Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi could not have thought of a better gift than trying to get the Women’s Reservation Bill through in the Rajya Sabha on the centenary of the international women’s day on March 8.
The move comes at a time when the country has its first woman president (Pratibha Patil), first woman Speaker (Meira Kumar) and first woman leader of opposition (Sushma Swaraj).
“We hope to give this movement of political participation of women further fillip ... we’re moving towards providing one third reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and state legislatures,’’ the PM said at the Women’s Leadership Summit in the Capital on Saturday.
If passed by both the Houses of Parliament and ratified by at least 14 of the 28 states, the Bill could become the defining feature of UPA-II much like NREGA and RTI had been for UPA-I. It would also perhaps make India among the first countries to reserve seats for direct elections women in all three tiers of governance, the Lok Sabha, state assemblies and local bodies.
Getting the Bill passed is not going to be easy, though the government believes this is the best opportunity. It has the numbers, with the UPA, the Left, the BJP and some other formations adding up to over 160 MPs in the 245-member Rajya Sabha (with an effective strength of 233).
Opponents like the SP, RJD, BSP or a section of the JD (U) may try to scuttle it. And even if the Bill is passed, it’s likely to be legally challenged by those seeking a quota-within-quota.
The demand for a quota Bill has been articulated time and again, but the inspiration came from Rajiv Gandhi’s initiative to reserve one-third seats for women in panchayats. The Bill was defeated in 1989 but was passed three years later.
And despite fears that women would become proxies of former representatives, it has brought one million women in panchayats — they now exceed 33 per cent in some cases. “In Karnataka, it exceeds 40 per cent and in Rajasthan, it is over 50 per cent,’’ said Girija Vyas, head, National Commission for Women.
The quota Bill was brought in 1996, 1998 and 1999, but lapsed with the dissolution of the House. To keep it alive, the UPA introduced it in the Rajya Sabha in 2008 and is now trying to get it passed.
So, why is it so important? Rekha, an active worker with Parivartan Mahila Swabhiman Samiti in Etawah, sums it up in verse: “Desh me agar auratein apmanit hai, , nashaad hai, dil par rakh kar haath kahiye desh kya azaad hai?… (Put your hand on your heart and say whether the country is free if women are humiliated).” Gulnar Mirza of Nai Roshini claimed it will help in the “greater involvement of women in policy formulation’’.
Why 33 percent? It’s the “minimum number required’’ to influence decision- making, the CPM told the standing committee that looked into the 2008 Bill. “One-third reservation would ensure a certain level of presence of women that cannot be overlooked by parties,’’ said Jayanti Natarajan, chairperson of the panel, in her Bill report to Parliament in December.
It remains to be seen if lawmakers will allow it.
(With inputs from Nagendar Sharma)