Why Not a 33% Jobs Quota for Women? 

By Shankkar Aiyar| Published: 17th March 2019 04:00 AM

The saga of gender justice and empowerment of women in Indian politics is laced with tragedy and irony. One of the clauses in the Bill to reserve 33 per cent of the seats for women assured that the reservation would cease to exist after 15 years. Yet, 22 years and four months after the Deve Gowda regime introduced the Bill on September 12, 1996, the idea of forcing change is stranded between promise and political patriarchy.

The issue of gender empowerment is ricocheting rhetoric on the campaign trail—thanks to moves by TMC and BJD to ramp up the number of women contestants.

The 16th Lok Sabha is the fifth successive house which left the task incomplete. Meanwhile, the number of women contesting in LS polls has moved from 274 to 668, while those nominated by national parties has moved from 107 to 146. Roughly ten per cent of the women contesting get elected—chances improve to 24 per cent if from a national party and 41 per cent if contesting on a state party ticket. The number of women MPs has crawled from 40 to 62, while the number of women voters is up from 28.2 crore to 43.1 crore since 1996.

The matrix of gender empowerment is complex. India got its first woman chief minister in 1963. Since then more than a dozen women from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Jaipur to Jadavpur have led large, populous and complex states. India got its first woman prime minister in 1966. It has a woman as its defence minister, a woman as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and half a dozen women in the Cabinet. And India has lakhs of women elected at local and state levels. Has political office delivered? The point is right to franchise and political office, though necessary, is not sufficient for change.

Gender justice and empowerment demand institution of economic empowerment, and it is time India legislated to reserve at least 33 per cent of the jobs in government for women. The elitists will argue quotas are antithetical to equality. This is not a dole but a necessary policy reform for propelling economic growth and ensuring the sustainability of political empowerment. This idea was first suggested by this column in February 2014. In 2019, the need for urgency is greater. 

India can scarcely live in denial about the tragedy of exclusion of women from the economy. The traditional notions of politics and policies need to be binned, the shibboleths of cause and sequence need to be dismantled and end the exclusion of women from the economy. The new India Story begins in1991 post liberalisation. In 1990, the ratio of women in workforce was 35 per cent. In 2018 with just 27 out of 100 women participating in the economy, India is ranked 171 out of 190 as per ILO/World Bank data.

India is ranked alongside Oman Libya and Pakistan, trails Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Malaysia, and is way behind all the BRICS peers. At 27 per cent, women’s labour force participation is worse than that in sub-Saharan Africa at 63. It can be argued that agrarian and poor economies have a higher level of female participation. India trails China by 122 places, Sweden by 120 places, Singapore by 118 places, Germany by 88 places and even Japan by 53 places.

What should concern India is that female labour participation in the age group of 15-24 is worse at 16 per cent, down from 30 in 1990. A fallacious argument echoed is that this is because more women are going in for higher education. There is the scale argument—how many women are in higher education out of the total workforce—and then what about those who graduated in the past decades? More critically, does this thesis hold true for Sweden, China or Korea or Germany, who boast of participation rates of 56 per cent, 45 per cent and 48 per cent? 

Exclusion has economic consequences. The Economic Survey says that of the 29.5 million employed in the organised sector, only 6.05 million are women—3.1 million in the public sector and 2.9 million in the private sector. It is no secret that when more women work, economies grow. Women contribute roughly 41 per cent of the GDP in China, 40 per cent in America and over 35 per cent in Western Europe vis a vis 17 per cent in India. The 2018 Mobile Gender Gap report of GSMA points out that over 74 per cent of women in China use mobile internet compared to 13 per cent in India. Deprivation leads to social consequences. The 2018 UN Gender ratio report ranks India at 191 out of 201 countries on sex ratio.
The resistance to reservation of 33 per cent government jobs for women will be articulated by interpretations of articles in the Constitution.

This reservation can be housed within the existing reservations for jobs—all things being equal as per the Mandal table, 33 per cent of jobs can be reserved for women. Sure, there will be litigation, and a Supreme Court which weighed in favour of women in two classic cases will be tested for its sensitivity on gender inclusion. Failing all else there is the option of placing the legislation in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution to preclude judicial review. Hopefully that would not be necessary.
Women hold up half the sky. Can politics deliver without empowering them?

Shankkar Aiyar

Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric 

History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India


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