Article 7 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) states “Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country…”
India is one of the countries that have ratified the treaty. While we have expressed reservations on Articles 5(a), 16(1), 16(2), and 29, we are supposedly fully endorsing Article 7. But as anyone who has been following our Women’s Quota Bill and its convoluted route knows this endorsement is more of a concept and less of a reality.
The Women’s Quota Bill started its life in 1996, as an attempt to constitutionalize a 33% reservation for women in the parliament and state legislatures. Deve Gowda government (Janata Dal Party, member of the Third Front) brought the bill to the floor, but lost its power before its actual passage. In 1998, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government attempted again with no better luck than its predecessor. In 1999, BJP tried again and failed again. In 2008, Manmohan Singh government (Congress Party) submitted the bill in Rajya Sabha, the upper house. The bill did not have enough time to make it to the Lok Sabha, the lower house, because the new round of elections intervened.
The very same bill enthusiastically supported by all three major political parties — Congress, BJP, and the Left/Third Front — cannot seem to see the light of day. And, this bill is an expansion of reservations that already exist at the local Panchayat level, which was codified through Constitutional Amendments 73 and 74 – in 1992!
So what is stopping the Women’s Quota Bill for the state and central legislatures?
Ground realities in the form of small regional players like Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav have been able to tie the bill up in knots by demanding a quota within the quota for ethnic and religious minorities. More troublesome is the propensity for Indian governments, long gone from a single majority party rule to unwieldy (and sometimes opportunistic) coalitions, to lose power at the whims of even a handful of party-switchers.
Yesterday, Jayanthi Natarajan, chairperson of Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice, announced that the Women’s Quota Bill will be tabled “in the form it was originally tabled in the Rajya Sabha (in May 2008).”
The Parliamentary Standing Committee has taken note of the fact that there was “no adequate representation of women in the social, economic and political life of the country even after more than 60 years of independence.”
On this 30th anniversary of CEDAW, let us hope that the Women’s Quota Bill finally passes and becomes a Constitutional Amendment in which we can all rejoice.