India’s Women’s Reservation Bill

Can the bill for reserved seats for women as passed by India’s upper house be anything other than a cause for rejoicing? Rakesh Mani says it is far from serving the interests of all women
Rakesh Mani
29 March 2010

Despite laudable intentions, the Women’s Reservation Bill that passed with a thumping majority in India’s upper house is flawed because of its pitch and delivery. Parties on either side of the political spectrum have joined hands to support the bill in order to appear politically correct, but at the expense of being reasonable. Empowerment should be the prerogative of all Indian women, not just some. Several critics have argued, rightly, that the majority of reserved female seats will be taken up by wives and daughters acting as proxies for established male leaders.

Not all women are equal. Some have distinct advantages over others; whether due to dynasty, religion, caste or myriad socio-economic factors. The arguments justifying reservations for women also end up justifying the case for providing sub-reservations to pinpoint what type of women can run for election to reserved seats.

Political parties field candidates based solely on their ability to win. Even for women’s constituencies, the candidates that they field are going to be the ones that have the best chances of winning the seat. Without sub-reservations, female candidates will be disproportionately represented by politically active, upper class party members who have high chances of victory.

A second, more serious, flaw could potentially accelerate the atrophy of credibility in our democratic system.

Parliamentary democracy is founded on the premise that in return for the vote; an elected MP will serve the people of the constituency. This creates accountability: the MP’s re-election hinges on the value of the service provided to the people. But all that is now changed.

The Bill’s rotational method of reservation will make two-thirds of parliament, about 360 members, one-term MPs. 181 women’s seats will get reserved in a general election, and 181 other general seats will be reserved for women in the following election. MPs will have little incentive to serve their electorate as they know they will be ineligible for the next election.

Women MPs can, of course, still seek re-election through what will become non-reserved seats. But that will be hard given that she will have to battle leaders who are well-established in the area after barely five years to nurse her constituency.

The rotational system will allow MPs to sate their personal interests for the duration of their term, instead of working for the people. If MPs are no longer going to be accountable to their electorate, and the foundational premise of parliamentary democracy is broken, then perhaps we should abandon our first-past-the-post parliamentary system for something that works better.

But the still more damning criticism of the bill lies elsewhere.

As Jawed Naqvi has pointed out, there is no proven linear relationship between the representation of women in parliament and their emancipation. Pakistan’s assembly has 22% female representation, he argues, more than double the figure in India. Yet Pakistan ranks near the bottom in most global rankings on women’s freedom and status.

American women, on the other hand, have no reservations. Their seats in the United States Congress are won on merit alone. And they aren’t faring too poorly at all.

The problem does not arise from legislative representation, but from social mindsets. The real tragedy is that Indian women suffer a thousand forms of discrimination.

Millions of girls die before they are even born – the stark foeticide, infanticide and dowry killing figures are testament to this.  Girls that are lucky to make it into the world live a life of discrimination when it comes to nourishment, healthcare, education and opportunities for employment.

Those that do make it to the workforce are paid less than their male counterparts for the same roles, and have to live in fear of suffering the indignity of harassment, abuse and rape.

How much of this is going to change with more women in parliament? The Constitution and a numbers of laws already provide for gender equality. The problem does not lie in our society’s ability to pass women-friendly laws, but rather in implementing them at the grassroots level.

Indian women face problems because of the attitude of society. Without social understanding and acceptance, laws on gender equality are difficult to implement.

What we need is increased social activism in daily lives at the grassroots level, not more female legislators. If we need reservations for women, it is in the police forces, the judiciary and in the civil services – those bastions of male hegemony that implement the high-minded laws that we pass in the legislatures.

It is India’s entrenched exploitative system and her ability to enforce laws through the tentacles of government that needs to change, not the ratio of women in parliament.

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