Women's Reservation bill may be a blunt instrument, but no one has suggested anything better

Monday, March 8, 2010

"The issue of empowerment of women has been raised in different fora in the country from time to time. Political empowerment of women is rightly perceived as a powerful and indispensable tool for eliminating gender inequality and discrimination." Positive discrimination has been one of finest discovery of the democracy in order to create equality of opportunity for the hitherto deprived sections of society. Indian women had been ignored since the time unknown. It is high time that our society gives enough attention to the cause of women's rights. After all, "Our full potential as a nation will only be realised when women, who constitute about half of our population, can fully realise their potential."

"What a gift it would be if in the centenary year of International Women's Day the Women's Reservation Bill were to be passed." Despite the noble intentions, the bill couldn't be passed in Rajya Sabha today. It is unfair to say that the issues raised by the opponents are not genuine. But in any case, women - whether they belong to upper castes or lower castes or middle castes - should be represented equally or adequately.

What does the bill say?
  1. The Bill seeks to reserve, as nearly as possible, one-third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies (including Delhi). The allocation of reserved seats shall be determined by such authority as prescribed by Parliament.
  2. As nearly as possible, one third of the total number of seats reserved for Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) in the Lok Sabha and the legislative assemblies shall be reserved for SC/ST women.
  3. Reservation of seats for women shall cease to exist 15 years after the commencement of the Act.
  4. Reserved seats may be allotted by rotation to different constituencies in the state or union territory. If a state or union territory has only one seat in the Lok Sabha, that seat shall be reserved for women in the first general election of every cycle of three elections. If there are two seats, each shall be reserved once in a cycle of three elections. Similar rules apply for seats reserved for SC/STs. Of the two seats in the Lok Sabha reserved for Anglo Indians, one will be reserved for women in each of the two elections in a cycle of three elections.
What do the critics say?
  1. Opponents argue that it would perpetuate the unequal status of women since they would not be perceived to be competing on merit. They also contend that this policy diverts attention from the larger issues of electoral reform such as criminalisation of politics and inner party democracy.
  2. Reservation of seats in Parliament restricts choice of voters to women candidates. Therefore, some experts have suggested alternate methods such as reservation in political parties and dual member constituencies.
  3. Rotation of reserved constituencies in every election may reduce the incentive for an MP to work for his constituency as he may be ineligible to seek re-election from that constituency.
  4. Reservation would not lead to political empowerment of women because (a) larger issues of electoral reforms such as measures to check criminalisation of politics, internal democracy in political parties, influence of black money, etc. have not been addressed.
  5. it could lead to election of “proxies” or relatives of male candidates.
What do the proponents say?
The proponents of the policy of reservation state that although equality of the sexes is enshrined in the Constitution, it is not the reality. Therefore, vigorous affirmative action is required to improve the condition of women. Also, there is evidence that political reservation has increased redistribution of resources in favour of the groups which benefit from reservation. A study about the effect of reservation for women in panchayats shows that women elected under the reservation policy invest more in the public goods closely linked to women’s concerns. A 2008 study, commissioned by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, reveals that a sizeable proportion of women representatives perceive an enhancement in their self-esteem, confidence and decision-making ability.

What is quota within quota issue?
To put it simple, quota within quota means, "sub-reservation for STs, SCs, OBCs and Minority communities within the 33 percent quota."

The main political parties who oppose the bill say that, the bill is a conspiracy by the Congress and the BJP to prevent Muslims, backwards and Dalits to get elected to the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas. Contending that the reservation would benefit only upper caste women, they have demanded a separate quota for OBC women.  On this issue, PMK has given a written view that,

“...this means that within seats reserved for Scheduled Castes men one third seats will be reserved for SC women. This implies that other women belonging to Backward Classes, Minorities and other weaker sections of the society, who now enjoy benefits under various Government programmes such as education, employment, development programmes are deprived of political reservation. This is against the concept of equality and runs contrary to Constitutional provisions. It discriminates between women of different groups and will enable increased representation of only women from upper castes, which would perpetuate the already raging disparities among women. This unjust situation has to be remedied...."
Noting that, "not a single Muslim was elected to Parliament from states like Gujarat, MP, Maharashtra, Punjab and Haryana", the opponents say,  "how can a Muslim woman could be elected without reservation? This bill is dangerous as women have been included in reservation being extended to Muslims, OBCs and SC/ST. If this bill is enacted, especially Muslims and OBCs would be at the receiving end."

Under this context it is interesting to note what Nationalist Congress Party has to say,
"...we don’t find any need for reasons for special quota for OBC within the women’s quota as suggested from certain quarters. Now there are 429 seats excluding reserved seats for SC/ST category in the Parliament. There is no reservation for OBC in the abovementioned existing unreserved seats. But still there is good representation for OBC category in the Parliament at present. Same is the case of OBC category in the State Assemblies as well....."
The way forward
If one takes a closer look at various opinions noted in the Parliamentary standing committee report,  it is abundantly clear that, there is some truth in what the opponent parties like RJD and SP are saying. It may be foolishness to think of women empowerment if only women from political houses enter the houses of parliament and assemblies. The very idea of women reservation is to give opportunity to those who may not get that opportunity under normal circumstances. Reservation for women belonging Scheduled Caste and Scheduled tribes in local bodies have given a fruitful results (with some exceptions though). It is the responsibility of the government to address these genuine concerns and those concerns are too big to be ignored.

But in any case it is important for us to note what National Federation of Indian Women says, "we want reservation for women, they may belong to upper castes or lower castes or middle castes. We won’t mind, but women should be represented equally or adequately....... we cannot reject the Bill on any of these issues that are being raised and sought to be solved within the ambit of the Bill."

Some are of the opinion that, "Women's reservation bill itself is a bias towards women" and they would be happier "if women could stand up for their rights on the basis of merit, and not on the basis of reservations." True, but they must understand that the equality of opportunity must be seen in historical and constitutional context (follow the link for more on that). There was a time when women expected nothing but oppression and discrimination in the society. Today, there is a need for "positive discrimination" for attaining gender equality.

"Reservation may be a blunt instrument, but no one has suggested anything better." Do you think of any better alternatives to reservation so that "good things" that come out of reservation can still be retained?

Also Read:
  1. Women's Reservation Bill - Not yet a dead letter "again"
  2. Women's Reservation Bill - The end of U turn?
  3. Women's Reservation Bill: Parliament set to create history
  4. Gender-less democracies - The Hindu.

This post has used the data and analysis already made by PRS Legislative Research.


Sandy said...

Good analysis. I had made similar observations.


Sumanth said...

The Women's Reservation Bill in current form is undemocratic.

This bill attempts to deny 110 million Indian men the right to contest in elections.

People who tabled the bill should be arrested for attacking democracy.

The German Model of Women's Reservation by political parties is democratic.
In Germany, political parties field 30% women candidates in elections.
If Germany can do it, why can not India?

Women's Organisation calls the bill Undemocratic and wants changes

Yogesh Hegde said...

Good Post Manju.. Couple of points from my side.. These are very general in nature but this is what I feel.
Reservation by definition in wiki "Reservation in Indian law provides for a quota system whereby a percentage of posts are reserved in employment in Government" and I feel this is mostly right. I basically oppose reservations because it is defined to occupy the positions but not enabled to compete. The people who adorn these positions may be deserving but most of the times undeserving. Instead why does not the Government take measures to enable the women,SC/ST,backward classes to compete. Via reservations,we are biasing the outcome instead of changing the mode of competition. I can recollect about the equal opportunity phrase in the constitution. What does the constitution mean by equal opportunity? Does it mean equal opportunity in the results section or in the competition section?
Through reservations, there is also a mass merit murder. Agreed that there are/were women who are/were industrious as like men. But for now, we still can consider there are more meritorius men population. Out of 33 of say 100 LS seats, there can be several non-meritorious women getting elected who did not have deserved but got an opportunity axing the more able men candidates. These women will be the law makers positions ultimately thereby compromising the quality of representation.
You talked about the historical context which I feel is not correct.This explanation looks to be crude but I feel this is valid. We have to travel chronologically backward to understand the real problem. We cannot say that men were more in number than women at the start. Why men emerged powerful is by nature which predicates "The fittest dominates". This is by far true in all the nature-related case studies and men commanded the due-course.

These are just my view-points and dont take it too personal:))

Manjunath Singe said...


Thanks for the comment dude. Trust me, i don't take any of the comments personal :)

1. Agree that reservation may not enable to compete, but what's your alternative for enabling those who were discriminated so far just because they were women? We are only talking about affirmative action and that too for only 15 years (if you look at the bill passed yesterday). Is 15 years a long time considering the long history of discrimination?

2. Yes, it is possible that we might see few undeserving women coming into parliament. But that number is NOT proportional to the gains. We will see unprecedented social change as well as some change in the mindset of people. Simply because having "numbers" with you makes your voice heard loud and clear.

3. I thought the Darwinian philosophy of "Survival of the fittest" may not be appropriate to quote here. You might want to read more on "Battle of Sexes". The argument of deciding who is better among men and women never been conclusive so far :)

It is true that there are some drawbacks in reservation. But in our society it's worth facing those drawbacks in order to gain a larger social equality.

Yogesh Hegde said...

Excellent Manju on your comments!!! But,
1. I am reminded of the SC/ST reservation introduced initially.If I remember correctly, it was for 10 years but till today, after every 10 years, the bill gets amended and will be renewed for a next period of 10 years. Nobody knows when the real upliftment happens but its certainly true that events like these will shatter the confidence of the merited. This is a negative approach to the idea of India for the future.

2. Good point. Even if we assume that there will be considerably less undeserving women in the representation, we have to agree to the fact there is a cumulative increase of such people in the field. And the consequence is that there is a discomforting decline in the number of talented lot in the public sector. Should we not answer these questions? Why is the major talented junta going to the private sector? Will not such reservations hurt the democracy? Are we not suppressing the talent out of public sectors? Will it help India? I would not agree that reservation is the only solution and I certainly will not agree that if you have not found out a good solution apply one of the weaker ones.

3. I partially agree to your point that Darwinian philosophy will not probably apply here to the word. But I believe by nature women have certain limitations which probably men dont have, and which is absolutely the reason why men are able to dominate. Science and technology has tried to cut the gap but natural phenomenon like the ability to conceive is still with women.(I dont know if Sci&Tech has advanced yet to transfer it to men:)) ). Though its a good thing that they have such abilities, but it proves to be their limitation someway or the other.

Anonymous said...

The women's reservation bill is undemocratic and very discriminatory. Whatever the argument given in its favour, it remains anti-man. It is shocking that out-rightly denying men the right to contest elections and nurture constituencies is seen as progressive X(. Imagine a law denying women 33% of the seats and their potential to nurture a constituency!!!. People keep asking if there is a better "solution". Solution to what? We don't need a larger number of women. We need responsible meritorious individuals. People speak of women being discriminated against. Nowhere in the constitution is there any discrimination against women. However, this bill if passed will bring discrimination against men to the constitution. There is no need whatsoever of protective discrimination(:o) or affirmative action. If women are to be considered equal, let them do it the hard way, the way men contest elections. That is the only solution. Any sort of reservation is discriminatory whether it be seats or party tickets. Equality of opportunity does not mean equality of results. Results come by merit alone. Educate the women in politics and reduce corruption in party politics. If women's numbers increase, so be it. If they decrease, so be it. Not quite what the feminist ordered, is it?

Anonymous said...

SoniaG wants to empower the nation!

Men and women of India, lend me your years,
Let’s praise the lord and wish the queen with cheers,
We will soon bury our democracy in grand fashion,
And start putting quotacracy in full motion.
For SoniaG wants to empower the nation!

Dr Kalam did not find us empowering,
He sent our bill for profit back, enquiring,
We were not amused by his checking,
So, we had to send him packing.
For SoniaG wants to empower the nation!

Mr. Shivraj Patil is the most pliant and cool,
But he was rejected by Mr Karat the fool,
We played the women card as the tool,
Presto! Everything fell in place like stool.
For SoniaG wants to empower the nation!

The CEC has been a thorn since Sheshan,
And blocked all our plans with passion,
We moved along so far with great caution,
But no more; now we are on our mission.
For SoniaG wants to empower the nation!

Somehow we put an admirer as the CEC,
Things started to get real easy,
Wouldn’t care if his records look messy,
Ignore such talk like the gibberish of the crazy.
For SoniaG wants to empower the nation!

While the president’s wearing our jacket,
And the CEC already in our pocket,
Let us put the power plug in the socket,
Pass women’s reservation bill like a rocket.
For SoniaG wants to empower the nation!

The communists never trusted the constitution,
The BJP is committing suicide as the opposition,
The rest are only interested in weird distribution,
So, we can destroy the parliament as an institution.
For SoniaG wants to empower the nation!

Amen! Brutus is an honourable man!!

Debate on Indian Democracy said...

According to me There Are some reforms are required in Women Reservation Bill.

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This work by Manjunath Singe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License. The views and opinions expressed in this work are strictly those of the author and do not represent his employer's views in anyway.