September 24, 2023

Women’s Reservation Adopted but Delayed Indefinitely

THE long-awaited passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill after a long wait of 27 years has not been an occasion for rejoicing as it should have been.  For all these years, successive governments have done all they could to kill it and consign it to oblivion and it is only the Left parties and sections of the women’s movement, including AIDWA, who have consistently struggled, campaigned and fought to keep it alive. 

The sad truth is that while the bill has been passed, its implementation is being postponed beyond the next general election on extremely questionable grounds.  The draft bill states that the reservation of seats for women in the parliament and state assemblies will be done only after the next census operation is carried out and after the delimitation of seats which begins in 2026.  Neither the census operation nor the delimitation exercise is essential for reservation of seats for women to become a reality.  The reservation can be undertaken immediately after the passage of the bill and, whenever the delimitation and census are carried out, the number of seats can be increased proportionately but specious arguments are being used to deny women their right to be elected representatives for some more years. 

The BJP has regularly included passage of the bill in its election manifestoes.  It had given the women of this country a solemn assurance that this would be done before both the 2014 and 2019 general elections.  It has had a majority in the Lok Sabha after both elections and has bulldozed through much controversial legislation.  It has not, however, made good on its election promise of passing the bill in the nine long years that it has been in power.  Now, at the fag end of its second consecutive term, it has introduced the bill.  The BJP and the prime minister seem to believe that they can have their cake and eat it too:  they can garner women’s votes in large numbers without rocking patriarchy’s boat.

This is certainly not going to happen.  Women across the country are feeling cheated not elated.  What has been brought home to them rather cruelly is that one more general election and several state elections will go by without their numbers in parliament and state assemblies having increased.  It is a shameful fact that in 75 years of our independence, in what the BJP asserts is ‘the cradle of democracy’, the percentage of seats in the Lok Sabha held by women has increased from 5 per cent to only 15 per cent today.  Most countries in the world have a better record and India is 20th from the bottom in terms of seats held by women in elected parliaments.  This is despite the fact that women in our country vote in large numbers and these numbers have been increasing with every election.  What our government has just told us is that this is not going to change soon.  It could have changed at the time of the 2024 general election but it will not.

To add insult to injury, the government has added a most patronising section entitled a ‘Statement of Objects and Reasons’ at the end of the bill. In this it says “Government has taken a number of steps to bring 'Nari shakti' to the forefront through women's empowerment and women led development resulting in substantial improvement in financial independence of women and availability of equal access to education and health. Government has also emphasised 'Ease of Living', especially of women, through various initiatives including Ujjawala Yojana, access to toilets under Swacch Bharat Mission, financial inclusion through the Mudra Yojana, etc. However, true empowerment of women will require greater participation of women in the decision making process as they bring different perspectives and enrich the quality of legislative debates and decision-making.”  At the end of this section, it says that ‘The Bill seeks to achieve the above objectives.’

While this section is objectionable on several counts, it is also rather telling.  The Ujjawala Yojana has proved to be a cruel joke played on millions of poor women who, while they are unable to access free cylinders because of various technicalities, are also unable to buy the now extremely expensive cylinders. Similarly, the claims regarding the numbers of working toilets constructed in many parts of the country have been greatly inflated on paper by the government and the shameful reality of the sanitary conditions that poor women continue to endure has not changed substantially.  The allusion to these extremely disappointing schemes is an appropriate conclusion for a bill which promises reservation of seats for women in parliament and state assemblies that will remain out of their reach for a long time to come.

(September 20, 2023)