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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 12, March 9, 2013

Silent Revolution In Bihar And Women’s Empowerment

Sunday 10 March 2013, by Satish Kumar


Of late 580 well-trained women are ready to move into the most difficult terrain of Bihar, the mostly Naxal-infested Rohatas district and its surrounding areas. These brave women were trained as the first female battalion of the military police with a twin purpose. One, to fight against the Maoists in the different districts, and two, to address the steeply increasing violence and criminal activities against the female populace. Nitish Kumar believes that women’s battalion depicts women’s power. For better security, women need to be trained and groomed to fight against the rowdy and unruly street loafers on the roads and public places. These women underwent rigorous training, including in night warfare tactics, for 14 months and can now handle rifles, carbines and landmines as well as any male colleague. The Bihar Government had first planned an all-female battalion to fight crime in the State in 2007. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said the State Government was committed to women’s empowerment and the raising of the first women’s battalion in Bihar was a milestone in this endeavour.

As an aftermath of the Delhi gang-rape case, the whole country—cutting across castes, regions and religions—is shocked and worried. The feeling of dismay and anger displayed on the streets in different cities of India was symptomatic of a collective and deep sense of angst throughout the country. Each wing of the state geared up to focus its priorities keeping the need of protecting women’s dignity in mind. But the overall social and economic status of women remains depressingly low. The Constitution granted women equal rights and entitlements in order to put them on the path of development. All these, aimed at the empowerment of women in society, seemingly appear to be false when we see “half the population” of the country still fighting for their basic rights at the individual and community level.

Bihar had been clubbed with the BIMARU States. Political analysts believed that Bihar as a State remained non-functional, like most parts of India, with a patriarchal society. Women here have faced a disadvantaged position for ages. The status of women in Bihar is particularly low because of a lethal combination of feudal, caste and patriarchal oppression. The Dalit women in particular bore the brunt of the combined effects of these three kinds of oppression. The upswing in the statistics of dowry, illiteracy, malnutrition, sexual harassment and female mortality has created huge challenges for the State Government.

But things have changed, and changed for the better. The Nitish regime in the last seven years has not merely debunked the non-functional approach of the Bihar Government but also put the derailed bogey back on track. It is a great work of Nitish Kumar that became a showcase not merely for the different States of India but in neighbouring countries as well. Experts talked and debated about the wonderful growth rate of Bihar but missed out a major change which is underway. It’s no less than a revolution; in fact, a silent revolution is taking place and changing the contours of male dominance. Four major initiatives of Nitish Kumar proved to be magical mantra which have generated a momentum to women’s empowerment.

First, Bihar has been in the clutch of misgovernance and goonda raj for almost 15 years during the Lalu-Rabri rule. This has held back the progress of the State. During the 1980s and 1990s the per capita income of Bihar was the lowest in the country. When Nitish came to power the law and order of the State was pathetic. The State machinery was in a shambles along with skyrocketing rates of crimes. Infrastructure was among the worst in the country. The declining growth rate of Bihar affected the female folk more than the male.

One of the impressive features of progress achieved by the Nitish regime relates to literacy among the female. To accelerate literacy among the female, the Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana has played a very meaningful role. Nitish himself acknowledged that “among several welfare initiatives taken by our government over the past four years, the ‘Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana’ is very close to my heart. It has changed the face of Bihar with lakhs of schoolgirls riding bicycles to their schools every day with a purpose. Prior to the launch of this project more than three years ago it was rare to find a schoolgirl riding a bicycle even on the streets of Patna. But now, you can watch scores of confident-looking schoolgirls pedalling away with gusto everywhere—from the narrow lanes of a remote village to the bustling roads of the cities across the State.”

One of the great novelists and social activists, Susan B. Anthony, narrated the importance of cycling by a woman in the 19th century with these words: “I think the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes the seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.”

Bicycles have been linked to the empower-ment of women since their invention in the late 1800s. For men, the bicycle was a new thing to play with. For women, it began a new way of life. The scores of girls who are driving bicycles in different districts of the Bihar, have found in those bicycles a new lease of life for them. It has brought tangible and unexpected results. Bihar used to be a den of dropouts, especially among the females. The Chief Minister of Bihar emphatically announced: “When our govern-ment had taken over, the number of dropouts in the schools in the State was a staggering 25 lakh. Today, it has come down to around 10 lakh only.”

Under this scheme, a schoolgirl gets a cheque of Rs 2000 upon passing class VIII to buy a bicycle so that she can go to school every day. So far the Bihar Government has spent Rs 174.36 crores in the past three years to make 8.71 lakh schoolgirls proud owners of bicycles which they are all using to educate themselves now. These are not mere statistics. This is, in fact, an affirmation of the fact that a small initiative can really go a long way in bringing about a big change. In Bihar, bicycles have now become a veritable instrument for social change which can be felt in any part of the State.

ECONOMIC graphs move faster along with literacy. One of the factors of backwardness of the State was excessive dependence on agriculture. The proportion of the rural workforce employed in agriculture has declined from 78 per cent in 2004-05 to 67 per cent in 2010. This has generated opportunities for the female to go for skilled jobs. This incentive would go a long way not only in arresting the dropout rate of schoolgirls in the high schools but also be a significant step towards women’s empowerment.

Most of the economists believe that a State where half the population lags behind in the process of development is bound to be underdeveloped. Being a strong votary of women’s empowerment Nitish Kumar explicitly mentioned: “I have always believed that any society cannot progress unless its women progress and the women in any society cannot progress unless they are educated.” The Government of Bihar also started the Akshar Anchal campaign for literacy among women. Anjani Kumar, the Principal Secretary of the State Government, succinctly pointed out: “All these interventions have yielded results. Today, we have more girls than boys in school; the enrolment of girls has increased three times in the last four years. We have also recruited more women teachers than men.”

The second major tool of women’s empower-ment was introduced with 50 per cent reser-vation for them in panchayats. Women are seen everywhere, in political circles and at the panchayat level. According to the 73rd Amend-ment to the Indian Constitution in 1993, a minimum of one-third of the seats at the panchayat level are reserved for women. Bihar was the first Indian State to voluntarily raise the reservation of seats for women in panchayats and district boards to 50 per cent. Bihar’s initiative of raising the women’s quota to 50 per cent at the panchayat level was followed by other Indian States such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

Of the 2.62-lakh representatives, 1.32 lakh are women. There was a time when every woman of the State would fear abduction once she stepped out of the house. But now the same woman, after shedding all her inhibitions, has valiantly come out of the veil. The 50 per cent reservation given to women in panchayats has had a positive influence. They have been able to break the shackles of dependency and come forward quite confidently. Panchayat elections in the year 2011 witnessed the enrolment of three lakh women candidates from the entire State. The elected members are coming out as instruments of change in society. For example, these “novice” leaders are well aware of the ill-effects of alcohol and other drugs and are thus promoting awareness through the community platform. Its effect can be seen in the form of the “ban-alcohol movement” successfully carried out by them. To strengthen the linkage between the woman and her role in society, the State has also given fifty per cent reservation to them for the post of teachers in primary and secondary schools.

Third, Nitish’s poetic imagery on the Women’s Reservation Bill paves the way for its clearance. The deadlock on the Women’s Reservation Bill aroused public indignation. He engineered a new roadmap for the Bill. Kumar maintained that his opinion on the issue of giving reser-vation to women changed after he introduced 50 per cent quota for women from all sections of the society in the panchayats in Bihar and saw its impact. This is a reference to the 50 per cent reservation for women in panchayats in Bihar which, indirectly, provides for “caste-based” reservation. The formula ensures that 50 per cent of the seats in each category (SCs: 16 per cent, Extremely Backward Classes: 20 per cent, STs: one per cent) goes to women. Of the 20 per cent of panchayat seats reserved for the EBCs, for example, 50 per cent has to go to EBC women. Therefore, the political opposition for caste reservation on the Women’s Reservation Bill cannot stand. Nitish is exceedingly prudent and tried to lift the morale of politics beyond caste considerations and vote-banks.

Four, the other major initiative was providing land to the landless female. A Bhoodan Andolan for female was planned to give land. More than 30,000 women are part of a silent revolution wherein they have become the proud owners of land in a State where they had nothing. The Bihar Government distributed over 14,000 acres of land among the poor and landless women in the last three years. It is a new beginning for them. With economic independence, however marginal, they are also seeing an improved social status, and are respected both by their families and their communities.

Witch-hunting is one of the heinous social evils which ensnare the lonely and poor woman. It happens due to lack of resources and belonging in the community. This scheme has redefined not merely their identity but also reposed the hope of living a dignified life. The Bihar Government has also decided to set up women-centric Self-Help Groups (SHGS) on the lines of an NGO, Jeevika, to cater to the welfare and livelihood of women. The SHGs will become functional in all blocks of Bihar within four-to-five years.

BIHAR’S Chief Minister was qualitatively different in his tone and approach from other politicians while commenting on the device of preventing rape cases. He strongly opposed the idea of dress code for the female. Nitish said that the dress of boys should then also have to be considered. What is more important is the mindset to see women with respect. Crimes like rape are being committed due to the sick mindset and this should be changed through social awareness. It is not fair to put conditions on 50 per cent of the population. The Bihar Government has been training the female students in martial art. Kumar said categorically: “Martial arts for self-defence would be taught to girls in all the schools in Bihar. Martial art training will be provided to girls in all the schools and colleges to help them take on the anti-socials.” The Chief Minister of Bihar is also in favour of changing the age of juvenile crimes. There are scores of cases involving youth between 16-18 years of age in heinous crimes; measures should be reconsidered for separating them from juvenile justice. Since reports suggest a number of youth of this age-group are frequently involved in heinous crimes, such cases should be reconsidered.

Good governance can rein in the atrocities against women but it takes time to control the hydra-headed monster. That is why the figures look depressing. Nearly a dozen cases of gang-rape, sexual assault and eve teasing were reported recently not only from remote areas but even in the capital city of Patna. Rape, molestation, eve-teasing, dowry deaths have become common stories in the daily newspapers. Gaya, Nalanda, Aurangabad, and not even the capital city of Patna, have been spared. The crime rates against women have increased from 6186 cases in 2008 to 10,231 cases in 2011, a 65 percentage point increase in just three years. Fiftysix per cent of the women between ages 15 and 49 are subject to physical and sexual violence. The sex ratio has seen a decline over the last decade.

And not just women, Bihar today ranks among the top three States in murder (3198), attempt to commit murder (3327) and culpable homicide not amounting to murder (348), dacoities (556), riots (9768) and arson (705). Some 26,003 violent crimes were committed in 2011, a 10 per cent share of all-India crimes, the second highest after Uttar Pradesh.

Social construction takes time to show results and shed off the deep-rooted prejudices. To cure the multiple social disorders, five years is too short a period to completely overhaul and eliminate male dominance by breaking the male bastion. But the journey has begun and it has begun in the right mode. Last year the President of India honoured the State with a “Decadal Literacy Award” and asked the entire country to take inspiration from Bihar. Increasing literacy will be a strong deterrent against child marriages, as Bihar is known as the “hot bed” of child marriage.

Good governance is a conjecture that requires a number of factors to be well placed and run in tandem to address the social, economic and political needs of the people. Nitish acted strongly against the goons immediately after taking command of the State. Using the Arms Act effectively, he jailed more than 50,000 goons. This restored public confidence. This would help to rein in the bulk migration from the State. Statistics of different districts narrate heart rendering stories of breaking of families because of migration. The worst victims of migration are women.

Therefore, the journey towards economic development is bound to change the face of Bihar. During the Nitish regime the road connectivity increased to 2417 km; the GDP growth averaged 10.4 per cent in Nitish’s seven years, against just 3.5 per cent in the last five years of Lalu’s rule. Bihari migration to Punjab, Haryana for harvesting fell dramatically, because of better economic opportunities within Bihar. Four sectors—communications, trade, hotels, manufacturing and construction—grew at over 15 per cent between 2004-11. All such development in different sectors will create the groundwork for those who are driving bicycles to schools, to grab the managerial and skilled jobs. The emancipation of women is the best way to leapfrog the State which is frost-beaten with male dominance and social hierarchy. Nitish’s imagi-nation of transforming Bihar is set to be revolu-tionary and his regime might be characterised by this silent revolution of women’s empowerment.

Dr Satish Kumar is an Associate Professor, Central University of Haryana, Mahendargarh.

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