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No country for old men

A nation deeply resistant to women’s emancipation just got its biggest jolt. The real journey starts now, writes Samar Halarnkar.

india Updated: Mar 10, 2010, 22:05 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

‘I will consume poison and die, but I will not allow the passage of this Bill!’

More than nine months after this grand declaration and frantic efforts to stall a legislation that would push more women into his life, political veteran and Janata Dal (United) President and Member of Parliament (MP) Sharad Yadav — born in the year of India’s independence — is alive and well, save for a deep sulk that will probably remain with him for life.

While I am no great fan of the Congress party’s dynastic habits, I cannot but admire Sonia Gandhi for so determinedly pushing through the 108th amendment to the Indian constitution, reserving 33 per cent of seats in Parliament and state assemblies for women, at the cost of destabilising her government.

The women’s reservation bill will not become law easily. The Lok Sabha must say yes. At least 15 assemblies must say yes. As that unfolds, the disgruntled old men who opposed the bill, including some Congress allies, are plotting revenge (They are all old men, either too old to change or aged in belief.)

But the passage of this historic legislation in India’s Upper House will galvanise a deeply sexist and unequal country to accept the coming era more easily. The actual effect of women in power may take years, even decades. The idea of a more equal, more efficient, kinder and prosperous India will begin sooner.

On Monday, a United Nations report predicted that India’s GDP could grow more than 4 per cent if women were as well represented in the workforce as they are in the US. This lack of female participation is endemic across Asia-Pacific and costs nearly $90 billion, the report says.

Aside from being homemakers, as demanding a job as any, more than 140 million women also work outside the house. Need drives most of them; 75 per cent of these marginal jobs are in agriculture.

Even when pushed to work, women make a difference. More than 3 million (some school dropouts, some post-graduates) serve day-care and health centres across the country. They are the frontline of the government’s efforts to improve rural health.

There are islands of genuine hope: women in the infotech workforce went from 4.21 lakh in 2006 to 6.70 lakh in 2008, according to Nasscom; and in two decades, women, as a percentage of those admitted into institutions of higher education, went from less than 8 per cent to more than 40 per cent.

That’s as good as it gets.

In business, where women are increasingly visible, India has the lowest proportion of female employees at 23 per cent, says a World Economic Forum report that surveyed 600 companies in 20 leading economies.

The most worrying sign for Indian women is how they are, literally, vanishing.

In 1941, India had 1,047 girls for 1,000 boys up to the age of six. At the last census, there were 927 girls for every 1,000 girls. Together, India and China are missing 85 million women, who died from discriminatory health care or were never born at all.

Aborting or killing female babies is rampant across India, especially in northern India. Only Kerala and Puducherry have more women than men.

This isn’t about caste, religion or any other chimeras that Yadav and his ilk let loose. It’s about the best chance possible to change the worst things about India.

Might economic progress change the status of women, as some argue? Prosperity appears to deepen the problem. You will find some of India’s worst sex ratios in its richest areas, like south Mumbai and south Delhi.

Even hopeful statistics hide depressing facts.

The 15th Lok Sabha has a record 59 female MPs, or about 10 per cent of seats, the first time this figure is in double digits. What’s not so well known: the percentage of total female contestants has been in steep decline since 1957, when 48.89 per cent of candidates for 494 seats were women (they won only 4.45 per cent of seats though). At 10.61 per cent, the proportion of female candidates in 2009 was, save 1996 (a testosterone-ridden election that led to a hung parliament, three prime ministers in two years and new elections), the lowest ever.

Opponents of the Bill insist that women of richer means and higher caste will corner reserved seats; that most women will become proxies for a variety of male relatives; that female empowerment must precede reservation.

Empowerment, my colleague Shivani Singh says, is like world peace, a great concept for beauty pageants. To succeed, female empowerment must be shoved down the Indian male’s throat.

The argument about the Women’s bill being damaging to women of lesser means has some validity, but in practice, parties in this age of social equity tend to do their own balancing. In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, more than half of 23 women MLAs are minorities. As for the proxies, India has always been a nation of dynasties, male and female. That won’t change in a hurry.

Female proxies were indeed the rule after 1993, when a third of seats were first reserved for women in panchayats (village councils). Today, many women do serve as fronts for their male relatives, but, equally, thousands have become exemplars of more responsive, less corrupt governance.

About a million women are now elected to India’s self-rule institutions, the largest such democratic mobilisation in the world. As they truly grasp the power they possess, these women are changing the fabric of rural India. Let’s give them the chance to change the idea of India.

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