“In politics if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman” – Margaret Thatcher
Women’s Reservation Bill was first presented in 2008 by UPA Government as 108th Constitutional Amendment Bill. The Bill was passed in Rajya Sabha in 2010. However, the introduction was also attempted previously in 1996 but it failed to see the light of day in any house. In the last two decades, various efforts have been put in by different governments. But the effort to our dismay has met a dead end. Reservation for any group is an ‘affirmative action’ by the state to promote or empower or emancipate the group. As in almost every case, these groups have faced subjugation in the past due to systematic or social discrimination. In this context, when 73rd Constitutional Amendment was passed in India, providing for grassroots democracy at the Panchayat level, 33 % seats were reserved for women. This provision has substantially changed the face of villages in our country. Women folks getting elected as a leader have become an agent of change and have contributed towards the well being of other women too.
In the Indian Parliament, Women’s Reservation Bill (108th Amendment) was introduced with the aim to provide 33% reservation for women in Parliament and State Assemblies. The Bill also has a provision where one third seats will be reserved for women from the seats reserved for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe in Parliament and State Assembly. Reservation of seats in the constituency will be allotted by rotation in Parliament and State Assembly. An authority will be appointed by Parliament which will determine the allocation of reserved seats. Also the Bill highlights that the provision will cease to exist after 15 years from the commencement of the Act. The Bill was passed in the State Assembly in 2010 but remained pending in Lok Sabha due to which it has finally lapsed in Parliament.
There are divergent views regarding the Bill. There are relevant arguments on both for and against the Bill. The purpose of the Bill as stated by its proponents is that although equality of sexes is outlined in various provisions of Constitution, the truth is far away from the reality. Therefore, it is the duty of state to provide affirmative action to improve the condition of women. Based on various studies, it has been concluded that reservation in politics allows redistribution of resources to those who are marginalised. In a related study done by Ministry of Panchayati Raj in 2008, it was stated that 33% reservation for women is allowed for increased self-esteem and decision-making ability of women.
United Nations presents the Human Development Report every year, in which Gender Inequality Index (GII) is presented. GII measures inequality on three parameters of health, labour market participation and empowerment. India was ranked low at 108th position out of 144 countries in Global Gender Gap Index 2017. India’s cumulative score was 0.669 as compared to Iceland with the score of 0.878 (most gender-equal country). India performed badly mainly due to low scores on two indicators. They are (i) Health and survival, (ii) Economic participation and opportunities for women. Apart from this, there is widening of its gender gaps in political empowerment as well as in life expectancy and basic literacy.
Recently, the IPU (Inter-Parliamentary Union) and UN Women released a world ranking of the number of women parliamentarians, in which India is ranked 148th among 193 countries. Looking at the data released, IPU Secretary-General Martin Chungong backed up the call for reservation of women in governing bodies which could speed up the process for achieving gender equality. Another reason why women should be given reservations in Parliament and State Assembly is because the female reservations in parliamentarians and State Legislators will be more sensitive to the issues plaguing the lives of women. Indian society is mostly a patriarchal society. Crime against women in the form of rape, dowry, domestic violence, systematic marginalisation, female foeticide etc is rampant across the length and breadth of the country. Therefore, to attain gender parity and reduce crimes against women, women themselves have to act as an agent of change. Aristotle said, “It is important for women to know that they have to be there (within the political process) where it matters. Whether it is at the rural council or urban council or other levels of policy-making, they have to ensure that their lot is addressed.”
When women representation increases in the Parliament, it will indirectly or directly also facilitate the other related goals. It will create environment for positive social and economic policies for realisation of full potential of women. It will lead to de-jure and de-facto enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedom. It will facilitate equal access of females to health, education, employment, social security etc. It will change the societal attitude and community practices which block freedom and empowerment of women.
On the other side of debate, there is furious opposition against the Bill. They consider it a step backward and a move in the wrong direction. They suggest that there will be pseudo representation. It has been observed at the Panchayat level that the seats which get reserved for women, are filled by a candidate who is either wife or a female relative of the male representative. In reality, when these female candidates are elected, their male counterparts run a puppet show. Therefore, there is no actual empowerment. Also it is argued that reservation will stifle choice for voters, leaving the meritorious candidate behind. As a result, it will create a wider chasm and gender inequality will further perpetuate. Resentment will flow among male candidates and as a result of this, women will be further marginalised. Political commentators are of the view that it will be against the grain of our Constitution guaranteeing equality irrespective of sex. It will be a form of discrimination against women. The provision may not guarantee a trickledown effect where its benefit reaches the lowest rungs of the society. The politically, economically, socially affluent women will grab the seats thereby bringing no change and maintaining status quo.
Women Reservation Bill would prove to be an issue of debate in years to come. But before the Bill gets passed by the Parliament, groundwork needs to be done for real result. Otherwise it will meet fate where marginalized will remain marginalised and power will accrue to the affluent. Thus, it is concluded that the Women’s Reservation Bill will indeed be a milestone towards achieving the goal of a true and enlightened democracy and must be enacted at the earliest possible opportunity.