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UPA should stand firm on Women's Bill

March 12, 2010 15:56 IST

Reservations for women will not dramatically and automatically redeem systematic, pervasive discrimination but reservations will play a key role in bringing women's concerns to bear on public debate and official policies, writes Praful Bidwai

The passage of the Women's Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha, 14 years after it was first tabled, calls for celebration. But one's joy must be tempered by the extremely fractious and divisive voting process, which witnessed sharp polarisation between the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left, on the one hand, and the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and a section of the Janata Dal-United on the other.

It's tempting to blame the Congress for its poor floor management and lack of consultation with its allies like the Trinamool Congress. In particular, it probably made a tactical mistake in tabling the bill close to the opening of the session, on International Women's Day, rather than after the vote on the finance bill. In the event, the United Progressive Alliance paid a high price for the symbolism of March 8 by allowing diehard opponents of the bill to transform the substantive issue of gender equity into a political issue involving the government's survival.

It's also legitimate to fault the BJP for its double standards. It was consumed with anxiety and tried to deny the Congress any credit for the bill. It demanded a discussion on the legislation even though it was evident that the bill's opponents would do everything possible to physically prevent a serious debate.

They indeed used condemnable forms of intimidation and muscle power and had to be evicted by marshals. There was no alternative to the eviction. But the BJP deplores this legitimate use of force. The truth is, its commitment to the bill is less than unequivocal and categorical. As its chief whip now admits, over 70 percent of its MPs oppose it.

If the Congress was tactless, the BJP was disingenuous. But this shouldn't obscure the central reality: the idea of reserving one-third of legislature seats for women is seen by a section of India's political class, especially from the Cow Belt, as anathema -- and a threat to the male domination of politics. Nine-tenths of all seats in Parliament and state legislatures are effectively held by and 'reserved' for men.

Many Hindi-belt politicians are just as viscerally hostile to affirmative action for women as upper-caste groups were to affirmative action for the Other Backward Classes recommended by the Mandal Commission.

If the favourite argument of the anti-Mandal lobby was centred on 'merit' and how reservations undermine it, the opponents of women's reservations vent their concern about women edging out male OBC (and secondarily Muslim) MPs. They argue that upper-caste educated women -- derogatorily referred to as parkati (with short-cropped hair) by JD-U President Sharad Yadav -- will inevitably dominate the women's quota. They therefore demand an OBC quota within the women's quota -- short of which they will oppose the bill altogether.

As an alternative, some of the opponents say they'd agree to a lower quota such as 20 or 25 percent. Whether this is a sincere offer or a mere ploy remains unclear. In 1998, a 25-percent 'compromise' was agreed upon between the Left and Congress, on the one hand, and the RJD, SP and JD-U, on the other. But the BJP refused to go along because of internal dissidents like Uma Bharti.

It's neither unremarkable nor an aberration that the bulk of the bill's opponents are from the socially, economically and educationally backward Hindi belt, and not the south, where affirmative action for the underprivileged and under-represented has long been consensually accepted without the violent protests that attended the adoption of the Mandal Commission report in 1990. Bitter contestation over Mandal still persists in the Hindi heartland.

Politicians, intellectuals and other opinion-makers in the extended Hindi belt, from Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, to Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, would do well to introspect on this and on the interconnections between the social and educational backwardness of their region and the degree of gender discrimination and prevalence of male-supremacist attitudes in its rigidly patriarchal society.

However, the arguments of the bill's opponents must be answered substantively regardless of their motive and sincerity. 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 within legislatures can be expected to decline in line with upper-caste representation in the Lok Sabha, which decreased from 64 to 33 percent between 1952 and 2004. The Mandalite parties have every opportunity to nominate OBC women to contest the reserved seats. Indeed, they should see it as a means of strengthening the OBCs' legislature presence.

Second, it's wrong to see the bill as an instrument to give greater voice to the OBCs, Dalits or Muslims. Its sole function is to correct the gross under-representation of women among lawmakers. Historically, women MPs have constituted under 10 percent of parliamentarians.

It's only in the current Lok Sabha that their share rose above 10 percent (to 10.8 percent). In the Rajya Sabha, it's still 8.8 percent. And in the assemblies of 19 major states, it's only 8.5 percent. Rectifying such under-representation is a worthy cause in and of itself. It doesn't have to be made conditional upon further affirmative action even for the poor, who doubtless have the first claim to better representation.

The case for affirmative action for women arises from the absence of a level playing-field in India's highly unequal, hierarchical and patriarchal society, and in politics. Women face discrimination at every step in life, indeed from the foetal stage onwards. Discrimination starts early, with girls being fed less than boys, or 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 continues through cascading denial of social opportunity: access to healthcare, education, discrimination in wages (which differ by a hefty 80 percent -- with Rs 81 a day for urban male casual labourers, and Rs 45 for 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 social life and the public sphere.

One of India's most shameful, indeed historic, 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 by making 40 million women 'disappear'. In India, women comprise only 48.2 percent of the population, compared to 51 percent 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 play a key role in bringing women's concerns to bear on public debate and official policies.

Greater women's representation would be an invaluable input in making official programmes and policies sensitive to the gender dimensions of many social and developmental processes, political realities, even justice delivery. Better representation can be expected to raise the quality of parliamentary debate, sharpen the focus on livelihood and development issues, including health, food security and education, and encourage collective and 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.

This doesn't argue that reservations pose no problems. The system of 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 be nomads with no fixed constituency.

Such flaws are best overcome through the system of proportional representation, which extends representation beyond territorial constituencies to individuals belonging to different social groups, to be nominated by the directly elected parties. PR is appropriate and necessary for a country the size of India, with its immense diversity and numerous sizeable but under- or un-represented groups -- eg, people of the northeast, or nomads who comprise 4 percent 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.

Pushing the Women's Reservation Bill through Parliament may extract a political price -- in the form of withdrawal of support by the SP and RJD, which may well vote against the Budget. But the UPA should stand firm. Voting mindlessly against the UPA won't earn the bill's opponents much credit. The UPA still commands a majority, if only a wafer-thin one. More important, with the bill, its stature has risen among half the Indian population.

Praful Bidwai