Impact will be huge

Published : Apr 09, 2010 00:00 IST

Malini Bhattacharya: GOOD for democracy.-C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

Malini Bhattacharya: GOOD for democracy.-C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

Dr Malini Bhattacharya, two-time Communist Party of India (Marxist) member of the Lok Sabha, former member of the National Commission for Women and currently Chairperson of the West Bengal Commission for Women, feels that the proposed reservation of seats for women in Parliament and in the State Assemblies is good for democracy. She hopes the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress and other main political parties will show the same courage in the Lok Sabha as they did in the Rajya Sabha in support of the Bill.

Excerpts from an interview she gave Frontline:

What will be the impact of the Womens Reservation Bill on the general status of women in the country?

As far as the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabha [State Assemblies] are concerned, it will definitely have a huge impact because of the greater visibility women will have in these legislative bodies.

This, of course, does not mean that all the problems of women will be solved and women will lead a much happier life. In a country where approximately 50 per cent of the population consists of women and they are engaged in every walk of work, it is very bad for democracy that you do not see women in adequate numbers in the elected representative bodies. I am sorry to say that in the West Bengal Assembly, womens representation which is about 10 per cent is not very good. It is just about average; it should have been better. At the panchayat level it is about 40 per cent, which is expected to rise soon to 50 per cent as per the governments decision. The fact that women will be more visible in these representative institutions is good for democracy, and further, it will be good for women insofar as it will enable them, even if they are not contesting elections, to take an interest in the political process and also play a more active role in it. But then again, we also must keep in mind a new trend in politics, particularly in West Bengal, which is very violent. If this trend continues then it will prove to be counter-productive; the benefits women will be able to get the more active role we are expecting women to play will be severely hampered by this politics of violence.

What in your opinion is the main reason for the delay in the passage of this Bill?

I ceased to be an MP in 1996. Throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s most of us were of the opinion that we would not need this law, that representation of women would increase without any reservation. From 1993-94, after representation of women at the panchayat level showed us what larger representation for women can do, we raised our demand for reservation for women in Parliament.

We raised the slogan that without reservation, the kind of visibility that was desirable and adequate for women in politics would just not be there. So, it was really from the mid-1990s that the movement took shape, after reservation was introduced at the panchayat level. It was in 1996 that Geeta Mukherjee [the late Communist Party of India MP] first took the lead in preparing the Bill and placing it in Parliament. The fact that it has taken so long even to be passed in the Rajya Sabha is, of course, unfortunate.

People have been in two minds about the Bill. In many cases it was personal interests and fear, particularly among men, that they would lose their seats. This [fear] was not there when the panchayat law came into effect because no one was losing any seat in the Assembly or in Parliament. I also think, on the whole, it shows the tremendous power patriarchy has over the minds even of parliamentarians. The Left parties have campaigned for the Bill right from the start. I was very glad to see the larger parties coming forward in support of the Bill. The Congress and the BJP were initially in two minds about it, possibly fearing that they would lose the support of a section of their respective vote banks. But I was very glad to see them come forward in support of the Bill, and I hope they show the same courage in the Lok Sabha.

Those opposing the Bill have raised objections on the grounds that it will adversely affect the interests of the minorities and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Your comments.

There are so many considerations here. This thing about OBCs and minorities being excluded, I do not think it is very relevant in the context of the Bill. The Bill is very specific in doing one kind of amendment. If you want reservation for OBCs in general as it exists in some States and for minorities, then it has to come through another amendment. But it is no use stalling the Bill because you cannot amend it to include minorities without amending the Constitution.

As the Chairperson of the West Bengal Commission for Women, what is your view of the overall position of womens empowerment in the State, especially among the weaker sections, including the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes and the minorities?

This is difficult to answer because empowerment does not happen at one level but at several levels. But, in general, if we look at the situation 20 years ago and compare it with the situation today, we certainly see major changes, not only in the economic, educational and social situation but also in the general awareness of women. I think in West Bengal, because of land reforms, which greatly benefited S.C. and S.T. families and poorer sections of the minorities, women have shared that benefit to some extent.

At the same time, I have to say that there are big lags in the educational situation. There are also pockets where we find that educational facilities have not reached S.T. girls. One reason for this is, there is a backlog in development in certain regions. In the past 10 years, the State government has been giving scholarships and setting up hostels in every district for Adivasi and S.C. girls, and we still have not been able to gauge the benefits of the present period. What we are looking at is a backlog from the earlier times.

Another disturbing fact is that we have not been able to stem the incidence of dropping out. If dropping out of school takes place, child marriage and child trafficking will take place, because the moment a girl drops out of school she becomes invisible. Another very disturbing trend is that crimes against women, such as dowry deaths and domestic violence, do not show any sign of abating. In fact, statistics indicate an upward trend in almost all forms of violence against women, except for caste-based atrocities. This may be partly because of increased reporting of such cases as more and more women are gathering courage to approach the court or the police on account of the new provisions in the law against such violence. It continues to be a serious ill plaguing society.

In the field of health, schemes such as the Janani Surakshya Yojana have brought a lot of benefit to women of BPL [below poverty line] families. At any district or subdivisional hospital you will find that all the women admitted there are aware of this scheme and it is also picking up and will make a big change in the long run. The infant mortality rate (IMR) is very low in the State we are ranked third after Kerala and Tamil Nadu and I believe MMR [maternal mortality rate] rates will also decline if the Janani Surakshya Yojana is successful. However, one thing we have not yet been able to cope with is the problem of anaemia. The incidence of anaemia among women in the reproductive age group is quite high in the State.

In the economic field, we see the NREGS [National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme] is picking up fast. In most districts we find that the stipulated 30 per cent quota for women is being fulfilled, but a few districts, like North 24 Paraganas, are still lagging in womens participation. But the most important thing I would say is the change in awareness, which has a lot to do with the participation of women in the panchayat something we did not see 20 years ago.

Is there a big difference in the wages for men and women?

As is in most other States, there is a difference in West Bengal too, but it is not a very big difference. Most women work in the unorganised sector where they have no scope to negotiate wages. But so far as government schemes are concerned, I have been informed by people implementing the NREGS that the wages are the same for both men and women but the share of work is lighter for women. Since we have not made any survey of this, I dont know how much of this is true.

Can you tell us something about the role of self-help groups (SHGs) in empowering women in the State?

The SHG movement has received a huge thrust in West Bengal. We are now at a crossroads and we really feel that the government needs an overall policy on SHGs. Many of the SHGs are non-functional or are not generating the kind of economic gains expected of them. The government also needs to have certain legal provisions to control the mushrooming of micro-finance institutions that are often becoming oppressive and exploitative. The training of the SHGs has to be linked with marketing and there must be marketing surveys before women are made to undergo training. These are some of the suggestions the Womens Commission has made to the government.

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