There’s something to cheer about the presence of women representatives in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) after the recent election. But there’s also much to ponder about it, and much to reflect about the status and role of women in what is widely considered India’s most women-friendly city.
A total of 119 of the 227 corporators elected last month are women. It’s a robust 57% and a marginal improvement over the numbers in the 2012 elections. The comforting part is that 15 of the women were elected from seats not reserved for women. Some of these women have political legacy from the men in their lives, usually husbands or fathers; a few are self-made women with spunk and political sense.
But in the two big parties, the Shiv Sena and the BJP, the share of women as a percentage of the total corporators of the party has declined. The Sena’s women corporators were nearly 59% of the party’s strength in the previous House; they now form barely 33%. Nearly half of the BJP’s corporators – 16 of 31 – in the previous House were women, only 22% of the party’s corporators now are women.
This means the parties which control the BMC and have the largest say in decision-making and allocation of funds have fewer women in their ranks. This cannot be a happy development. It also means that women on the opposition benches out-number the men and a great deal of responsibility for what happens in India’s richest municipal corporation rests on their shoulders.
This was the second successive election in which half of the 227 seats were reserved for women. What did women’s representation in the BMC during 2012-17 mean for Mumbai?
More women corporators than men in the last five years were graduates, they were younger, and only 3% had criminal records compared to 32% men corporators, according to an analysis by IndiaSpend. But, the study found, women corporators attended only as many meetings as the men did, asked significantly fewer questions than them in the House, and spent a similar amount of allocated funds in their constituencies as the men did.
While some women coporators worked in a focussed manner to improve the standard of civic amenities in their wards, the majority of women corporators worked by their party’s agenda and instructions from party bosses who were mostly men. On major policy issues and micro projects that impact the lives of women, these women’s voices were rarely heard, if at all.
On issues such as women’s safety in public places, the number and quality of public and community toilets for women, the provision of support facilities such as day-care centres for working women, providing civic amenities for informal workers a large part of who are women, gender auditing of major infrastructure projects in the BMC’s domain, planning for a gender-just Mumbai in the Development Plan 2014-34 and so on, women corporators were either silent or their words did not carry weight.
In fact on at least two issues – the provision of public restrooms or toilets, and gender provisions in the Development Plan – voluntary organisations and women’s groups had more influence on BMC’s decisions and policies than women corporators did. Such was the level of discourse among women corporators on issues that one of them had famously – and laughably – demanded that barely-clothed mannequins be removed from shopfronts on pavements to improve safety for women in public places.
A healthy political representation by women is advancement over low or no representation. But this representation has to be meaningful too. Women corporators have work in a focussed way to make Mumbai more gender-friendly and gender-just so that more women join the formal workforce, those in the informal sectors have adequate civic amenities, the quality of life improves and the city becomes safer for all.