Sunday, July 21, 2013

The forgotten bill

What now? Photo: S. Subramanium
The HinduWhat now? Photo: S. Subramanium

It’s important that the Women’s Reservation Bill becomes law so that more women find a place in Parliament and in the State assemblies.

It should be renamed the Forgotten Bill. The Women’s Reservation Bill, also known as the 108 Constitutional Amendment Bill 2008, has been up in the air for so long that it has virtually vanished into thin air.
Of course, officially it still exists. The Rajya Sabha passed it in 2010. As a result, it remains on the record and will not be sent back to the drawing board once a new government is elected.
But before it becomes law, and 33 per cent seats are reserved for women in Parliament and State assemblies, it still has to cross several hurdles. It must be passed by the Lok Sabha and by over half the State assemblies.
Clearly, this is not going to happen for some time. Or so it appears given current political realities. Political parties are now in election mode. And the ruling coalition at the Centre cannot take any chances. So I would guess that the bill will remain in limbo for a while yet. The passage through the Rajya Sabha was not entirely without drama. The bill received 191 votes in support and only one against it, that of Sharad Joshi of the Swatantra Bharat Paksh. The front pages of newspapers on the day after it was passed showed former Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson Najma Heptullah, Sushma Swaraj of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Brinda Karat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) joining hands and smiling jubilantly. But in the House the opponents to the bill made sure their voices were heard. In fact, four members of the Samajwadi Party (SP), one each from Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Lok Jan Shakti Party had to be physically removed from the House. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) also walked out without voting. Despite this the bill was passed.
The odd thing is that this government has the numbers on its side to be able to steer the bill through the current Lok Sabha. All the major parties are supporting the bill. Apart from the Congress Party, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the BJP, the Left Front, the DMK and the AIADMK support the bill. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool is ambivalent as are the BSP and the JD (U). But even without their support, the bill would pass.
So what is the hitch? As in the past, it is politics and political calculations. Two parties who otherwise support the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government — Mulayam Singh’s SP and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD — are bitterly opposed to the Women’s Bill. The UPA government cannot risk losing their support with the approaching elections.
And secondly, although no one will say this openly, the majority in Parliament consisting of men secretly hope that the bill never becomes law because overnight their numbers would be reduced.
The pros and cons of this law have been literally debated to death for almost two decades. So let us not again start discussing whether reservation of seats for women is a good thing or a bad thing. The current bill is not perfect by any means. Even those who have pushed for women’s reservation in Parliament are not entirely satisfied with it. But they believe that passing it would be an important first step. Even if some parties oppose it, they could always move for amendments. But at least the principle of affirmative action would be established and more women would find a place in Parliament and State assemblies.
Some of the arguments made against reserving seats for women are more resilient than others. One such points at the existing women leaders. We are told that none of them provide inspiring role models. Nor do they infuse confidence in us that more women would necessarily mean better governance. Yet, no one questions the fact that that there are not many men who are inspiring role models either. Does that mean men should not have a share in leadership?
Whatever the quality of male leadership, we take it for granted that men have a right to be in positions of power. But women must prove themselves. They have to earn the right. They must be incorruptible, or at least less corrupt. They must be more efficient. They must inspire confidence. They must be less biased and they must be much more decisive than the next man (but not bossy, only a man is allowed that).
In other words, in the current pot-holed playing field (as opposed to a level one), women have zero to no chance of making it unless they have a male benefactor. On their own merit they simply do not stand a chance. Instead of fearing the opposition to the bill, the UPA should push it through before the next election. The worst that can happen now is that the parties opposing it will dump the UPA and elections will have to be held sooner. Given that general elections are less than a year away, that would hardly be catastrophic. For all you know, it might actually work in the UPA’s favour.
What we need now is one last push — a bi-partisan effort by all those politically in favour of the bill with the support of the many women’s groups that have fought for this law.
(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, July 07, 2013

No more tree huggers

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 7, 2013

Waiting and watching...The residents of Simli Village watch the Pindari in spate. These people lost their fields and homes in the recent disaster. Photo: V.V.Krishnan
Photo: V.V.Krishnan (courtesy The Hindu)

They are still looking for the missing and counting the dead. The tragedy of the Uttarakhand floods continues to haunt. It stares at us daily from the front pages of newspapers and from television footage.
Yet these compelling visuals hide other realities of that land, as Ravi Chopra highlighted in his prescient article in this newspaper (The Untold Story of Uttarakhand, June 25). While the media reports told us about stranded pilgrims, we forgot the people of the State who have been stranded not only by this natural disaster but also by decades of disastrous developmental policies.
The communities living in the mountains of Uttarakhand are no strangers to floods and landslides. Yet, when their mountains spew forth streams of mud, water and boulders as on the night of June 16/17, which destroy everything in their path, even the hardiest of communities will be devastated.
Worse, the destruction represents not just a temporary hardship but one that spells penury and privation that will go on for years. These Himalayan communities live off the land. When that land is washed away, they are left with nothing — neither home nor source of livelihood. Once the focus on rescue recedes, it is imperative that the needs of these communities are addressed.
Uttarakhand is special in many ways. Its people have been pioneers in community-led initiatives to nurture the fragile environment. Everyone has heard of the Chipko movement of the 1970s when the women of Reni village, Hemwalghati in Chamoli district, hugged the trees and prevented loggers from cutting down their forests. Chipko was the dramatic representation of what scores of other groups, mostly led by women, have been doing for decades to oppose deforestation or the substitution of local tree species with those that would fetch attractive returns when cut and sold.
Women’s participation in these struggles is not accidental. The women of the hills have long had to bear the burden of heading households as their men migrate to work in the cities. Their main workload has traditionally been to find fuel and fodder. In days past, water was never a problem. But today, in addition to the other tasks, they also have to find water. Deforestation has led to greater run-off of topsoil. The mountain slopes, bare of vegetation or topsoil, cannot hold the generous supply of water that comes in the form of rains. Instead the water cascades down in landslides, taking with it more soil and rocks. When the forests were untouched, the rainwater would percolate and replenish the plentiful mountain springs that were a perennial source of water.
In the aftermath of the Uttarakhand flood disaster, everyone is discussing environmental protection. While some point to ill-advised developmental policies that have destroyed the ecosystem of this region, others slam “environmentalists” for being anti-development. We forget that nurturing the environment has been the life mantra of the women of this region. It is not something you debate in television studios or discuss in seminars. It is the way you conduct your life every day. It is the only way to conduct your life. It is survival.
We also forget, when we see visuals of roads that have been washed away, what happens to the lives of communities living in villages and hamlets in mountainous regions. The absence of even small roads accentuates their isolation. If someone is sick, they cannot easily reach a public health facility. Even if they want to educate their children, it is not easy to ensure that their children attend the nearest school. And of course, the scattered nature of settlements also means that they will not get electricity, because it is difficult and expensive to take grid-based electricity to them. What an irony that in a State that is aiming to become a source of hydroelectric power, its people continue to live in the dark. In fact, the topography of much of Uttarakhand makes it ideal for decentralised, renewable energy systems that would best serve the needs of its people.
Yet whether it is the current focus on the pilgrims and the holy sites, or the kind of developmental model that successive governments in Uttarakhand have favoured, what is emerging clearly is that the needs of the people, including the women, of the region has not been a priority. If people, instead of profits, had been the priority, then the energy mix chosen by the State would have been dramatically different, with more emphasis in guaranteeing a reliable source of power for everyone, including those living in mountain settlements, rather than profiting from the State’s hydroelectric potential. If people had been the priority, then forests would have been retained at any cost, even if it meant controlling and limiting religious tourism that yields considerable profits.

There are many such “ifs”. The tragedy of the Uttarakhand floods has been compounded because the wisdom of those women, who hugged the trees in the 1970s and brought real name and fame to this region, has now been forgotten. Their courage and far-sightedness, if translated into developmental policy, might not have prevented natural calamities. But there is no doubt that it would have miminised damage in the face of calamities.

(To read the original, click here.)