India needs a lot more women in its legislatures and Parliament
While growth is crucial for the country, in itself it’s not going to be enough to tackle the alarming levels of inequality, the other big challenge facing us today. Especially as our demographic dividend matures and faces the realities of limited opportunities and too many claimants.
Have you ever wondered what the Indian state looks like? If the 16th Lok Sabha and current Assemblies are anything to go by, then it’s most decidedly male. And it always has been.
In a letter dated May 18, 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to his Chief Ministers, saying: “I have noticed with great regret how few women have been elected. I suppose this is so in the state assemblies and councils also. It is not a matter of showing favour to anyone or even injustice, but rather of doing something which is not conducive to the future growth of the country. I am quite sure our real growth will only come when women have a full chance to play their part in public life.”
To get a sense of just how badly we failed to address this issue in the years that followed, take a look at some numbers. In the year 1952, women made up 49% of the population, and the first Lok Sabha saw just 22 women being elected, which meant they formed 5% of the House. In 2014, 15 Lok Sabhas later,while the percentage of women in the population remained roughly the same, the lower house of Parliament saw 66 women elected, representing 11% of Parliament. That’s a dismal three- fold increase in the number of women MPs elected over 64 years. As of today, in a country of 587 million women, a little over 400 of them have been elected to a possible 4,658 positions across legislative assemblies and Parliament. An imbalance that certainly calls for some introspection.
Diverse legislative houses aren’t just a sign of progressive societies but they’re important building blocks for the socio-economic vision that we have of the future.
In a recent interview, IMF’s Christine Laggard virtually echoed Nehru’s words when she said India could boost its GDP by a whopping 27% if it were to focus on raising women’s participation in the workforce. The unfortunate reality is that far from growing, we are actually seeing a declining number of women in the work force, and a majority of the ones that are there are really just engaged in highly insecure and low-skill work. What’s worse is that as family incomes improve, patriarchal norms push them out of the workforce, leaving them with virtually no agency of their own.
Women continue to bear primary household and caregiving burdens even when they are employed outside, which makes employers see them as less reliable employees, and discriminate against them while making hiring decisions. If we want to grow the economy at a pace that lives up to its potential we need to bring in diverse policy perspectives and create an ecosystem that encourages women to join, and stay in the workforce.
However, while growth is crucial for the country, in itself it’s not going to be enough to tackle the alarming levels of inequality, the other big challenge facing us today. Especially as our demographic dividend matures and faces the realities of limited opportunities and too many claimants. To minimise the impact of rising inequality in a meaningful manner, the state needs to prioritise issues like social justice, and inclusion, far more than it has done in the past.
Clearly legislative houses of the future will need to decide on a far more complex set of inter-related issues ranging from health, labour rights, security and privacy, all of which will disproportionately affect women and marginalised communities. Anecdotal data from democracies across the world suggests that a presence of more women will mean that they will bring with them personal experiences and viewpoints that will ensure more robust debates, more bipartisan decisions and more balanced legislative outcomes on a spate of such issues.
To increase representation across all levels of legislative bodies, we need to learn from the experience of countries like Iceland and Rwanda which has the largest number of female elected representatives in the world. And that’s where the long pending Women’s Reservation Bill comes in.
If the government is truly committed to ensuring we become one of the world’s
leading economies and an equitable society to boot, then the government must go beyond just announcing a new India, where women contribute equally to the country’s development.
As a first step, on March 8, the government should place the women’s reservation bill in Parliament and work with parties across the spectrum to ensure its passage and implementation before the next general elections.
Otherwise, another Women’s Day will pass with the usual speeches that celebrate the fact that the country has had one woman prime minister, one woman president, two women speakers and two raksha mantris. While each of them will remain great role models for generations to come, that’s not enough anymore.The Women’s Reservation Bill must be passed, for a democracy that celebrates the many.
Barkha Deva is associate director at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies
The views expressed are personal