Is The Manmohan Singh Government Just Window Dressing Gender? by Pamela Philipose SignUp

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Is The Manmohan Singh Government Just Window Dressing Gender?
by Pamela Philipose Bookmark and Share

First a reminder. Let's rewind to that heady dawn of May 2004 when Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, first came to power. The preamble of the National Common Minimum Programme his United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had unveiled was rife with the rosy tints of that moment. The government declared its fulsome desire "to fully empower women politically, educationally, economically and legally."

It may be useful to flag some of the promises to women the government had made at that juncture:

  1. One, it promised to take the lead to introduce legislation for one-third reservations for women in vidhan sabhas (legislative assemblies) and in the Lok Sabha.

  2. Two, it pledged to introduce and enact legislation on domestic violence and against gender discrimination.

  3. Three, it indicated that it would ensure that at least one-third of all funds flowing into panchayats would be earmarked for programmes for the development of women and children; and that village women and their associations will be encouraged to assume responsibility for all development schemes related to drinking water, sanitation, primary education, health and nutrition.

  4. Four, it promised complete legal equality for women in all spheres by removing discriminatory legislation and enacting new legislation that gives women equal rights of ownership of assets like houses and land.

  5. Five, it spoke of protecting the rights of children, especially that of the girl child.

Looking at this wish list six years later, on the first anniversary of the second Manmohan Singh government - or UPA II - we realise how often between intention and outcome, there falls the shadow of political compulsion and shoddy implementation.

A good example of the first is the Women's Reservation Bill. Yes, the Bill did get passed in the Rajya Sabha on March 9 this year amidst rising expectations that it could soon be the law of the land. But today those expectations have receded, given the compromises the ruling Congress Party has made with parties bitterly opposed to the Bill, like the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party, in order to tackle other legislation it deems as high priority, like the Nuclear Liability Bill. Going by present indications there seems to be a clear lack of political will to press on with this agenda and women and their concerns will continue to be a marginal presence in the terrain of Indian parliamentary democracy in the foreseeable future.

Many saw the UPA government's move to raise the percentage of reservations for women at the level of panchayats and urban bodies to 50 per cent as a compensatory one, given the lack of progress on the Women's Bill. While the numerical equality it ushered in needs to be welcomed, it is clear that numerical representation by itself does not automatically translate into equal political participation. For that to happen, it has to be accompanied by institutional empowerment, which allows women to actually participate equally in society, whether as workers, political representatives or citizens. Recent reports of Dalit women leaders and those who marry across caste and 'gotra' lines being physically attacked, even killed, indicate that this is certainly not the case. Even those women elected into panchayats continue to be regarded as implementers rather than initiators of schemes and programmes. They have not been given adequate financial and administrative power, nor the required training and capacity building to wield such power. Therefore, while there is rich symbolism in the Manmohan Singh government having taken steps that will bring an estimated two million women into local leadership, this is still very much a work in progress.

In its last avatar, the UPA government did enact the very important Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), 2005, a piece of legislation that emerged from civil society and the women's movement. The law gave the crime a legal definition and brought within its scope mothers, sisters and live-in partners - apart from wives, of course - and protected their right of residence. But today this Act is failing is to live up to its promise. The old combination of forces - from apathetic police to cynical judges - continues to deny justice to desperate women. UPA II has not considered the PWDVA important enough to provide adequately for a multi-sectoral agency that could ensure its effectiveness and chooses instead to blame state governments for being laggard in implementing the law.

A similar shoddiness continues to mark the government's approach to its flagship jobs guarantee initiative. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is now named after Mahatma Gandhi, but the Gandhian talisman of recalling the face of the poorest and the weakest - who is invariably a woman - is all but forgotten. Women continue to be turned way from jobsites in favour of men, or because the "schedule of rates" severely limits their participation. Non-existence of child care facilities is a serious constraint, and long delays in the payment of wages continue to mar the administration of the Act, apart of course from local corruption. Here again, the Centre shrugs off its responsibilities while pointing fingers at the state administration, although it never fails to claim credit for having implemented the NREGA.

Finally, this is not about what the Manmohan Singh government says it is doing, but what it is actually doing. Today, when there is uncontrolled mining of forest land, when land acquisition favours the top quintile of the economy, when the cycle of government-extremist confrontation gets ever more violent, when politics has been criminalised, when caste hatreds flourish, and when food prices spiral out of control, the UPA government - after being in power for six years - can no longer claim to be "committed to the daily well-being of the common man across the country" - or the common woman.

In fact, it is women who pay the highest price for poor governance. Take one simple piece of statistics from the National Family Health Survey -3 that underlines this: Anaemia is two times higher among Indian women than Indian men. In a recent assessment the government has acknowledged that it will not be able to meet its Millennium Development Goals on child mortality and maternal mortality, going by the present rate of change.

On its first anniversary, the Manmohan Singh government should ask itself why this is the case. Why has its health care proved so terribly inadequate, why is food security only a Congress Party mantra, why has conflict got amplified, why are people continuing to be pushed out of their homesteads? If it answers these questions honestly, it will realise that the mere window dressing of gender concerns is no substitute for meaningful change.

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