India’s quota conundrum

A few years ago I was traveling in remote Uttar Pradesh, in the north of India.

I stayed the night in a village at the border with Madhya Pradesh and I was introduced to a man who gave me a tour and answered all my queries. Everyone in the village referred to him as the ‘headman’, but it was only when I was leaving the next morning that I saw a huge billboard with the picture of a demure woman, hands folded in greeting. Below the picture was her name and then her designation. It was she who was the head of that village.

‘So, who was the person I interacted with yesterday?’ I asked a local man who had hitched a ride with me. ‘Oh! He’s the son. His mother lives in another village. He takes care of the work here on her behalf. It’s not a woman’s job. Who would look after the household?’

This was the first time I had come across the practice of ‘Pradhan Pati’. It was a moment of great revelation to me. Constitutionally one-third of village leaders in India should be women, but Pradhan Pati undermines this. In 2019, Vimlesh Kumari, a village council head, launched a petition to demand that the practice is stopped.

‘Simply put, women Pradhans [village heads] exist only on paper,’ she wrote. ‘Once elected, they are sidelined and left being a mute spectator by their husbands or male members of the family, who preside over meetings, take decisions, meet higher officials on her behalf.’

There are lessons to be learned for the national political system. In September 2023, the lower house of India’s parliament approved a law that, when implemented, will reserve one-third of seats for women. The women’s reservation bill had been pending approval for over three decades – a reflection of how reluctant our society is to share control of political power. Just 104 of our 788 MPs were women after the last national election.

In a country where men have historically exploited and usurped women’s rights, can this new gender quota bring any sustainable change?

The answer is complicated. Yes, there is documented evidence that women’s political empowerment is absolutely essential for their overall empowerment. But the system is rigged against women and it’s likely that this reservation will be manipulated by male politicians advancing women in their families to the reserved seats.

The changes that are needed go deeper than simply placing women in political positions. And, as the village level quotas have shown, reservation doesn’t necessarily guarantee political empowerment. We not only need more women elected, but also to ensure they have the support they need to be successful in office.

Many of the rights that we are ‘allowed’ to enjoy are not upheld. For example, women can legally inherit property yet only 14 per cent of Indian women are landowners as opposed to 49 per cent of men. To make transformative steps we also need to address gender inequality at a societal level.

We must make sure the new law is not just a gimmick by politicians wanting to gain popularity before general elections in 2024.