated between elections. In this paper, the authors examine the effects of this gender quota system on policy outcomes and female constituent political participation.


Villages with female leaders experienced increased female participation and responsiveness to female policy concerns.

  • Political reservation for women on village councils did not impact the electoral prospects of other disadvantaged groups. In particular, the authors found no evidence of an adverse crowd-out effect of other underrepresented groups, namely Muslims.
  • Female constituents’ participation at village council meetings increased when the village council leader position was reserved for a woman. In fact, the likelihood of a female constituent speaking at a meeting increased by roughly 25%. From the meeting transcripts, the authors observe that female constituents are more likely to receive a constructive response in these meetings.
  • The responsiveness to women’s policy concerns also increased. Specifically, village councils with reserved female leaders invested more in drinking water infrastructure, sanitation, roads, school repair, health center repair, and irrigation facilities.

In short, female reservations on village councils increase female participation and responsiveness to female concerns without crowding out other disadvantaged groups.


The study is based on three distinct datasets. First, the meeting sample contains data on village participation in the political process in 2003 and 2004. It consists of data from 197 village council meetings from two North Indian and three South Indian states.

Second, the Millennial Survey, conducted by the Public Affairs Center, consists of data on public goods provision for 36,542 households in 2,304 randomly selected villages in 24 states in the year 2000. The authors restrict the sample to 11 states that had elections between 1995 and 2000.

Third, the Birbhum sample consists of 495 villages in the Birbhum district in West Bengal. Data was collected by the authors in 2005, after their village councils were randomly assigned to never be reserved, be reserved once or be reserved twice for female village council chiefs. Finally, the authors collect information on the reservation status of each village council from a variety of administrative sources.

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