Voting rights for all
Excerpts from President K R Narayanan's speech on the Eve of the 52nd Republic Day
At the heart of our democracy is the right of the universal adult suffrage. It was an audacious and revolutionary act by the founding fathers, to have introduced in one go, the right of the vote to every adult citizen, a right for which the countries of the West had to struggle for almost a hundred years. And that too when the country was in a state of abject mass poverty and mass illiteracy.
This act of faith by the founding fathers meant that the governance of this vast country was not to be left in the hands of an elite class but the people as a whole. It also meant, logically, that the voice of the people will be heard in the affairs of the State and their representatives will be elected directly to the legislatures and Parliament. The system of universal adult franchise also facilitated a dialectical process on the political scene out of which could emerge a consensus in the midst of all our differences and diversities.
The founding fathers had the wisdom and foresight not to overemphasise the importance of stability and uniformity in the political system. As Dr Ambedkar explained in the Constituent Assembly, they preferred more responsibility to stability. That is why they consciously rejected the system of restricted franchise and indirect elections embodied in the 1935 Government of India Act. It required a profound faith in the wisdom of the common man and woman in India....
Let us remember, it is under the flexible and spacious provisions of our Constitution that democracy has flourished during the last 50 years and that India has achieved an unprecedented unity and cohesion as a nation and made remarkable progress in the social and economic fields. India today is adjusted as one of the fastest growing economies of the world.
We have managed to accommodate the globalisation process without losing our distinctiveness as a culture and a civilisation and without compromising the independence we secured after a long and heroic struggle. Through our Green Revolution we have achieved self-sufficiency in food grains for our one billion people. And our White Revolution has made us the largest milk producing nation in the world, underlining our food sufficiency with an important element of the nutritional revolution that we are seeking to bring about.
We have emerged as one of the scientifically and technologically important nations of the world. In the field of information technology and biotechnology we have made spectacular strides. In human development we have achieved significant successes.
It is a measure of our human development success that the average expectation of life of an Indian is today 61 years raised from 27 years at the time of Independence. Of course, we have yet to abolish illiteracy and poverty from the land, but we are confident that with new tools of science and technology we have developed and the determined efforts of the government and the people of India we would be able to conquer these problems also. We have to do this by keeping ourselves in step with world developments.
"I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
--- Mahatma Gandhi
"The ambition of the greatest men of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but so long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over. And so we have to labour and to work, and work hard, to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart. Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this One World that can no longer be split into isolated fragments."
--- Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Tryst With Destiny speech August 15, 1947
"It is the prime responsibility of every citizen to feel that his country is free and to defend its freedom is his duty."
--- Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel
“Even during the days of the freedom struggle, the Congress organisation had broadly indicated that the society which it envisaged after achieving independence was not the conventional type of society but a progressive one based on the modern concepts of social, political and economic equality and justice."
--- Thiru K Kamaraj
"When your own government ensures an environment of peace and harmony , there is development in every direction, then only there is prosperity .., Every section of the society should move forward together... shoulder to shoulder. This is India’s secular culture ... and foundation of governance."
--- Smt Sonia Gandhi during her speech in Barmer district, Rajasthan on September 22, 2013
Equal Economic Opportunity
Shri Rajiv Gandhi at the ILO, 17 June 1985
It is a pleasure to be with you this morning. The International Labour Conference brings together governments, workers and employers. The ILO champions the rights of those who through their labour create wealth for their nations and peoples. I am grateful for the special honour you have done me in asking me to address this Session. I also thank the Canton authorities of Geneva and the Federal Government of Switzerland for their gracious welcome.
The underprivileged, the poor and the disinherited have won many an important victory, but the struggle must continue. Millions of poverty-stricken people in Asia, in Africa and in Latin America are denied fulfilment of basic human needs. Even today starvation is a stark reality in some parts of the world. The ravaged faces of men, women and children seeking food are an indictment of the existing world order. The great moral paradox of want amidst plenty is yet to be resolved.
It is in this larger perspective that we have to consider the role of the ILO. What we do here must relate to the major issues of our time, else our work and our achievements will not endure.
The basic objective of the ILO is to secure social justice and peace through international co-operation. Just as the ILO was the response of the international community to the exploitation of labour, the UN system as a whole was a response to the utter futility of the methods devised earlier to preserve peace and to promote a just world order. We had hoped that the hour of international co-operation had come.
And so it seemed for some time. Although armed conflicts did not disappear, and the theme of development did not always have an easy passage, the belief in the positive force of collective action through multilateral institutions gained strength. The ideals of the UN Charter were the source of inspiration for several international organisations and specialised agencies. Many crises were overcome. World opinion was mobilised for a vast co-operative effort to banish the scourges of war and want.
Today the very idea of joint international endeavour for peace and prosperity is under challenge. We are witnessing a retreat from multilateralism. Doubt, discord and dissension are gnawing at the system. There are pressures for conformity. There is reluctance to consider the wider effects of a policy that small groups of countries may wish to pursue to meet the world economic crisis. The theme of interdependence is publicly professed, but diluted in practice. The dialogue to create understanding is encountering serious resistance.
Forty years after the end of the second world war, the dark and lengthening shadow of a nuclear holocaust lies across the future of mankind. The crushing burden of armaments grows. Scarce resources are earmarked for the engines of destruction, while development falters for want of funds.
Are there no exits?
We in India believe that crisis of our age can be resolved only through a renewal of commitment to the principles of the UN Charter. The ILO, the oldest representative of international co-operation, is an appropriate forum for us to reaffirm that faith on which the United Nations was founded. We have to hold fast to the vision of a future for mankind at peace with itself and dedicated to the progress and prosperity of all.
India, which is a founder member of the ILO, has pursued these objectives in its national policies. We won our independence through a mass movement in which industrial labour and rural workers played a notable part. When we drew up our Constitution, we proclaimed that the State should make "provision for securing just and humane conditions of work" besides ensuring "a living wage and a decent standard of life to all workers, agricultural, industrial or other". These form important articles in the chapter in our Constitution outlining the Directive Principles of State Policy.
Over the last thirty-eight years, we have endeavoured to achieve these objectives through the process of planned development. The concept of planning grew as part of our struggle for freedom. Jawaharlal Nehru roused the Indian social consciousness to recognise that exploitation of labour was inherent in underdevelopment and that underdevelopment itself was the product of colonialism. The struggle against colonialism was simultaneously a struggle against the deep-rooted causes of India's poverty. That is why the protection of the rights of workers has formed an integral part of our design of development. I am glad to say that our trade union movement, which has zealously guarded the rights and interests of workers, has been an enthusiastic participant in the wider process of development.
The wider process of development raises a number of issues which demand urgent attention. The ILO's tripartite social contract between organised labour, employers and governments has made a notable contribution in advancing the cause of social justice. However, if the ILO had remained circumscribed by that limited but important gain, it would not have been the focus of aspirations of the developing world that it is today. We know that the ILO has travelled beyond that to face the wider challenge of world poverty. The Philadelphia declaration recognised that "poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere". This was said in 1944. This noble objective has yet to become an international reality.
The pioneering work of the ILO in the field of labour legislation has certainly produced impressive results. The basic concepts behind the ILO standards are unquestionable and universally shared. The living and working conditions of labour have improved significantly. But we are still only talking about those who are employed, and only those among the employed who are organised. What about the unemployed? What about those who are unorganised, as the vast majority of workers in developing countries are?
We must remember that in developing countries, organised labour forms a small part of the total labour force. In my country the earnings of organised labour fall within the top decile of all income-earners. Ninety per cent of all Indians earn less than the organised workers. These are the millions spread over our countryside who work as landless labour or as contract labour on building sites, in quarrying, road construction and in service trades, all at low income levels. In addition, there are millions who can find no work or who are grossly under-employed. My question is: What more can the ILO do to make these segments of labour a major focus of its activity?
I should like to tell you what we in India are doing to improve the conditions of unorganised labour. Since the mid-seventies we have implemented a series of special programmes aimed at alleviating acute poverty and increasing rural employment. These include schemes for integrated rural development, for training youth for self-employment, special programmes for hill regions, drought-prone areas and deserts, and schemes for guaranteed employment to landless rural labour. We have also paid attention to the specific needs of women workers, the physically handicapped, and the socially disadvantaged sections of society. These anti-poverty programmes have given the poor an opportunity to be productive and have aroused tremendous enthusiasm.
The results speak for themselves. Fifteen million families below the poverty line have been helped in the last five years under the integrated rural development programme. More than three hundred million man-days of additional employment are being generated under the rural employment programmes annually.
We have still a long way to go. But where earlier there was despair, there is now hope for a new life. New skills, assets and incomes have been generated. A valuable base now exists to go forward.
In the Seventh Plan, which we have just launched, the thrust for social justice will be continued with greater vigour. We have learnt from experience that to achieve a significant reduction of poverty, simultaneous action is needed in several key areas.
We have to restructure our educational system to relate it meaningfully to employment opportunities. Our youth have to be trained to use new technology in all areas, especially agriculture, where it matters most. Modern advances in genetics and bio-technology have to be brought to the doors of our enterprising and hard working farmers. The more than five hundred thousand villages of India have to feel the beneficial impact of the new communication and information technologies. New horizons are opening up in the field of non-conventional sources of energy, in the spread of new knowledge to areas of subsistence agriculture and in agro-industry. All this cannot happen without significant, indeed revolutionary, changes in our education system.
The economic and social emancipation of women ranks high on our agenda. The totality of their welfare, equal access to education, equal wages, maternity and child benefits, special health care, the ending of socially discriminatory practices, all this will claim our attention and resources, and will raise their social status.
Above all, we shall proceed to tackle earnestly and systematically the problem of burgeoning population. This will involve measures to reduce infant mortality, ensure child survival, improve mother and child care, improve health services and provide education for responsible citizenship.
Poverty alleviation is the core of our strategy for development. It is not only a function of growth. It also requires conscious State intervention. But in the ultimate analysis it is faster growth that provides us the means of intervention. We have been able to mount anti-poverty programmes precisely because we had struggled hard to build the foundations of a self-reliant and dynamic economy. In the Sixth Plan, the Indian economy grew at an average annual rate of over five per cent. For faster growth in the Seventh Plan, technological change will have to be qualitatively higher and swifter. Workers in India can look forward to greater opportunities of contributing to progress and sharing it.
We are creating a policy environment conducive to faster growth, to the infusion of modern technology and to higher productivity. This has been a process of evolution. Policy changes were initiated in the early eighties. We are integrating them in a framework consistent with our philosophy of planning. And we are accelerating their pace to galvanise the vast productive forces of our society for the welfare of the poorest sections.
These are the issues that will dominate the transition to the twenty-first century. An enormous range and complexity of issues are inherent in the management of the dramatic changes in technology for the welfare of the poor in developing countries. The development process and what it does to those without the protective umbrella of organised action must increasingly claim our attention. I trust that the work that the ILO has initiated for the weak, the unemployed and the unorganised will be further enlarged.
We should not overlook the danger signals. Some developed countries are trying to solve the problem of unemployment through reducing or shutting out imports from developing countries. Protectionism in the developed world is growing just when developing countries are being enjoined to liberalise their trade regimes. Sometimes the concept of fair-labour standards is invoked for perpetuating protectionism. But protecting employment in this way is bound to be a short-lived affair. If the developing countries cannot export, they will not be able to import the goods and services produced by the developed countries. And the fastest growing markets are in the developing countries. Thus protectionism has wider ramifications. It concerns not only foreign trade policies, but the basic issue of the livelihood of millions in the poor countries. Therefore, it deserves to be discussed internationally in terms of its long-term impact on employment, both in the developed and developing countries.
Friends, we Indians are an ancient people. Our history goes back 5000 years. Our culture has endured through the vicissitudes of time. Always we have shown the capacity to absorb and to synthesise. Different races, cultures and religions have mingled in India to produce the rich diversity of our life. And now, after the end of colonial servitude, our young nation is showing afresh the vitality of endeavour to build a new, fuller life for our people. Our workers and peasants are in the forefront of this struggle—demanding but very rewarding struggle. And we are struggling not only for ourselves, but for all those who are in chains everywhere else. We must wipe every tear from every eye.
This can be achieved best when nations pool their efforts and work in unison. The United Nations Charter and the constitutions of ILO and other international organisations embody a vision of global peace and prosperity. We must prevent the erosion of the United Nations system. As a popular song on the travails of the African people puts it, "We are the world, we are the children". Mankind is one. Let us not break it up by narrow domestic walls.
Building Social Equality
“To be liberated, woman must feel free to be herself, not in rivalry to man but in the context of her own capacity and her personality.” (Smt Indira Gandhi, ‘True Liberation of Women’, at the inauguration of the All-India Women's Conference Building Complex in New Delhi, India, March 26, 1980)
Our Constitution that came into force in 1950 gave women a new charter for emancipation and empowerment. Women were given the right to vote in the very first national elections in 1952.
India’s remarkable success in women’s political emancipation lies in the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) and Municipalities. Shri Rajiv Gandhi will be forever associated with their political empowerment at the grassroots. He said "It is women who undertake much more than half the economic activities in rural India. It is women to whom are entrusted the welfare and, often, the finances, of the household. It is the women of rural India who are the main repository of India’s great cultural traditions, of the moral values which are fundamental to the survival and efflorescence of our civilisation. Should we not begin the process of reservations for women at the lower tier in the hope that it might in due course expand upwards to the higher tiers"?
With the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment brought in by the Congress in 1993, 33% seats were reserved for women in the three tiers of local government. Today, 1.2 million elected women representatives, including women from the most deprived and disadvantaged communities have taken their place alongside men in the councils of rural self-government. Long-established power equations are now changing.
The Congress is committed to Women’s Reservation in legislatures and has displayed our conviction by getting this passed in the RajyaSabha. We hope to build political consensus on the issue and ensure that women have a greater participation in our highest democratic institutions.
Since Independence, a number of significant legislations aimed at protecting women from exploitation and violence have been enacted:.
In 1950, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s government ratified the International Convention for the Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Persons and Exploitation of the Prostitution of others.
In 1956, under the Parliamentpassed the Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls Act (SITA). This was amended in 1986, when Shri Rajiv Gandhi was at the helm, to the Immoral Prevention of Traffic Act.
In 1961, the Dowry Prohibition Act was passed, which aimed at suppressing the practice of dowry, which was an extremely crucial element of patriarchal exploitation.
The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986 and the Commission of Sati (Prevention)Act, 1987 (No. 3 of1988) were also passed during Rajiv ji’s tenure.
At the UPA’s initiative, Parliament passed the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed on 26 February 2013.
Preventing Caste-Based Exploitation
Indians today are governed by two different ideologies. Their political ideal set in the preamble of the Constitution affirms a life of liberty, equality and fraternity. Their social ideal embodied in their religion denies them.”---Dr B.R. Ambedkar
Reservations had been provided even in British India, under the Communal Award introduced in 1932, whereby seats were reserved in the legislature for depressed classes and minority communities. But the system didn’t serve any purpose as only people from the depressed classes were allowed to vote for candidates from the same category.However, after Independence, it was felt that caste hierarchy can be neutralised only if people from higher castes vote for candidates belonging to the depressed classes, or if employees from the former category work under the leadership of someone belonging to the latter in government departments. Hence the government reserved seats for people belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the legislature, in government jobs as well as in government-run educational institutions.
Reservation for OBCs: Realising that there were sections, such as people belonging to castes which were backward,did notfall under the SC category, were being left behind, the United Progressive Alliance government in 2006 decided to reserve 27% seats in educational institutions for Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
In 2012, the Congress-led UPA took another significant decision by providing a quota for SC/STs in promotions in government jobs. It was felt that government employees belonging to these categories weren’t being able to rise in the ranks as much as they should in the normal course of their careers.
In 1955, Parliament passed the Protection of Civil Rights Act to “prescribe the punishment for the preaching and practice of Untouchability and for the enforcement of any disability arising from it”.The legislation was nothing less than revolutionary at that time. For, even a much older democracy like the United States had been unable to provide civil rights to a section of its citizens, sparking the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1970s and 1980s, there was a spike in the violence with massacres taking place in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Recognising the gravity of the problem, Rajiv ji promised a legislation to check the atrocities during his Independence Day address on 15 August, 1987. It was Rajiv ji’s assurance that led to the passage of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Rules for the Act were framed and notified in 1995.
In 1993, at the initiative of the Congress government, Parliament enacted a legislation banning the practice of manual scavenging. This was the most inhuman practice that arose out of the caste system, as it refers to the removal of human waste/excreta from unsanitary, “dry" toilets by people belonging to lower castes. In February 2013 the Congress government in Delhi announced that Delhi had become the first state to eliminate manual scavenging. Other than strict implementation of the law, the elimination of manual scavenging required doing away with dry toilets and the construction of sanitary latrines. Abolition of Privy Purses
The demand for abolition of privy purses first came up during the Nagpur Congress Session in 1959. Moved by a group of young Congress leaders committed to Socialism, the resolution was carried with a majority of 17 votes to 4.
After Smt. Indira Gandhi nationalised private banks in 1969, it was but natural that the abolition of privy purses should be the next step to be taken. In September 1970, the move to do away with privy purses was initiated in Parliament. Though it sailed through in the LokSabha, with 336 members voting for it and 155 against, it was defeated in the RajyaSabha by “a "fraction of a single vote".
But the people of India gave their stamp of approval to Indira ji’s socialist policies as she won a resounding victory in the 1971 general elections. Enjoying a comfortable majority in both the Lower and Upper House of Parliament, Indira ji proposed the 26th Constitutional Amendment on 28 December 1971, recommending the abolition of privy purses to erstwhile royals.
Introducing the Bill in Parliament, Smt Indira Gandhi said: “The concept of rulership, with privy purses and special privileges unrelated to any current functions and social purposes, is incompatible with an egalitarian social order. Government have, therefore, decided to terminate the privy purses and privileges of the Rulers of former Indian States. It is necessary for this purpose, apart from amending the relevant provisions of the Constitution, to insert a new article therein so as to terminate expressly the recognition already granted to such Rulers and to abolish privy purses and extinguish all rights, liabilities and obligations in respect of privy purses. Hence this Bill.”
Congress President Sonia Gandhi speech on Women as Agents of Change at Commonwealth Lecture 2011: 17 March 2011, London, UK
Introductory Remarks Prime Minister, Chairperson of the Commonwealth Foundation, Secretary General, Distinguished Guests, I am honoured to deliver the fourteenth Commonwealth lecture on the theme of women as agents of change. It was an invitation I could not refuse for two reasons – first, my own personal involvement in the cause of women’s empowerment, particularly that of Indian women who constitute some 60 per cent of all the women in the Commonwealth; and second, my family’s close association with this organization.
India and the Commonwealth The modern Commonwealth owes much to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It is ironic that a man imprisoned for so many years by the imperial masters of his country should have become so crucial for the survival and evolution of the Commonwealth.
During the long years of India’s freedom struggle, membership had been widely opposed, implying as it did dominion status and allegiance to the Crown. Yet, in the aftermath of Partition and the polarised world scene, Nehru, the student of world history, saw that the Commonwealth could be a bridge between the dying world of Empire and the new post-colonial world being born. Nehru, the statesman, saw merit in an institution that sought to build bridges at many levels between countries and peoples.
Indira Gandhi valued the Commonwealth in a less idealised way than her father. She shared a personal bond with the leading Commonwealth figures of her time and brought to it a special focus on the development needs of its members.
I accompanied my husband Rajiv Gandhi to successive Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings and remember some of the colourful episodes that took place behind the scenes. To give you just one example, at the 1985 CHOGM in the Bahamas, the issue of sanctions against South Africa dominated the discussions. Margaret Thatcher stood out in solitary opposition to the rest of the Commonwealth’s call for sanctions against the apartheid regime. At the weekend retreat, Shridath Ramphal put together a three-member team to talk informally to Mrs. Thatcher and persuade her to relent. They were Rajiv Gandhi, Brian Mulroney of Canada and Robert Hawke of Australia, selected by him apparently as much for their looks as their political weight.
In private, he jokingly told them: ―She will not be able to resist the three best-looking men of the Conference‖. The Iron Lady was unmoved and the handsome threesome failed either to charm or to persuade her. Thus was the stage set for the most heated political confrontation in the Commonwealth’s history.
At the subsequent Vancouver CHOGM in 1987, Rajiv Gandhi pledged India’s support to the establishment of the Commonwealth of Learning, which has played such a significant role in improving the quality of distance education in our country. India has always been in the forefront of important cooperation initiatives launched by the Commonwealth and I am sure will continue to be so.
I am particularly glad about the theme for this lecture. Women are disproportionately vulnerable in our world, even today. The global economic downturn of recent years has hurt them hardest. Similarly, climate change and environmental degradation exact a greater price from women, who have less access to resources, technology and credit. Conflict and warfare impose their own terrible toll. And it bears repeating that in many countries a girl is less likely to go to school, get adequate healthcare and social protection, or be given the chance to make her own life-decisions.
But on the positive side, we also know that investing in women is the highest-return venture. It’s not just about improving things for them, it is as vitally about letting women improve things for themselves, their families, their communities and the world at large. Even a small investment in women has great economic, political and social reverberations.
Women and Change: The Global Context Women as agents of change is an idea that seems self-evident in the Commonwealth. The two most influential women personalities of the twentieth century - Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher -- were both Commonwealth leaders. Margaret Thatcher changed Britain. Indira Gandhi changed India.
Indira Gandhi was described as the only man in her cabinet, much as Margaret Thatcher was in Britain – the assumption being that it is only men who shape our destinies and alter the course of events. There are other vivid examples of women who overturned such conventional wisdom. Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat in a bus to a white man triggered the civil rights movement in America, leading to the end of racial segregation. During Nelson Mandela’s long imprisonment, Winnie Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and the Black Sash Movement, led by Jean Sinclair and Sheena Duncan, along with others, kept resistance to apartheid alive within South Africa. And there is Aung Saan Syu Kyi in Myanmar whose sacrifices have become the focus of the democratic cause in her country.
Although the women’s movement has already transformed the way in which we look at society in each of our countries, the search for equality is far from finished. History, culture and economics still remain weighted against women. In my own country, most worrying of all is the declining sex ratio of females to males. The age-old preference for sons, coupled with the development of sex-selection technologies, has given an alarming demographic twist to gender bias. That this is happening in regions of substantial economic prosperity within the country is even more disturbing. I should add here, however, that in the recent Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, young women from these very regions won the most number of medals. In a poignant interview, one of them recalled that her parents had wished her to be a boy -- but reconciled themselves after she developed her sporting prowess.
Among all the challenges facing humankind in the 21st century, few are more pressing than climate change and global warming. Unfortunately, as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has pointed out, most of the climate debate has so far been gender-blind.
Yet women have played a special role in raising environmental consciousness. Some may remember only Julia Roberts in the Oscar-winning role of Erin Brockovich. But there have been others in an earlier era who blazed a whole new trail. Rachel Carson’s book ―The Silent Spring‖ published in 1962 was a watershed and led to the banning of DDT. Indira Gandhi herself, at the UN Stockholm Conference on the Environment in 1972, powerfully expressed the link between poverty and environmental degradation, an issue which continues to shape the current debate.
The Chipko movement in the Himalayas in the 1970s, in which village women hugged the trees to protect them from being felled, gave a new meaning and momentum to environmental activism in India. In other parts of the world too, women have taken an inspiring lead in protecting the environment, such as Wangari Maathai in Kenya, Rigoberta Menchu in Guatemala and Marina Silva in Brazil, to name just a few.I sometimes wonder whether women’s greater empathy with nature and concern for their children’s future might not help the world to find a new, more sustainable, less consumerist path of development.
In 1989, the Commonwealth became the first major international organization to publish a landmark scientific study on the devastating effects of climate change. Commonwealth Heads of Government also agreed on a Climate Change Action Plan in 2007, where, among other things, they called upon the support of women to ensure effective action.
How can such support be extended if women’s voices and concerns hardly figure in the global climate negotiations, or in national and local climate management plans? Perhaps it is time for a fresh Commonwealth initiative to help the world bridge this gap. Such an initiative could suggest ways to bring women’s participation and perspectives more squarely into the global negotiations. We need climate justice not only between countries, but also between genders.
Enhancing the role of women in protecting the environment is necessary. But what about protecting women themselves? Economic growth is leading to mass migration to cities. Disturbingly, this is being accompanied by growing violence against women. If urbanization is the world’s future, we must design urban environments and services in ways that will give women greater security, and educate and involve citizens in this cause. A Commonwealth initiative bringing together our great cities to collaborate on this issue would be timely.
So these are two areas – climate change and urbanisation – where I hope that the Commonwealth can do more for women. At the same time, I do recognize and appreciate the gender work it is already doing, such as building women entrepreneurs and leaders, and drafting laws which meet women’s needs.
Women and Change: The Indian Scene Now this evening you will appreciate that my own experience equips me better to focus on the importance of women's issues in India, which is what I now turn to. In order to understand where Indian women are today, let me first tell you where they once were.
In the late 19th century, during the Raj, a section of educated Indian women looked to Queen Victoria for relief from oppressive customs, hoping that as a woman she would intervene on their behalf. Alas, Her Majesty showed them no gender solidarity!
Women in Europe and America too, had to struggle to be educated. In India, however, the opposition to female education was far more intense, grounded as it was in millennia of patriarchy -- even though Indian culture has very prominent female deities, including a Goddess for Learning. In the west, the argument was that women did not need to be educated. In India, the argument was that women should not be educated, that education would ruin women’s character and their traditional submissiveness and subvert the very basis of Indian culture. Dr. Anandibai Joshee,who later became India’s first woman doctor, described her experience of going to school in the relatively progressive city of Bombay in the late 1870s as follows and I quote:“When people saw me going with books in my hands, they put their heads out of the window just to have a look at me. Some stopped their carriages for the purpose. Others walking in the streets stood laughing, crying out derisive remarks so that I could hear them…. Some of them made fun and were convulsed with laughter. Others, sitting respectably in their verandahs…did not feel ashamed to throw pebbles at me. The shopkeepers and vendors spat at the sight of me, and made gestures too indecent to describe.”Unquote.
As if the gauntlet of public hostility on the street was not enough, women had also to endure hostility within the family. In 1889 Kashibai Kanitkar, the first major woman writer in the Marathi language, described the stigma attached to women’s literacy as follows and I quote:“If a woman picks up a paper, our elders feel offended, as though she has done something very shameful. If she receives a letter from her relatives, all the family feels dishonoured. If a woman’s name appears in a newspaper, if her essay is published, if she stammers out a few words at a women’s gathering, she is certain to be slapped with a gigantic charge of having tarnished the family’s honour!”Unquote.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the emergence of a number of outstanding social reformers. But it was Mahatma Gandhi who brought about the first real and nation-wide wave of emancipation through his mass mobilization of women into the freedom movement. Unusually for his time, he believed that India’s economic and moral salvation lay in women’s hands. He condemned the traditions of child marriage, female seclusion, dowry, enforced widowhood, and the lack of education that had shackled Indian women for so long. He urged women to fight injustice and inequality and become masters of their own destiny. Women came out in their millions to participate in the civil disobedience movement, profoundly changing their outlook. Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of our Nation, can perhaps also be called the Mother of Indian feminism.
Our Constitution that came into force in 1950 gave women a new charter for emancipation and empowerment. Women were given the right to vote in the very first national elections in 1952. Actually, the Congress Party had promised universal female franchise way back in 1928 when many developed democracies were still debating the idea. Like elsewhere in the world, and especially in India, it has not been easy to carve a direct solidarity among women. Their concerns are divided by class, by community, by caste, by culture. But through the 1970s and 80s, the women’s movement in India flowered, banding together on issues like dowry and violence, household labour, discriminatory customs, property rights and wages. These campaigns resulted in the enactment of radical new laws.
A visitor to contemporary India will be impressed by the prominence of women in all aspects of life. India’s President is a woman, as are the Speaker and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lower House of Parliament. The Chief Minister of India’s most populous state is a woman from a section of society subjected to discrimination for centuries. Women are Presidents of four of our major political parties. Women are prominent in the judiciary, the higher civil service, the professions, academia, the corporate world, the media and every branch of civil society. At the time of Independence, women accounted for less than 10 per cent of enrolment in higher education—they will soon be on par with men. And it is not by government action alone that this silent revolution is taking place. Today, women in India are becoming agents of change through their own initiative, their energy and enterprise. Through individual and collective action, they are transforming their own situations and indeed transforming the broader social context itself.
Let me give you some examples of where and how women—ordinary poor women—are beginning to make a difference with far-reaching implications for our country as a whole.
Self-Help Groups The first is the growth of women’s Self-Help Groups which are changing rural India. Groups of women pool their savings on a regular basis and secure loans for a variety of activities that help them increase their incomes. There are now about five million such groups, averaging 10-15 members each. Last year, they secured bank loans worth more than two billion pounds.
This expanding network has had enormous impact. By giving poor women access to credit (and I might add, with a repayment record far superior to that of well-heeled borrowers!), these groups are helping to blunt the harsh edges of poverty and destitution. But women are doing more than getting loans. They are actually taking on a variety of functions on behalf of government departments. They are, for instance, buying rice and maize from farmers for sale through fair price shops. They are distributing old age pensions and scholarships. They are managing primary health centres. And in this pub-loving country, it may surprise you to know how successful they have been in forcing the closure of village liquor shops to combat male alcoholism, domestic violence and the drain on household finances.
But there is something even more fundamentally revolutionary about this movement. It cuts across caste divides. It gives women a new voice, a new self-confidence, a new assertiveness. Attending a meeting of these women is an uplifting experience. When once they dared not open their mouths even within the family, let alone voice their concerns before outsiders, they are now vociferous in discussing personal and family problems as well as a whole range of community issues.
Women’s Reservation The second arena where women have emerged as catalysts of change is politics, especially at the local level. In 1993, India amended its Constitution to provide 33 per cent reservation or quota for women in rural and urban local bodies throughout the country. There was cynicism, resentment and even anger – from powerful men, predictably -- when the idea was first mooted. No longer. Today, 1.2 million elected women representatives, including women from the most deprived and disadvantaged communities, have taken their place alongside men in the councils of rural self-government. Long-established power equations are now changing.
But I am less than happy to admit that at the national level we have not yet been successful. Women’s representation in Parliament has hovered between 9 and 11 per cent, a figure that is considerably lower than in many other democracies. Legislation for a 33% quota in Parliament and state assemblies has been passed by the Upper House. We shall persevere in our efforts to get it approved by the Lower House as well.
Civic Activism The third area where women are leaving their distinctive imprint as harbingers of change is social activism. Over the last few years the language of rights has entered the mainstream of political discourse. Thus we now have a right to information, a right to work, a right to education and soon, a right to food security. What is remarkable about the rights debate and how it has progressed is the leading role women have played as its champions and advocates. Thanks to their passion and commitment, governance has become more open and accountable and public policies more caring of the poor.
Environmental activism too is something in which women are prominent. This is not surprising because, in essence, the issue of environment in India is an issue of livelihoods, of public health, of access to forests, of water security. What is particularly noteworthy about this form of environmental activism is that it is spontaneous in nature and is not driven by any formal organization. A spark is lit and a movement begins.
The fourth arena of impact is enterprise. The most visible may be women who lead some major Indian corporations, businesses and NGOs. But, perhaps even more significant are the unsung majority -- who make up over 90 per cent of all working women in what we call the informal or unorganized sector. For years, they enjoyed no pension, health insurance or maternity benefits, something that our government has begun to Collective action by women has taken different forms. Thus, India, once the world’s largest importer of milkfood, is now its largest milk producer. This White Revolution, as we call it, has proceeded in parallel with the Green Revolution. And it is millions of women in thousands of villages who have been the backbone of these milk cooperatives. There are many other instances such as Lijjat, producer of those poppadums so loved by British diners in Indian restaurants here. Founded by seven Gujarati housewives with a capital of about 7 pounds, it now has 42,000 owner-producers with a turnover approaching 70 million pounds.
The largest collective of women in India's informal sector is SEWA—the Self-Employed Women’s Association, also founded by a woman. Its achievements within the country to provide a social security net for its members and add value to household enterprise have been widely recognised. But one of its most recent endeavours is particularly noteworthy—a programme in war-torn Afghanistan to train women, especially war widows, to acquire skills, set up food processing enterprises and initiate ecological regeneration. A similar programme is the Hand-in-Hand project in two provinces in Afghanistan based on the experience of our self-help-groups. In a true spirit of sisterhood, they are contributing to women’s empowerment in that country.
Such initiatives demonstrate the role women’s enterprise can play in regions ravaged by violence and conflict. Within India as well, these groups have taken the lead in mediating, peace-building and reconciliation in areas of strife.
Finally, technology is proving to be a powerful tool for reducing gender inequalities. In the sunrise IT sector women already comprise close to one third—a million strong--of its workforce. There is a proliferation of knowledge-based enterprises, run by women in rural areas, such as village information centres and IT kiosks for accessing government services. Their ripple effect is growing. This is beginning to impact age-old prejudices. Independent livelihoods are enabling women to stand on their own feet and resist pressure for early marriage. They are also being viewed as less of a liability by their parents.
Concluding Remarks Ladies and Gentlemen, few things give me greater optimism about my country’s future than the amazing resilience of our women, their fortitude and courage, their capacity to overcome every obstacle, their readiness to grasp every opportunity. India is at the cusp of a ―demographic dividend‖ due to its young and increasingly educated and skilled population. Imagine, what might happen when this demographic dividend is multiplied by a ―gender dividend‖. It will, I believe, yield enormous economic gain and lead to profound social transformation.
Mahatma Gandhi saw women as the future leaders of human evolution, bringing compassion and morality into public life. As always, what he said is memorable, and I quote: “To call woman the weaker sex is a libel; it is man’s injustice to woman. If by strength is meant brute strength, then indeed is woman less brute than man. If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior. Has she not greater intuition, is she is not more self-sacrificing, has she not greater courage? Without woman, man could not be.” Unquote.
It could be argued that the progressive victories of the women’s movement, their achievement of the right to vote and other rights, were the 20th century’s seminal contribution to human advancement. It has been a long journey. I fervently hope that the 21st century will take this to its logical conclusion. May this be, not the century of any particular country, but the century when women finally come into their own, the century when representative democracy is re-imagined to give women their due share, the century when the vocabulary of politics and culture is re-engineered fully to include that other half of mankind.