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Shrawasti (Uttar Pradesh)
Among the most underdeveloped, Shrawasti pins hopes on elections
The district of 1.1 million people has the highest infant mortality rate in India’s most populous state at 96 per 1,000 live births. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Shrawasti, Uttar Pradesh: By any measure of human development, Shrawasti would rank among India’s most under-developed districts—it has a literacy rate of 46.74% compared with a national average of 73%; among the districts of Uttar Pradesh, it has the smallest number of households with electricity; the largest number of households with no toilets and the third highest with no drainage.
The picture only gets grimmer in the district classified as “gender-critical”. The district of 1.1 million people has the highest infant mortality rate in India’s most populous state at 96 per 1,000 live births; 130 children out of every 1,000 born die before their fifth birthday. That compares with Uttar Pradesh’s average of 68 and 90, respectively. Its female literacy rate is 34.8%.
The village of Malhipur is a microcosm of Shrawasti.
On the sidelines of a wedding ceremony in the village, a group of women sat in a mud house with a thatched roof and recounted how nearly all of them had been married off before they turned 15 and how none of them went to school while their brothers did.
Their hope is that the general election will bring a bit of change to their lives.
Guddi Devi, a 21-year-old woman from an Other Backward Class (OBC) community, is the only one in the group who studied until the fifth standard. She was married at the age of 13 and is now a mother of two.
“We are the most backward among the backwards,” Devi said. “Our village is too much in the interior and no public representative other than the Panchayat members have ever visited us. There are no health services for us and the nearest hospital is more than 20 km away. We hope that the new government will look into issues like this.”
Women make up 47.6% of the electorate in India’s 16th general election and no party can afford to ignore them. It’s only now that issues close to women—health services and sanitation, maternity care, education of girl children and violence against women—are finding a mention in the campaign, going beyond the usual political rhetoric.
India has practised universal franchise starting with the first election since independence, unlike many developed countries including the United States. Indian women started voting at the same time as their male counterparts in 1951.
According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) The Global Gender Gap Report 2013, India’s overall rank among 136 countries was 101. The WEF considered parameters like women in economic participation, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment.
In terms of legislative participation, the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks India’s record of including women lawmakers, who make up 11% of the outgoing Lok Sabha, at 112 among 189 countries.
Research data shows that women have voting preferences that are distinct from those of the average male voter, said Shamika Ravi, assistant professor of economics at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad and a fellow at the Brookings Institution India Centre.
“...political parties now feel the need to go beyond the rhetoric of women empowerment and talk about specific policies like health, education etc,” Ravi, whose research is in the area of developmental economics with a focus on gender inequality and democracy, said.
“Anecdotally we know that in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere too political parties are beginning to cater to women’s well being, like bicycles for female students etc. These parties earlier did not make great distinction between a male and a female voter,” she said.
In the campaign for the general elections, Congress vice- president Rahul Gandhi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s prime ministerial candidateNarendra Modi have been constantly talking about empowerment of women.
While the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance promised to increase the number of women-only police stations from 500 to 2,000 and set up fast-track courts that would hold “in-camera” proceedings, the BJP has pledged stronger legislation for women’s safety and efforts to remove gender disparities in property rights, and marital and cohabitation rights.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has promised zero tolerance towards sex-selective abortions, and said it would ensure equal pay for equal work across all sectors for women and adopt a code of conduct to end misogynist remarks and behaviour in the Lok Sabha.
All the three parties have promised to push for reservation of 33% seats in Parliament for women.
In Shrawasti, young first-time women voters say they will make their electoral choice on the basis of political parties and personalities who take up gender-related issues.
One such voter is Anjali Verma, a 20-year-old under-graduate in Raghunathpur village, in Fatehpur Banghai block of Shrawasti, who wants to become a constable after she completes her studies. She wants to vote for the AAP candidate from her constituency.
“A government’s role is about responsibility and accountability. It is not about gaining power and forgetting the people who elected them. In a place like Shrawasti, we have to go miles for a degree college. I would want that when the new government takes over, its priority should be the education system,” Verma, who studies at the Kisan Degree College in Jamnaha, said.
According to Ravi, research shows that women voters prefer policies and programmes that improve their lives—it could be something as simple as the provision of drinking water near where they live. Male voters, on the other hand, make their choices on the basis of factors like roads and access to markets.
Female education should be a priority for any government, says Sunita Maurya, a government school teacher in Bandra village of Shrawasti. Maurya, who does not have access to television, owns a cell phone but does not use the Internet and has to travel 8 km to charge her phone because her village does not have electricity.
A resident of Kolkata, Maurya moved to Shrawasti when she got married. “I often feel the pinch of not being connected to the world. We keep hearing about Narendra Modi’s speeches, but I wish someday I could see it live on television...I want him to win.”
Across India, women voters also vote differently from men in another aspect. They “overwhelming vote out candidates with criminal records”, Ravi said.
In Shrawasti, they may be spoilt for choice. According to data from the National Election Watch unit of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), four contestants in the fray including Atiq Ahmed from the Samajwadi Party, Rizwan Zaheer alias Riiju Bhaiya from the Peace Party,Vinay Kumar Pandey from the Congress and Arun Kumar, an independent candidate, have declared in affidavits that they have criminal charges pending against them.
Atiq Ahmed, whose posters featuring him styling his moustache are splashed across the district, is accused in 42 criminal cases including murder, attempt to murder, criminal intimidation and abduction.
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