The United Progressive Alliance government's announcement of its intention to push forward the Women's Reservation Bill without any dilution in the coming week is the best political news we have had for a long time. If all goes according to plan, the long-pending Bill will be adopted by both houses of Parliament on or around March 8, which marks the centenary of International Women's Day. The Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill seeks to allot one-third of the seats in the Lok Sabha and in State assemblies to women, with the reservation applying by rotation to the various constituencies. The Bill, which has been introduced in the Rajya Sabha, has the support of the Congress, the BJP, the Left parties, and some important regional parties. Notwithstanding the obstructionism of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party, there should now be no problem in putting together the two-thirds support needed for constitutional amendment. What is really significant in a political sense is that, led by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, the government was able to summon the political will to go for this breakthrough, which will surely have far-going and profound effects on the ground. On the other hand, India's dismal 10 per cent representation of women in Parliament indicates that without a constitutionally mandated change, it will continue to bring up the rear among the world's nations.
The experience of working a mandated system of 33 per cent (now raised to 50 per cent) reservation for women in panchayati raj institutions has amply demonstrated that enhanced political participation of women at the grassroots deepens democracy in many ways. It delivers more of the constitutional guarantees of rooting out discrimination on the basis of sex or caste, providing equality of opportunity for women, and redirecting resources in favour of the most disadvantaged in the population – who, even within the most deprived groups, are likely to be women. The World Economic Forum in its 2009 report on global gender disparities ranks India 114th in a list of 134 countries. Given the troubling statistics starting with the worsening sex ratio in the 0-6 age group in the population, eliminating the gender gap in its various dimensions should be a top political priority for rising India. Greater representation of women in legislatures and Parliament is likely to force a shift of focus towards this priority. The world over, women's empowerment and advancement through progressive struggles, and by right, have had a highly beneficial impact on politics, the economy, health, education, culture, and society. With the ruling party, the main opposition, and other significant political players deciding to join hands on a key issue, a rare and historic opportunity presents itself. The polity and Parliament must not fail the women of India.