A historic step in India


A historic step
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Praful Bidwai

Fourteen years after the legislation was first tabled, the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of India’s Parliament, has passed a bill which reserves one-third of all elected seats in legislatures for women. Unlike in Pakistan, there’s no reservation for women in India yet.

Although the Congress, the Left and the Bharatiya Janata Party together supported the bill in a rare show of unity, it was doggedly opposed by Mulayalam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, Laloo Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and a section of the Janata Dal (United). The passage turned out extremely fractious — thanks partly to the Congress’ poor floor management. It should have consulted its allies properly. But it was keen to see the bill passed on International Women’s Day (March 8).

The Congress paid dearly for this symbolism and allowed the bill’s diehard opponents to transform the gender equity issue into a political one involving the government’s survival.

The BJP — anxious to deny the Congress credit for the bill — adopted double standards. It demanded a discussion on the legislation although it was evident that the bill’s opponents would prevent a serious debate. They disrupted the proceedings by creating a ruckus. Seven MPs had to be evicted by marshals. But the BJP deplored this legitimate use of force. Over 70 per cent of its MPs oppose the bill, according to its chief whip.

Whatever the Congress’ and BJP’s faults, the central truth is that reserving one-third of legislature seats for women is anathema to a section of India’s political class, especially from the Hindi belt, and a threat to the male domination of politics.

Nine-tenths of all seats in parliament and state legislatures are effectively “reserved” for men. Many Cow Belt politicians are as hostile to women’s reservations as upper-caste groups were to affirmative action for the Other Backward Classes under the Mandal Commission.

The anti-Mandal lobby argued that reservations undermine “merit”. The women’s bill’s opponents argue that women would displace male OBC (and secondarily Muslim) MPs, and upper-caste women would dominate the women’s quota. They therefore demand an OBC sub-quota.

Some of the opponents say they’d agree to a lower, 20-25 per cent quota. This may or may not be a sincere offer. In 1998, a 25-per cent “compromise” was agreed upon between the Left, Congress, RJD, SP and JD(U). But the BJP balked thanks to internal dissidents like Uma Bharti.

Most of the bill’s opponents are from the socially, economically and educationally backward extended “Hindi belt” (Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand). Unlike the South, where affirmative action for the underprivileged and under-represented has long been consensually accepted without bitter contestation, this region still resists affirmative action.

Its politicians, intellectuals and other opinion-shapers must introspect on its social backwardness and its connection to their gender-discriminatory, male-supremacist, rigidly patriarchal attitudes.

The anti-bill arguments are substantively wrong. First, it’s not at all likely, leave alone inevitable, that upper-caste women will dominate the women’s quota. In the UP and Bihar Assemblies, they occupy less than one-third of all seats held by women. Their representation can be expected to decline in line with upper-caste presence in the Lok Sabha, which decreased from 64 per cent in 1952 to 33 per cent in 2004. The Mandalite parties can well nominate OBC women to contest the reserved seats. Indeed, they should use the reservation to strengthen the OBCs’ legislature presence.

Second, the reservations bill’s legitimate function is not to improve OBC, Dalit or Muslim representation, but to correct the gross under-representation of women. Historically, women MPs have constituted under 10 per cent of parliamentarians. It’s only in the current Lok Sabha that their share rose to 10.8 per cent. In the Rajya Sabha, it’s still 8.8 per cent. In the assemblies of 19 major states, it’s only 8.5 per cent.

Rectifying such under-representation is a worthy cause in and of itself. It doesn’t have to follow further affirmative action — even for the poor, who doubtless deserve to be better represented.

The case for affirmative action for women arises from the absence of a level playing-field in India’s unequal, hierarchical and patriarchal society and in politics. Women face discrimination at every step, indeed from the foetal stage onwards. Girls are fed less than boys, and made to work or look after younger siblings rather than go to school. Girls are told they are inferior to boys, and don’t fully belong to the parents’ family because they’ll get married one day.

Discrimination cascades through denial of social opportunity and access to healthcare and education, discrimination in wages (which differ by 80 per cent between men and women, according to the National Sample Survey), unequal property rights, low work participation, poor access to professional education, multiple-level sexual harassment, and elaborate arrangements to keep women out of public life.

One of India’s most shameful scandals is sex-selective abortion, which has brought the sex ratio down from 972 females per 1,000 males to 933 over the past century. In India, women comprise only 48.2 per cent of the population, compared to 51 per cent globally, according to the UN Development Programme’s latest Asia-Pacific report. The report analyses multiple dimensions of gender discrimination and concludes that quotas for women can be “effective” and are “necessary” for political growth.

Admittedly, reservations in legislatures will not dramatically and automatically redeem systematic, pervasive discrimination. Many more changes will be needed, including social reform, public education, punishment for gender-related crimes including dowry-taking, changes in property and inheritance laws, and transfer of land titles to women. But reservations will help bring women’s concerns to bear on public debate and policy-making.

Greater women’s representation would sensitise policies to the gender dimensions of many social and developmental processes and political realities. Better representation will probably raise the quality of parliamentary debate, sharpen the focus on livelihood and development issues, including health, food security and education, and encourage collective, consensual approaches to complex questions.

Women legislators tend to be more diligent, less corrupt, and more responsive to their constituency than men. The bill will contribute to improving the quality of public life.

However, the bill has its flaws. The rotation of reserved constituencies every five years will disturb the territorial or geographical unit-based system of representation which is a cornerstone of democracy. That means an MP who has nurtured his constituency for years may lose it during the next term. Women using reservations would have no fixed constituency.

The flaws would be best overcome through the proportional representation (PR) system, which extends representation beyond territorial constituencies to different social groups nominated by elected parties. Proportional representation is appropriate and necessary for India, with its immense size and diversity and numerous sizeable but under- or un-represented groups—e.g. people of the Northeast, or nomads who comprise 4 per cent of the population, but have no MPs representing them. But until we have comprehensive political reform leading to PR, we’ll have to live with certain imperfections.

The passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill might impel the SP and RJD to withdraw support and vote against the budget. But the UPA should stand firm. The bill’s opponents won’t earn much credit by voting mindlessly against the UPA, which still commands a majority, if only a wafer-thin one. More important, its stature has risen among half the Indian population.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights

activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1 @yahoo.co.in

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