Reservations Over the Women's Bill

The Indian Parliament has been wracked by controversy over the passage of a bill promising to guarantee 33 percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha, or lower house, for women. The bill has been introduced three times since 1996 and has been scuppered each time.

The measure, officially known as the Women's Reservation Bill, has passed the upper house and now faces debate in the Lok Sabha next month although analysts say that given India's labyrinthine legal procedures and fractious politics, it may be months, even years before the legislation becomes law – if indeed it passes.

The measure follows up on what happened at the local government level in 1992, when the 73rd amendment to the Indian Constitution mandated 33 percent reservations for women in local governments including village panchayats (administrative bodies). At that level, it appears to have had a positive impact.

Uma Sav, a sarpanch, or village head in Sinha village of the central state of Chattisgarh, who was elected from a reserved seat, told Asia Sentinel that had it not been for the quota system, women like her would never have been able to take to politics and it would have remained a preserve of the rich.

"I belong to a poor family and have very little education," Sav said. "A reserved seat helped me to represent my community and lead my village."

On a national level, advocates contend that political inequities in the country will continue to exist without the bill. Indian women, while constituting slightly less than half the country's 1.2 billion people, occupy an abysmal 59 seats out of 545 in the lower house and 21 of the 248-member upper house, they say.

While the pro-bill lobby, including the ruling Congress, the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left parties, are staunch supporters, others like the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Samajwadi Party are opposed.

Analysts point out that the bill contains serious problems that must be addressed if it is to set right the country's skewed gender picture. The biggest flaw, they say, is that two-thirds of the members of the Lok Sabha will be unseated every election.

"Even women elected through quotas will not be able to nurture their constituencies as they will lose them in the next election," said Vinod Bhansali, a Gurgaon-based IT entrepreneur. "They will be seen as a stopgap arrangement which will also undermine their chances in the next contest."

Also, many activists question if merely being a woman is criteria enough to "represent" women. In the absence of meaningful inner-party democracy and electoral reforms, what real purpose will the bill serve? It is here that the Congress-BJP-Left trio are being accused of pretending to be women-friendly while actually enhancing their own electoral prospects.

"A better way to ensure fair political participation and achieve a more gender-neutral political landscape," Bhansali said, "is to start with enhanced participation of women at all levels in the party organization and ensure a more equitable distribution of party tickets based on performance and ability."

That is hardly the case today. For instance, the Congress -- a party headed by a woman, Sonia Gandhi, a vociferous advocate of the bill, fielded an abysmal 43 women in the 2009 general election, a mere 10 percent of its total force. Similarly, the BJP offered tickets to just 44 women.

What is also gnawing the Bill's opponents is that in India's patriarchal society, ambitious male candidates will wrest back the seats nursed by their wives or sisters once they are de-reserved after five years. Since the reservations will be invalid after 15 years, each constituency would be reserved for women only once in five years or each time elections are held, thus defeating purpose of the reservations and making a mockery of the tenets of democracy.

Many critics say that for a developing country like India, social and economic development are far more important at this stage than political empowerment.

"Why don't political parties first tackle urgent issues like female feticide, women's literacy and malnourishment of the girl child?" asked Indu Vadehra, a university lecturer. "The brouhaha over the women's quota reeks of political opportunism."

The opponents regard the bill as a vote-catching ploy which would allow its proponents to tap into a lucrative demographic and is nothing better than a conduit for elite and rich women to bag plum parliamentary posts, often to hold for their mates.

"The bill is a conspiracy to prevent Muslims, Dalits, and backward classes from entering Parliament and state assemblies," said Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, one of the staunchest opponents. Yadav and his allies believe the bill would lead to a "monopoly" by upper caste women at the expense of lower caste and religious minority Muslims. They say women's quotas would steamroll decades of hard work put in by the underprivileged to achieve political success.

However, according to Brinda Karat, Politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the author of ‘Survival and Emancipation: Notes from Indian Women's Struggles', since a large majority of Indian women are anyway excluded from protective legislation, quotas are the only way to guarantee them better living and working conditions.

"Increasing domestic violence, spiraling crimes against women and low rates of conviction chip away at whatever progress takes place, "Karat said. "Quotas are vital to achieve a critical mass of women in politics. Besides, the Indian constitution guarantees gender equality."

Undoubtedly, Indian women lag far behind on most social and health indicators. Rampant abortion of female fetuses has led to a skewed gender ratio, driving down the country's sex ratio from 972 females per 1,000 males to 933 over the past century. In India, women comprise only 48.2 percent of the population, compared to 51 percent globally, according to the UN Development Program's latest Asia-Pacific report. Indeed, India's recurrent abysmal showing in gender parity surveys— including the (World Economic Forum) WEF's latest report of 134 countries, which ranks Indian women 121st in education, 127th in economic participation and an abysmal 131st in health and survival.