Tuesday, 13 March 2018

A quota for women: This is one big idea awaiting implementation by the Modi government

For nearly a quarter of a century, every union government till the present one has unsuccessfully attempted to enact a women’s reservation bill for quotas in Parliament and state assemblies. The governments of Prime Ministers HD Deve Gowda, AB Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh each introduced the bill once or more.


Only the tenure of IK Gujral did not see such an attempt, but that was essentially a continuation of the same United Front government that had done so under Deve Gowda, with a change of PM. As the Modi government’s first term enters its last lap, the issue is again gaining traction. Will he give it a shot as well? What are the bill’s merits and, just as relevant, its political viability?

Though reservations in India have had a mixed track record, and continue to be a source of contentious politics, they have also played a role in challenging age old social barriers. Nevertheless, pleas to modify reservations, such as limiting it to one generation of beneficiaries, rigidly excluding the more affluent “creamy layer” among them, and exclusion from highly technical disciplines, are all worthy of debate.

Indian women’s lives are burdened by low literacy (59% vs a national average of 74%); even lower levels of financial inclusion (42% vs developed countries’ averages approaching 100%); and shockingly low participation in the workforce (only 28% compared to even South Asian neighbor Bangladesh’s 45%). Similarly, the percentage of women elected to Lok Sabha, at just under 12%, is about half the global average of 23%.

Quotas for women in local body elections have been in place for years. Observing the impact of that on the ground is eye opening. On the one hand, many a woman sarpanch or Zilla Parishad member is just a rubber stamp, with a male relative wielding the real authority. I have personally witnessed, on the other hand, several such elected women come into their own, handling the hourly burly of politics themselves, and with aplomb. Such women are influencing others, and changing societal attitudes.

The rationale apart, the political will for it has never been enough to overcome opposition. Furthermore, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been seeking transformational change through mega persuasion campaigns instead of by legislation, for example the exhortations of the Swachh Bharat programme, rather than emulating Singapore’s harsh punishments for littering. Presumably, PM’s similar exhortations on gender equity could be construed as his preferred alternative to quotas.

But he is also known to spring surprises. And considering the potentially huge political benefits from co-opting a big women’s issue, it should not be ruled out. Despite the fact that it is UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi who has again spoken up for it, this government has a demonstrated track record of pushing through, and thus gaining credit for, big ideas that had been gridlocked for decades.

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