“Before this, pregnant women had to walk into the fields,” Ms. Yadav, 50, said as she sat in her living room — and office — dressed in a scarlet sari. “No man would have thought of this.”

 

Despite her self-confident manner, Ms. Yadav concedes that she is unlikely to have come to power had the Constitution not been amended in 1993 to reserve at least one-third of the seats for women in India’s 265,000 village governing bodies. More than a million women across India have since been elected into the reserved positions in these panchayats, which administer public services and resolve disputes on matters ranging from marriage to property.

 

Their experience holds lessons for the central government’s current effort to extend quotas for women to the national level. The Women’s Reservation Bill, which was passed by the upper house of Parliament last month, would set aside one-third of the elected seats in the national, state and local governments for women. If it becomes law, it will usher in one of the most significant social and political changes in India since independence in 1947.

 

First, however, the bill must be approved by the lower house of Parliament and by the legislatures in at least 15 of India’s 28 states and union territories. So far, its journey has been a rough one. First introduced 14 years ago, the bill has been repeatedly knocked down. It won passage in the upper house on March 10 after two days of furious debate and the defection of two parties from the governing coalition.

 

The bill was opposed by small regional parties that argued that it would benefit upper-caste women at the expense of lower castes, who already have reserved seats in Parliament, and the Muslim minority, which does not. Critics also fear that the law would allow men to put forward pliable female relatives as their political proxies.

 

Its proponents — foremost among them Sonia Gandhi, president of the party that leads the coalition government, Congress — counter that increased political representation is vital for India’s women to overcome discrimination and inequality.

 

Supporting their argument that this is sorely needed is the recent World Economic Forum report on global sex disparities, which ranks India 114th out of 134 countries. Indian women, on average, earn less than one-third of men’s wages. Only 54 percent are literate, compared with 75 percent of men.

 

A deeply ingrained cultural preference for sons, reflected in abortions of female fetuses, has resulted in a ratio of 933 adult women per 1,000 men for India as a whole, according to the last census, in 2001. Haryana, where Ms. Yadav lives, has the most skewed ratio of any state in the country, with 861 women to 1,000 men.

Inequality is especially marked in political life. Despite the high profile of a few female leaders — including Ms. Gandhi and the president of India, Pratibha Patil — fewer than 11 percent of members of Parliament are women.

 

By contrast, the panchayats stand as bastions of female representation. Academic studies suggest that the quotas have not benefited upper castes at the expense of more impoverished groups. Women are as likely as men to come from lower castes to serve on the panchayats.

 

And the quota seems to be benefiting both sexes in more tangible ways. One study, by Esther Duflo, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that panchayats led by women provided more public services, from wells to roads, over all.