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Reservations for women in the Indian Parliament has been a hotly debated topic. Here is why passing the women’s reservation bill is absolutely necessary for Indian politics.
On a usual Bangalore workday morning, I was waiting at my bus stop with a group of mostly women commuters – office-goers, domestic helpers, and college students. Our bus arrived empty, and as I went over to the general seats at the back, I noticed that the other women started filling up the reserved women’s seats – 33% of the bus – first. When all the reserved seats had filled up, the remaining women stood holding on to seat-bars. A few stops later, men got in and took the empty seats.
When the seated women began to get off at their stops, men were quick to grab on to the newly vacated seats. No woman standing – however old or pregnant – demanded that men vacate her reserved seat; the conductor didn’t intervene either. 33% reservation on buses for women effectively turns into 67% reservations for men.
I couldn’t help but reflect on how this commonplace scene told the universal story of reservation. For the group that reservation is implemented for, it serves as restrictive confinement; for the other group, reservation implies the taking away of their rightful entitlement by the arbitrary will of a government.
Should there be reservation for women at all? Would it work to confine instead, like reservation in public spaces? In education and jobs, the gap between men and women is slowly narrowing. But, what about in parliament and legislatures, where women remain at a paltry representation of 19% world over, and a mere 11% in our Lok Sabha? There is clear evidence that the policy preferences of women and men are different, and that woman’s issues are seldom brought up with male representatives.
With the winter session of the parliament promising to examine the women’s reservation bill, and Narendra Modi reaffirming his election promise to pass the bill, I think it is time to reopen the debate on women’s reservation in parliament and legislatures. I write this article to make a case for passing the bill, by examining the studies in support alongside arguments against.
In 1993, the 73rd amendment to the constitution of India devolved more administrative power and decision making authority to elected village Gram Panchayats (GPs) and mandated that one-third (selected at random) of village council head positions be reserved for women. Most major states, except UP, now reserve 33% of their GP Pradhan seats for women by rotation each election cycle. Many local government bodies and councils allocate significant percentage of seats to women (such as all of Kerala – which has 50% reservation, Delhi, and Calcutta).
A carefully designed study showed that women Pradhans, elected under the reservation policy, invest more in the public goods more closely linked to women’s concerns – drinking water and roads in West Bengal and drinking water in Rajasthan – compared with Pradhans not elected via reserved seats. It was also observed that with a woman Pradhan, more women came forward to attend council meetings and spoke up. Other studies corroborate evidence for better child immunisation programs, welfare and education, and better participation in village meetings.
People often argue that women who want political office will anyway get them, irrespective of reservation. Reality and numbers do not bear that out.
People often argue that women who want political office will anyway get them, irrespective of reservation. Reality and numbers do not bear that out. It is hard to imagine that only 1 woman for every 10 men wants to serve her people in political office. A study in Indian villages also proves (using mathematical models and empirical data) that female representatives are no more likely than male representatives, in the absence of reservation, to take policy decisions favouring women. This establishes that reservation is an important political intervention that reduces the cost of running for office for women who reflect strong pro-women choices and do not belong in the conventional political system.
Yes, reservation is not the ideal solution that’ll change everything for the better. Reserving seats for anybody – women, SC/ST, or minorities – doesn’t ensure mainstream absorption. Not just parliaments, but parties and grass-root political movements should be made more inclusive. Grass-root solutions may be ideal, but they are hard to enforce and slow to take shape. But any solution in the right direction, however short of the ideal, is better than no solution.
Mulayam Singh conjectured that more whistles and catcalls would be heard if women flood parliament, and met with this witty protest. Some concerned fellow-parliamentarians hinted that in order to incentivize women to make food at home, they could be promised parliament seats. There are many more such misogynist arguments that go to show: if women’s reservation threatens to dislodge such men, it can only be more of a good thing.
Politicians have argued that Dalit, Muslim, and under-privileged women will not win on reserved seats as much as upper class women will. This maybe true, only I do not see how this negates the case for reserving seats for women. In today’s political environment dominated by upper class men, poor and under-privileged women are barely represented. By allowing under-privileged women to contest only against upper class women, instead of both upper class men and women, we are in fact increasing their chances and not worsening them. The convoluted argument of making competition stronger by diluting it must subscribe to some homeopathic principles and is, thus, beyond rational debate.
Are men not doing that already? A Mulayam Singh Yadav or Laloo Prasad don’t need the women’s reservation bill to field daughters-in-law/wives as proxy. In the current system, every politician fields their sons, nephews, uncles, and countless male relatives from various constituencies, but nobody seems to complain unless it is a female relative. If we use the anti-nepotism logic to block women’s reservation, we would have to restrict the number of men in parliament too, to actually curb nepotism!
In the current system, every politician fields their sons, nephews, uncles, and countless male relatives from various constituencies, but nobody seems to complain unless it is a female relative.
It is, however, a valid question to ask how many women Pradhans and councillors take independent decisions when they win on reserved seats. There are examples both ways, and instead of abandoning reservation, we must think how to incentivise the right kind of women. In rural Delhi municipal bodies, it is widely known that men field their wives as councillor on reserved seats and crown themselves – Parshad Pati – or the councillor’s husband (some even have business cards to the effect!). This official sanction seems enough for them to take decisions in office in lieu of their wives.
On the other hand, women sarpanches and pradhans in Rajasthan have been fiercely independent and have single-handedly transformed their villages. In Karauli district, a 25 year-old woman pradhan, Shakuntala Meena, strengthened the rural employment scheme by ensuring open access and checking corruption, by taking a stand against senior bureaucratic officials.
Chhavi Rajawat, sarpanch of Soda village, successfully introduced toilets into all houses and implemented rain harvesting and other developmental schemes, braving physical attacks. While men run the show in some villages in India despite reservation, reservation has created models worthy of emulation that would have otherwise been impossible. There is always a risk of electing incompetent or puppet candidates, but it is no worse than what it already is. There are already incompetent politicians (male and female), and puppet candidates – reservation promises to slowly introduce a different kind of leadership. It faces the same hurdles that it is accused of building.
I find this question absurd; it is like asking whether only Indians represent Indians, or if the British could have in fact reasonably represented us. Yes, having a woman in power cannot guarantee women get heard – but continuing to have no (or negligible numbers of) women in power is a surety we won’t get heard! Women leaders at the top are few, but even they’ve been wary of coming across as pro-women. This proves that current electoral politics is dominated by patronage and power, and is far from gender-just.
Yes, having a woman in power cannot guarantee women get heard – but continuing to have no (or negligible numbers of) women in power is a surety we won’t get heard!
Some argue that women should win by merit, not reservation. It is a democratic election meant for voting those who best represent us, not a JEE exam for scoring students on merit. Stretch the point further, and you can ask why parliament/legislature seats are reserved solely for Indian citizens: we could have a world wide competitive exam and choose the top ranking candidates. Winning in an open (unreserved) election seat does not mean you are highly meritorious – only that you do not represent the interests of any one group more than you represent the median voter’s choices (more realistically speaking, the best lobbyists’ choices); this is not always a good thing. When it becomes widespread and systemic, it is a big problem.
Reservation is no miracle cure to political ills; it is a necessary intervention to improve representation for the grossly under-represented. Most criticisms of the women’s reservation bill focus on its potential for increasing segregation and inequality, which seems absurd – for keeping things as they are will only make inequality worse. In the spirit of summarising with analogies in rhetoric – it is like choosing to stay hungry, for eating on an empty stomach may cause acid-reflux.
Pic credit: Image of the Indian Parliament via Shutterstock.
I am associated as an advisor and volunteer with Magasool, a not-for-profit initiative
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