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How Indian women can head the household

January 25, 2012 20:02 IST

T V R Shenoy explains why the Food Security Bill will truly be a game-changer in India.

We have elections coming up in five states, notably giant -- thus politically crucial -- Uttar Pradesh. We have an Indian cricket team seemingly determined to eat crow. We have yet another brouhaha over Salman Rushdie.

But my electricity bill is in front of me, so I want to talk about food -- and those who prepare food.

What, you may well wonder, is the connection between the two?

The bill is made out to 'T V R Shenoy and Saroja Shenoy,' but there is a difference in the manner in which the two names are identified. 'T V R Shenoy' is listed as the 'son of the late Vittappa Shenoy,' but 'Saroja Shenoy' is named as the 'wife of T V R Shenoy.'

Obviously, I have no objection whatsoever to being identified as my father's son, yet I cannot help wondering why the mother who brought me up finds no place. Equally, if fatherhood is all that is thought necessary for one partner in a marriage, why should the better half not be identified as her father's daughter?

One might dismiss this as the usual bureaucratic method of following precedent without thought, but Delhi's power distribution was privatised as far back as 2002. Briefly, even a private player like the distribution company -- 'discom' in Delhi-speak -- finds it tough to look beyond the patriarchal model.

How does this tie up with food?

It is linked because of the Food Security Bill. When you actually delve through the details of the bill you will find a key detail that is a singularly progressive act of legislation.

The draft is available at the official site of the Union ministry of food and consumer affairs, but I shall not ask you to read the text in its entirety.

The relevant part is in a brief chapter bearing the title 'Women Empowerment'. It consists of just two paragraphs.

'1. The eldest woman who is not less than eighteen years of age, in every priority household and general household, shall be deemed to be head of the household for the purpose of issue of ration cards.'

'2. Where a household at any time does not have a woman or a woman of eighteen years of age or above, but has a female member below the age of eighteen years, then, the eldest male member of the household shall be considered as head of the household for the purpose of issue of ration card and the female member, on attaining the age of eighteen years, shall be considered as the head of the household for the issue of such ration cards.'

Let me point to the key detail, namely that if the food security bill is enacted as per this draft then women shall be considered the 'head of the household.'

Yes, this is stipulated as being 'for the purpose of issue of ration cards,' but the potential implications are staggering.

A clever and progressive judge -- there is no dearth of such in our judiciary -- can interpret this creatively. If one law stipulates that an adult woman shall be deemed the head of the household, why should this not hold true in spheres other than ration cards? At the very least, having conceded actual superiority on one issue, isn't the law bound to mandate equality on all other issues?

I have little enthusiasm for quotas and even less for subsidies. Quotas make little sense in the long run because it ends up only in slicing society into ever smaller partisan groups. (Let us face it, every Indian is part of some minority, on the basis of caste or creed.)

Subsidies are a terrible idea because history shows that they simply end up distorting an economy over a course of decades. (Farm subsidies have done just that in the United States, the European Union, and Japan -- all vastly richer economies than our own.) And, once entrenched, both quotas and subsidies are almost impossible to uproot.

By rights, then, I should be opposing the Food Security Bill in all its provisions because it promises even greater scope for both subsidies and quotas. Gender, however, is arguably a criterion that cuts across caste and creed, with the average Indian woman -- irrespective of class -- being slightly worse off than the average Indian man.

The Food Security Bill also promises to deepen the deficit, taking India's debt even closer to the edge of the cliff. By the government's own estimate, the annual food subsidy bill will be close to Rs 95,000 crore, well over Rs 25,000 crore than what is currently spent. (Government statistics being what they are, these figures are almost certainly underestimates.) This subsidy is not a one-off expense; the cash must be found year after year.

As drafted, the Food Security Bill also mandates certain actions from the governments of the various states. This is a touchy subject; the Trinamool Congress opposed the Lokpal Bill on the grounds that it undermined the federal structure of the Constitution, forcing states to take certain measures whether or not they so desired.

These are valid concerns. There needs to be an informed debate on how we can find the money to fund the Food Security Bill if it is enacted. There should also be some way to protect the rights of the states, particularly since some of them are perilously close to falling into a debt trap.

Neither of those objections, however, is relevant to the principle of empowering women by enshrining their status in law. We may never see a Women's Reservation Bill enacted; if it takes the (somewhat dubious) tool of the Food Security Bill to give women their due so be it.

There will be other elections. The cricket team's fortunes may turn around. It may even be possible for Salman Rushdie to set foot in India without raising a frenzy. But this (almost hidden) provision in the bill is, to use Rahul Gandhi's famous expression, the true 'game-changer.'

Discuss the bill threadbare, change the provisions as required, but leave the chapter on women's empowerment just as it is.

And who knows some day even my discom might discover who actually signs the cheques that pay their bills.

Please read more columns by Mr Shenoy here

T V R Shenoy