An excerpt from parliamentarian Derek O’Brien’s new book, ‘Who Cares About Parliament’
GN Bureau | July 26, 2023
Who Cares About Parliament: Speaking Up to Protect India’s Great Institution
By Derek O’Brien
Rupa / 224 pages / Rs 395
Derek O’Brien, India’s favourite quizmaster and now an award-winning parliamentarian, has observed parliamentary proceedings from the first row of the Rajya Sabha while playing a key role for the Opposition and raising difficult questions. In his new book, ‘Who Cares about Parliament: Speaking Up to Protect India’s Great Institution’, he argues how Parliament has been undermined in the last decade. The book narrates how rules, precedents and conventions established over the years have been allegedly bypassed and ignored; how this glorious institution is being mocked at and destroyed.
With an in-depth insight into legislative procedures, O’Brien reminds us that Parliament is not just a new building; it is an establishment with old traditions and values—it is the foundation of Indian democracy. Who Cares about Parliament is a must-read for those who want a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by our nation today.
All the themes of the essays have, in some form or another, been the focus of hectic contestation and argument in recent times. This includes the decision of 19 opposition parties to boycott the inauguration of the new Parliament building, as a response to the ‘boycott of parliamentary traditions by an authoritarian government’. ‘Who Cares About Parliament’ reflects on the significance the Parliament holds in a young citizen’s life, specifically because the actions of Parliament will affect us for the longest time.
The book promises to be a must-read for those who want a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by our nation today.
Here is an excerpt from the book:
NO COUNTRY FOR WOMEN?
The Modi government has launched a few headline-grabbing flagship schemes, ostensibly aimed at improving the lot of women in India. However, the patriarchal mindset that lies at the core of the RSS–BJP belief system has ensured that the outcomes are very different from those envisaged in the scheme documents. High-decibel advertising campaigns promoting only fluff do not work in the medium and long term. Even a fawning media cannot tom-tom schemes that are high on hype and low on substance.
In the Womb: Dead Before They’re Born
A report published by the United Nations Population Fund, titled ‘State of the World’s Population’, indicated that the number of missing women in 2020 was around 14 crore. What is startling is that China and India together annually accounted for about 95 per cent of the ‘missing’ female births worldwide. India’s share in this is estimated to be 4.6 crore. It is estimated that illegal sex-selection abortions will result in 68 lakh lesser girls being born in India by 2030. Twenty lakh female foetuses are expected to go ‘missing’ between 2017 and 2030.
Till the future prospects of India’s daughters after birth remain bleak, the probability of them not being allowed to be even born will keep on increasing. India’s sex ratio of women to men is already in an alarming range of 900–930 females for every 1,000 males. The northern and northwestern states fare particularly poorly on this parameter. The preference for a male child in Indian society also manifests in better nutrition, healthcare and educational opportunities being reserved for sons, very often at the cost of daughters.
Despite strict laws to discourage child marriage, an estimated 27 per cent of India’s girls are married off before they even reach the legal age of 18. National Crime Records Bureau data shows a significant rise in child marriages, from 293 in 2015 to 1,050 in 2021. My hunch is that these numbers are way higher. This would give a better perspective: India witnesses one child marriage every few hours.
In Childhood: Victims of Apathy
The PM began his first term by promoting education for the girl child under the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (BBBP) scheme. A parliamentary committee on the empowerment of women stated in its report that between 2016–19, around 80 per cent of the funds under BBBP were spent only on publicity and media activities. In response to a question in Parliament, the Ministry of Women and Child Development confirmed that out of its total expenditure of '555 crore between 2016–17 and 2019–20, a total of Rs 351.5 crore (constituting about 63 per cent) was spent on media advocacy campaign.
In the Workforce: Massively Under-represented
From not being born, to not being educated, women, including those lucky enough to get education, are miserably under-represented in the labour force and reduced to reproductive or unpaid roles.
The World Bank estimates that India has one of the world’s lowest rates of women’s participation in its labour force. Less than one-third of women (15 and above) are employed or are actively seeking work. The female labour participation rate in India fell to 19 per cent in 2020 from more than 26 per cent in 2005. We have fallen behind even our South Asian neighbours. In Bangladesh, the comparable figure is 35 per cent, and it is 31 per cent in Sri Lanka.
All of these statistics only go to show that under the Union government, something is clearly amiss in the participation of our women in the labour force. How can we expect to become a $5-trillion economy when half our population is neither encouraged nor empowered to join the workforce, and yet expected to engage in unpaid labour?
Flagship Schemes: Lip Service Only
The Union government is doing little to dismantle the completely outdated viewpoint that equated women solely with motherhood and one that saw women’s roles as being largely defined by their participation in reproductive labour. The slogan ‘Matri Shakti, Rashtra Shakti (Mother’s Power, Nation’s Power)’ used by the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana maternity benefits programme highlights this imbalance. The scheme does not even cater to the needs of women whom it supposedly glorifies. The benefits of this scheme, for example, are limited to the first birth, which excludes 88 per cent of pregnant and lactating women.
Then, around 95 per cent of all female workers in India are in the informal sector and have no access to any maternity leave provisions, let alone the newly introduced extensions of maternity leave from 12 to 24 weeks. The increased maternity benefit provisions can also adversely affect the employment opportunities of women in private businesses, which may simply stop hiring women for fear of granting them paid leaves. In most countries, maternity provisions are partially funded by the state, which is not the case in India. So, these will only benefit a minority section of women who work in the formal (and mainly public) sector, and if so is to happen, it may come at the cost of lower job growth for other women.
Another flagship scheme of the Union government, peddled as a game changer for women, is the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana launched in 2016. It promised free cooking gas connections to rural women in below poverty line households. Its tag line was ‘Mahilaon Ko Mila Samman (Women get respect)’. However, the scheme has turned out to be a cruel joke on India’s poorest women; not only is there no subsidy for the refill for the second cylinder, to make matters worse, LPG prices under this regime have skyrocketed. A more appropriate catchline would be ‘Mehngai Se Mahilaon Ka Samna (Women’s struggles with expenses).’
[The excerpt reproduced with the permission of the publishers.]
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