Dr Masuma Hasan: Bridging the Gender Gap in Bihar

Bihar is the third largest state of India so far as population is concerned, above 103 million according to the Census of India 2001, but it has traditionally been backward and poor. Although it was the seat of great empires like that of the Mauryas, and of great religions like Buddhism, it has long been caste-ridden and home to dacoits and criminals. All the more difficult, therefore, would it be to introduce reforms in such a rigid and stratified society.

Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar, dwelt at length on the achievements of his government during a seminar hosted by the Chief Minister of Sindh, Syed Qaim Ali Shah, on whose invitation he was visiting Pakistan. The performance of his government, even if exaggerated, came across remarkably well, as remarkable indeed as his own political career. Leader of the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, which has socialist origins, he governs nevertheless in alliance with the conservative BJP.It is claimed that Bihar’s rate of growth in the current financial year is around 13 per cent but he did not tell us that he has been lobbying with the Union government in India for a special status for Bihar because of its underdevelopment. He attributed the achievements of his government to the creation of an environment (mahaul in Urdu) which facilitates good governance.

A major success of Nitish Kumar’s government lies in the field of women’s empowerment. According to the 73rd amendment 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. Perhaps only a politician with socialist leanings could have taken this decision so quickly. This created an inspiring change although women are still unable to make it to decision-making levels in these bodies. 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, Chattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

One of the innovations introduced by Nitish Kumar, which seems to have been his very own, was with respect to girls’ education. Female literacy in Bihar is 53 per cent, well below the overall Indian average of 65 per cent. The majority of girls are married off in their early teens and the state has been described as the “hotspot” of child marriage. As those who have worked in the field of women’s empowerment know, it is difficult for parents to keep girls in school as they grow older. The cost of transport and concerns for security are the parents’ major worries. The Bihar government decided that it would give each girl, who had done well in the eighth class, a personal cheque to purchase a bicycle. According to Nitish Kumar, there were one and a half lakh girls at the pre-Matric stage in Bihar but the number rose to above six lakhs and absenteeism dropped dramatically after the government’s scheme was implemented. The bicycles provided the girls and their families with mobility, cut down transport costs and also helped the girls to become self-confident. As Nitish Kumar said, these girls pedalling along merrily and also transporting their siblings, will never look back. Kaun peechhay mur kar dekhta hai.

When I first started going to school, Karachi was a very tolerant city. Some girls used to come to school on bicycles but these bicycles disappeared as values changed. Much later, in some schools, the government started a scheme to provide milk or food to girls at lunchtime and the enrolment levels rose. The “red corridor”, which is the operating field of the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency in India, passes through Bihar. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described this insurgency as the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by India. Ironically, however, Bihar is lucky that the Maoists believe in women’s rights. It is difficult, at least at present, to see a bevy of girls pedalling through our streets. But as we continue to work for the empowerment of women and girls in these difficult times, surely that day will come.

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Filed under Discussion, India, Women

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