Even if elected women representatives are as bad as their male counterparts in cities, why should they be denied a role in governance?

When all other structures in our cities fall apart, one will survive — the ubiquitous garbage dump. It is resilient to every kind of strategy. Try as you may, it refuses to budge. Around every corner, practically on every street and in every neighbourhood, this quintessential monument symbolising urban mismanagement continues to thrive and grow.

One such stubbornly resilient dump is part of our neighbourhood in Mumbai. Despite its impressive size, it gets cleared sporadically because it is hidden from view, lying at the back of our building compound. We contribute a fair share to it. So does the large slum that is as much part of our neighbourhood as the pucca buildings. Both have coexisted, often with a sense of resigned co-dependency, for more than four decades.

Years of daily calls to the municipality to send a truck to clear the dump have made little difference to its size or spread. Recently, we saw a glimmer of hope when we realised that a municipal election was around the corner. Surely the thirst for votes would prompt the elected representatives of the richest municipal corporation in India to at least pretend that they cared for their constituents.

Typical response

So a message was sent to the corporator. A woman. Surely, women are concerned about garbage, clean water, issues that affect the ordinary person. The response was almost instant. But ‘madam' was too busy. So she sent her husband who, without a shadow of embarrassment introduced himself, took down the complaint and promised action. That the ‘action' finally taken consisted of building a retaining wall to prevent the slum from collapsing in the next monsoon without dealing with the garbage is another story. But the husband's role at a time when the Maharashtra government has decided to increase reservation for women in panchayats and nagarpalikas from 33 per cent to 50 per cent highlights one of many issues that swirl to the surface each time the subject of women's reservation comes up.

Last week, the Bombay High Court dismissed a petition challenging this increase in the percentage of reservation for women. The man who went to court argued that combined with the existing reservation for scheduled castes and tribes, the number of ‘general' seats in the 227-member municipal corporation of Mumbai would be reduced to a mere 77. This, he felt, was unjust. The court thought otherwise.

What this judicial challenge raises is why the question of reservation for women met with practically no resistance when it was first introduced through the 73 and 74 Constitutional Amendment and why now, in the case of a big city like Mumbai, there is opposition.

Reservation at the panchayat level has made a difference. It has not only opened the way for literally thousands of women to get a share in political decision-making but it is changing relations within families and forging new role models for a whole new generation of young women. So why the resistance in cities like Mumbai?

The core issue is money. Panchayats and nagarpalikas in smaller towns do not manage large funds. Municipalities in cities like Mumbai do. Wherever money is involved, the stakes are higher. And the higher you go in the political ladder, the greater the resistance to reservation for women.

It is hardly surprising that the Women's Reservation Bill, that provides for 33 per cent reserved seats for women in Parliament and in the state assemblies, has still not been passed. Although the Rajya Sabha passed it last year, there is no sign of it in the Lok Sabha. In any case, given the political deadlock in the Lok Sabha during the current winter session, there is absolutely no chance of it surfacing this year, or possibly even the next.

Crucial differences

The few studies on the role of women in urban governance suggest that there are important differences in what women can do in elective office in urban areas compared to panchayats. Besides the money factor, in cities political parties can openly back candidates unlike in the panchayats. As a result, both monetary and political stakes are higher in urban local body elections.

So far, there is little to indicate that elected women representatives in cities or megacities like Mumbai have made a marked difference to the quality of governance. They appear to be as good or as bad as their male counterparts and usually follow the dictat of their political party. Mumbai, for instance, has a woman Mayor but you would never know that. There is nothing in the way in which the city is managed that suggests that the presence of a woman Mayor or of women in the municipal corporation has made any difference to the quality of governance.

One of the few studies of women in local urban governance was conducted a few years back in Delhi and Bangalore. Mary E. John, who heads the Centre for Women's Development Studies in Delhi, wrote a fascinating article based on this study, which looked at the relationship of women to power, in the Economic and Political Weekly (September 29, 2007). The picture that emerged was not entirely black and white. There were too many different factors at play such as class, caste, community as well as level of education and occupation that had to be taken into account.

For instance, the study found that the most common occupations of the elected men were contractor, developer or factory owner while 75 per cent and 42 per cent of the women in Bangalore and Delhi respectively were housewives. The majority of women who had a profession were teachers. This alone gives some indication of the difference in the ‘connections' men and women have when they are elected. Of course, even if the women were housewives, their husbands often had businesses that benefitted from the wife being an elected representative.

Another interesting factor that emerged was that both men and women acknowledged that they could not have entered the election race without a “godfather” who brought them into the political arena. In contrast, in panchayats many women have managed to enter without such patronage.

Fiefdoms

Also, while the issue of ‘proxies', or husbands standing in for their wives who have been elected, has generally been seen as a negative aspect of women's reservation, the study suggested that this was not confined to the women and that many men were also ‘proxies' for those who had backed them. Also, in many instances, as at the national level, political participation had evolved into a family business. When a woman's seat became a general seat by virtue of rotation, the husband contested for that seat. Thus the seat remained within “the family”. Is this any different from what is happening in Amethi, Rae Bareli and Baramati, to name just a few such family fiefdoms?

What seems clear, given the differences between urban and rural areas, is that we cannot assume that more elected women will automatically mean better governance in cities. Reservation is essential because women have not managed to enter the system without it. So even if they are as inefficient or corrupt as the men, should they be denied a share of the decision-making pie?

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com