Affirmative quota

The UPA government has taken an important step for greater empowerment of women by deciding to increase reservation of seats for them on panchayats to 50 per cent. The enabling legislation is likely to be introduced in the winter session of Parliament. Some states have already reserved  50  per cent seats for women. Ironically, the states which have done this are those considered socially backward, like Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand. Some others like Rajasthan and Kerala have announced their decision to implement 50 per cent reservation from the next panchayat elections. The Central government’s move will make it uniformly applicable to all states.

The present norm of 33 per cent reservation has helped to empower women at the grassroots level. Though many women who are elected to panchayats are proxies for their husbands or other male relatives, a large number of them have come into their own in the last many years.  It has helped to give women a new role and voice even in places where their social position is very low. Studies have shown that higher participation of women has also improved the functioning of panchayats. There are about 15 lakh elected women in panchayats all over the country. Active involvement of more women in grassroots politics will necessarily lead to a graduation of leadership to higher levels like state assemblies and Parliament. This natural progression is bound to be on the basis of individual merit and personal qualities rather than on the strength of family relations. Even the quota will be only the first stepping stone to political and social empowerment. The presence of more women at different levels of public life will help reduce gender discrimination which, for most of them, is indistinguishable from caste and class oppression. 

The proposed legislation is comprehensive as it envisages 50 per cent reservation for directly elected representatives, for offices of chairpersons and for positions reserved for SCs and STs in all tiers of panchayats. It is unlikely to face opposition in Parliament because there is no perceived immediate threat to vested male interests at higher levels. Parties also feel that their political interests at the village level can always be micro-managed. While the bill can hope for passage, the government needs to be reminded of its promise of providing 33 per cent reservation for women in legislatures within 100 days of its coming to power.

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