Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Women's reservation bill

Let me start off by congratulating the Congress on effectively pushing through a momumental piece of legislation through the Rajya Sabha (for the uninitiated: the Rajya Sabha is the upper house of the bicameral Indian parliament). Having said that, I would also like to express a word of caution, as a bill requires to be passed by both houses of parliament to become an act of parliament and that could well prove a rather sticky affair.

Nevertheless, the latest initiative of the Government of India deserves to be applauded. In a country with a billion plus population where women make up nearly half the numbers (in other words, over 500 million), the decision to ensure that at least a third of the candidates elected to power are women is a welcome one that was long overdue.

For all the talk of women's liberation, the undeniable truth is that contemporary Indian society is highly inequitable. Social evils like female foeticide, dowry and marital abuse remain pretty much the norm rather than the exception to this day. As a person who's studied history, I know for a fact that progressive societies have traditionally been equitable ones. Let's not forget that in ancient times, when India was a mighty country, women enjoyed a status at par with men. Is it a coincidence that the end of the first millenium of the Christian era, from which point India ceased to be a progressive country and started going downhill, was also the period when the status of women in Indian society started deteriorating?

The question that automatically follows is: will a single piece of legislation change the status of women in India? Can it change the values and beliefs of a society that has favoured males for over a thousand years? My answer is that it can, if backed by proper implementation and good intentions. There are several skeptics who fear- not entirely without reason- that the reservation is likely to produce many more Rabri Devis and could become a device for politicians to prop up their spouses and kids to capture power by proxy.

Such fears aren't unfounded, but let's make a distinction between a flawed system and flawed use thereof. Any system is finally only as good or bad as the person using it. Admittedly women's reservations could be abused. But abuse of a system does not by itself make the system flawed. True, it could easily come to pass. But should a progressive step be retracted merely because it could be misused? Using the same argument, we could decide to maintain the status quo on all fronts- any change could just as easily be perverted for nefarious ends, isn't it?

Taking an optimist's viewpoint, I would say that women's reservation, together with other initiatives in the fields of education and inclusive growth could foster a socio-economic transformation. At a social level, it should make women more aware of their rights, which in turn would result in the creation of a more egalitarian society. To be sure, the changes would take two to three generations to happen. Should my optimist's beliefs prove true, Indian society should have undergone a metamorphisis in another 3-4 decades.

The forces of transformation have already started, but reservations could well provide the impetus that the socioeconomic transformation so badly needed. If nothing else, our 'representative' institutions will indeed represent our population. It will enable the largely disenfranchised women to have their voice in the running of the country. God willing, it will enable women to have a voice in running their own lives- the one thing most Indian women still do not enjoy 63 years after independence.

The difference between the Women's Reservation Bill being just a piece of meaningless legislation or the force that heralds a revolution could well be the difference between India remaining an inequitable and underacheiving and becoming a truly progressive and inclusive society.

Make no mistake, this bill could shape the future of a great country.

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