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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 18, April 25, 2015

Bihar: Nitish’s Search for Strategy to Uplift Women ahead of Elections

Saturday 25 April 2015

by Arun Srivastava

Nitish Kumar has always endeared to promote women and their cause. It was in keeping with his political vision that on Bihar Diwas (March 22), while dedicating the day to the women of Bihar, he also came out with the policy-announcement that women would be the fulcrum of the future growth and economic development of the State. As if this was not enough, he also unveiled a Women Empower-ment Policy. This move of Nitish ought to be seen in the wider strategic perspective.

While observing Bihar Diwas, Nitish emphasised that Bihar has taken a lead in the matter of women empowerment in the country by providing 50 per cent reservation to them in the panchayati raj system and recruitment of primary teachers. Thirtyfive per cent posts of police constables and sub-inspectors have been reserved for women, while women police stations have also been opened.

The day Nitish Kumar took oath as the Chief Minister for the fourth time, it became apparent that he would evolve a new kind of socio-economic model for facing the October elections to the State Assembly. With traditional caste engineering getting fractured and absolutely not in his favour, he cannot rely on the old mode of social engineering. He knew that in Bihar where the patriarchal feudalism dictates the social norms and relations, raising the issue of gender equality and women empowerment would work wonders. In fact he had effectively utilised this social force in 2010 but not on a larger scale. Women-friendly schemes had paid electoral dividends to Nitish.

With the social spectrum in Bihar vertically fractured on the caste affinity and a new kind of social engineering trying to replace the older system, Nitish has no alternative but to reinvent the 2010 experiment on a much bigger plane and institutionalise the concept for creating a new space for him.

The women force so far has been untapped. Though in 2010 women’s support for the JD(U) had swelled in elections following the reservations, no sustained effort was made to consolidate this force. In this regard it ought to be mentioned that women of the State are more pro-change than the males. A look at the past political incidents would reveal that whether it was JP’s movement or emergence of the intermediate caste as a potent political force or resurrection of the Naxalite movement, women had always played a crucial role. They might not have rebelled against the patriarchy but the fact remains that they have been the catalyst for change.

Aware of the intensity and potential of this social force Nitish has been striving to unleash and make use of it. By raising the issue of women’s empowerment and coming out with the policy to provide education and employment opportunities to women in Bihar, Nitish intended to send a message across that his government was committed to the cause of good governance. Politically too his step would send the message that Bihar is a safe place for women though the fact remains that crimes against women continues to take place. Maintaining law and order has acquired a new dimension.

Through this move Nitish is also trying to project his image of provider of good governance. His recent association with Laloo Prasad is being lampooned as the prelude to the arrival of the jungle raj and bad (black) days. The BJP has been trying assiduously to malign his image. Nitish knows that his clean administrative record is his only USP on which he can rely. He can fall back upon his own caste support which has hardly 1.25 per cent population. In this scenario his only triumph card would be to reach out to the women who, interestingly, have no major complaint against him.

For years Bihar has been identified as a BIMARU State. It is widely perceived that Bihar with a patriarchal society has remained a non-functional State. There is no denying that women in Bihar have always been in a disadvantaged position. The status of women in Bihar is low because of feudal, caste and patriarchal oppre-ssions. The worst sufferers have been the Dalit women. Illiteracy, malnutrition, sexual exploi-tation and complete denial of female literacy has simply aggravated the situation and widened the social schism.

No doubt during Nitish’s rule the condition of the women, especially rural poor and Dalit women, has changed. But it did not acquire an economic character. He has aligned with the RJD of Laloo Prasad but he is conscious of the fact that misgovernance and goonda raj of almost 15 years during the Laloo-Rabri rule had simply pushed the women at the periphery of the societal growth and assertion. Refusal to accept women’s power and denial to unleash it had an adverse impact on the progress and economic development of the State. During the 1980s and 1990s the per capita income of Bihar was the lowest in the country. The declining growth rate of Bihar affected the female more than the male.

Nitish may be politically correct in his approach when he said the women policy reflected the thoughts of socialist leader Rammanohar Lohia: “We need to bring the marginalised section of society to the mainstream. We cannot develop till their productivity is harnessed.” But it is the mechanism to bring about the transformation that matters most. Nitish would have to ensure that the feudal elements do not create obstacles in the path of the assertion of identify by the women.

If the policy will ensure women’s participation in political, social and financial progress, it would also give rise to a new kind of social strain particularly in rural Bihar. The exigencies and importance of the policy could be gauged from the simple fact that Nitish would keep a tab on the execution of the policy.

It is universally known that education is the main instrument through which burgeo-ning of the population could be checked, and this has been proved by decline in the fertility rate of educated women. It is a proven fact that education has provided the way to tackle population explosion. With this aim in view and also to make the next generation of women educated, Nitish plans to open higher secondary schools in all the panchayats in Bihar. The spread of education among girls will also curb child marriages and female foeticide. In Bihar the sex ratio of 917 females per 1000 males is an indicator that female foeticide is a big malaise.

It is a known fact that various welfare schemes Nitish introduced for women’s empowerment, like cycle schemes for girl students, Poshak Yojana to provide them uniforms, Mukhya-mantri Akshar Anchal Yojana (women’s literacy scheme), scholarship schemes and Rs 10,000 incentives for girl students who secure 60 per cent marks in matriculation examination have helped increase girls’ enrolment in schools. This has boosted the literacy rate of the state. And based on these achievements, Bihar was adjudged as a well-governed State. Fifteen years back, a girl riding a cycle was viewed with suspicion and her action considered indecent. Many would approach the family members of the girls concerned to check their activities. But the cycle scheme changed the people’s attitude and helped increase enrolments in schools.

“Girls on cycles” was used during the 2010 poll as the image of developing Bihar. It culminated in the JD(U)’s landslide win. The focus is again on the Assembly polls. What is also significant is this time Nitish is trying to link the question of Bihari sub-nationalism with the empowerment of Bihar. Women of the State would no more tolerate ‘apmaan’ (insult or humiliation) but deserves ‘samman’ (respect).

Bicycles have been linked to the empower-ment of women since their invention in the late 1800s. For women bicycles ushered in a new way of life. Bihar used to be a den of dropouts, especially among the females. Earlier the number of dropouts in the schools was a staggering 25 lakhs. Today, it has come down to around 10 lakhs only. Under this scheme, a schoolgirl gets Rs 2000 upon passing class VIII to buy a bicycle so that she can go to school every day.

In a subaltern society the urge for education is quite acute especially amongst the women. But the social diktats and norms of the feudal rule did not provide them enough space to articulate their feelings and views. Look at the transformation and change of the outlook of the women of the families who migrated from Bihar. Obviously any party which tries to identify with the aspirations of the women folk would ultimately succeed in winning their trust. Great courage is that which sees a need for change and is willing to do what it takes to effect that change.

Nitish through this initiative intends to deny space to both, the RJD and BJP. It has not gone unnoticed for Nitish that in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections men were the decisive elements in swinging the votes in favour of Modi and the BJP. Instead of taking any chance Nitish has been trying to reach out to women and girls. Women had turned up in large numbers and formed long queues during the 2010 Bihar elections which brought Nitish to power.

In fact empowering women has not been a new thing. The position and status of women all over the world has risen incredibly in the 20th century. But it has been low in Bihar. For this they are unfortunately treated like ‘objects’. Their dependence on the menfolk was total. During the era of globsalisation and reforms women are playing bigger roles in the economic field and can be seen in every field: architecture, law, financial services, engineering, medical and IT jobs. They are steadily entering into domains which were reserved for males.

Nitish must not exploit this huge human resource and social force only for his electoral gains. He ought to look beyond it. The rapid pace of economic development has increased the demand for the educated female labour force almost in all fields. An economically independent woman is more useful for Bihar’s growth and development. Educated women now feel that there is more to life than marriage. A common Bihari woman must not be deprived of this.

Women’s participation in power-sharing and decision-making, also in the political process, must be ensured for the achievement of empowerment. Since women comprise the majority of the population below the poverty line and survive in situations of extreme poverty, Nitish should launch inclusive macroeconomic policies and poverty eradication programmes to address the needs and problems of such women.

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at sriv52@gmail.com