English: Indian politician Brinda Karat in Jan...

English: Indian politician Brinda Karat in January 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

PM Modi, This Bill Can Be Easily Passed. So What Gives?

There is a strong dividing line between symbolic actions and just plain tokenism. Alas, the Prime Minister’s suggestion that only women members of parliament should speak on March 8, International Women’s Day, would fall in the latter category. Tokenism at its worst.

Are you serious, Mr. Modi? As far as women’s representation in Parliament is concerned, among 141 selected countries, India ranks a low 103. India at just 12 per cent women in the Lok Sabha is way below the global average of 22.4 percent. Just to remind you, the Women’s Reservation Bill has been pending for the last six years. Instead of bringing that Bill, you add insult to injury with a half-baked proposal.

Six years ago, amidst much drama, the Rajya Sabha adopted the Bill. It was listed to be passed on March 8, but because of the various obstructive methods used by the opponents of the Bill across political parties, it could be adopted only on March 9, 2010.

The UPA itself was divided. It took a great deal of pressure from women’s movements, backed by the firm stand taken by the Left parties in parliament, to overcome the opposition. The Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Dr. Hamid Ansari, refused to bow to the pressure of opponents who were hell-bent on getting the House adjourned. They created unruly scenes, including tearing up the copies of the Bill, jumping on to the tables and so on. A firm Chairman ordered marshalls to remove them from the House. None of us liked to see colleagues being forced out, but at that stage, we felt that there was no choice. After calm was restored, there was a discussion, and the Bill was passed. It was indeed a historic day which brought much joy to women across India.

At that time, opponents to the Bill had a large presence in the Lok Sabha. The UPA Government’s very existence depended on their support. The BJP, being the main opposition party, took the position that they would permit discussion on the Bill only if the government could ensure the “House is in order.” Clearly there was no chance of that. So the Bill was effectively buried in the Lok Sabha.

However according to parliament rules, since the Rajya Sabha is in continued existence, any Bill adopted by the Rajya Sabha is considered live and can be taken up at any time by the Lok Sabha.

With a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha and with the highly reduced numbers of the opponents of the Bill, the Modi Government faces no such hurdles. The Congress, which had claimed credit for itself in the Rajya Sabha, obviously cannot oppose the Bill. The Left of course will extend unstinting support. The Government will easily have a two-thirds majority required for the passage of a constitutional amendment.

So why in the last two years has this Bill not been mentioned in any single agenda for parliament by the ruling party? Sushma Swaraj and Najma Heptulla and other BJP women leaders were very vocal when they were in opposition. Why are they silent now?

There was another important occasion on which the government could have shown its commitment to women a week before March 8. That was the annual budget. As a result of women’s movements, for the last decade or so, the central government has to give an account of the money spend for women. There are two parts. Part A which is of direct benefit to women and Part B which benefits women in a more general manner.

Here again there is a lot of tokenism. New schemes announced with low allocations, a juggling of allocations with increase in one sector being on the back of a decrease in the other. No wonder the allocations under the Gender Budget as part of total expenditure remains low at just around 4.5 per cent, the same as last year.

The much publicized “Beti Padhao Beti Bachao” (education for the girl child) programme has received an increased allocation of just three crores compared to revised estimates and is now 100 crores,  while other schemes like Udhaan, Swami Vivekananda Scholarship scheme, Pragati and so on have received no allocations whatsoever. As pointed out by the excellent analysis in the report of the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, the allocation of the incentive scheme called SUCCESS for girls in the secondary education sector is just 45 crores.

But worse still, the Nirbhaya fund to build an infrastructure to prevent crimes against women and to help rehabilitate sexual assault victims, has not received any funds at all. In fact, the scheme for the rehabilitation of rape victims does not find even a mention in the budget papers. The concept of crisis centres which were to be set up at block level throughout the country to help women victims has also disappeared. Over 600 crore rupees given to the Road Transport Ministry for provision of security for women has vanished into thin air. There is no fund for setting up the structures for the implementation of the legislation  against domestic violence.

More women have been killed in domestic and social violence in India than all those killed in wars that independent India had fought. Yet the government still refuses to put in place a social infrastructure which could be the difference between life and death for a woman.

Tomorrow, on March 8, we need to tell the government “Enough of tokenism and jumlas, take concrete action to reach  tangible goals, of which the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill can be the first. And also for good measure, change your gender lens, which seems to be completely blurred.”

(Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.)