But women are severely under-represented in the national parliament and state assemblies where the important political and economic decisions are made. The government response to redressing that disparity has been to propose institutionalizing a quota system for women for a period of 15 years to encourage female involvement in national politics.
That approach is supported by a wide cross-section of India’s political parties. But it has met with opposition for the past 14 years by a few political parties with regional political bases. These parties want the quota for women to be extended only to those from religious minorities, tribes and those at the bottom of the Hindu caste ladder. The Samajwadi Party led by Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Rashtriya Janata Dal party led by Lalu Prasad Yadav (the men aren’t related) have their electoral bases in two of India’s poorest states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, respectively—areas with bitter caste and religious divisions.
On Monday, as the government presented the bill for discussion and a vote in the upper house of parliament, legislators from those two parties disturbed proceedings. One legislator tore up a draft of the bill and threw it at the chamber’s speaker, and some were seen on Indian news channels trying to break the microphones on the speaker’s desk. Both houses of the parliament were repeatedly adjourned throughout the day.
The Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal together control 26 seats in the lower house. The withdrawal of their support isn’t likely to destabilize the Congress Party-led United Progress Alliance government, which would still have the support of 276 elected representatives in the 545-member house.
But the government moved to assuage the two influential allies, who have been providing outside support to the coalition and whose support might be needed to ratify some crucial finance legislation.
India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and most left-leaning parties support the bill, which needs to be approved by a two-thirds majority from both houses.
The legislative setback happened on the same day a United Nations-commissioned report stated that economic expansion in most of the Asian-Pacific region in recent decades hasn’t translated into the assimilation of women in political and economic spheres. Women in Asian-Pacific countries face discrimination in jobs, access to health care and education, political representation, property ownership and legal rights, according to the Asia-Pacific Human Development Report released by the U.N. Development Program.
The report suggested the need for added public intervention to equip women with economic power, a political voice and legal rights to achieve gender equality—where opportunities and rights for women, and their involvement in the social, political and economic spheres, are at parity with men.
The U.N. report said the low level of women in the paid work force could be depriving Asian-Pacific countries of billions of dollars in added gross domestic income. According to a 2007 study by the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, gender disparity in the work force costs the region an estimated $89 billion every year.