There were approximately 5,000 people in Sandish Compound, but Mika Devi had no intention of joining them. “Do you expect me to go inside, amidst those men?” she said. “How many women can you see in the crowd?”
It isn’t as if women in her town don’t attend political meetings. Two weeks ago, she said, a rally addressed by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, leader of the Janata Dal (United) drew a high proportion of women. The day earlier, on April 14, Nitish addressed at least four rallies in Nalanda parliamentary constituency and news reports suggest that many women attended all of them them.
To anyone who has watched Nitish Kumar's nine-year tenure, it’s clear that the Bihar chief minister is starting to yield the benefits of the many measures he has taken to nurture his female constituents, cutting across the caste and community lines.
Agreed Mika Devi, “He has done quite a lot for women.”
Perhaps the most significant measure taken by Nitish to empower women was his decision to create a 50% quota for women in urban and rural local bodies. As per the new rule, which came into force in 2006, of the 50% of seats reserved in these bodies for people from the other backward classes, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, half would go to women belonging to these categories. Of the remaining seats, Nitish’s government designated half for women. In addition to these quotas, women were free to fight from other seats too
By any standard, the results have been phenomenal. The measure has led to the domination of Bihar’s urban and rural local bodies by women of all castes and communities. This decision, together with a series of steps to create employment opportunities for women, has drawn a good number of women out of their homes and placed them in public office.
In March 2010, Nitish’s pro-women position set him in conflict with JD(U) president Sharad Yadav, who declared his opposition to the Women’s Reservation Bill, which aims to reserve 33% of the seats in parliament for women. Sharad Yadav, together with Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad, maintained that they would not allow the passage of the bill until a subquota for OBCs was provided within the 33% quota. Nitish surprised them all by maintaining, “I am in support of the bill. It should be passed without any delay in the present form. Quota within quota can be debated later.”
Equally successful have been his schemes for girls. His much-touted free cycle scheme to every schoolgirl in class nine or above has proved to be a big incentive for female education in Bihar. Groups of girls riding bicycles to and from school have become a common sight in small towns and rural areas in Bihar.
Under another scheme, the state government issues a bond of Rs 2,000 in the name of every girl child immediately after her birth. The maturity value of the bond will be paid to the girl after she attains 18 years of age to meet the expenses of her wedding. A similar scheme promises girls under the poverty line Rs 18,000 at the time she reaches 18 so that she can pursue higher education or start a small business.
Two months ago, the government, in order to stem the dropout rate of girls in higher classes, decided to distribute sanitary napkins in state-run schools. The government has earmarked Rs 32 crore a year for this scheme.
It is still too early to say whether the female constituency Nitish has been trying to nurture will actually translate into votes in the ongoing elections. But if it does, the rigid caste lines along which most Biharis vote will be the first victim of his policies, with a clear bearing on the fate of all the parties in the fray.