An voice for women and for all in the House
I would say that all political parties should ensure sufficient representation of women in all levels of organisational structures and increase the pool of eligible women candidates in elections, says TN Seema, Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha, in an interview with RG Gireesh
Excerpts from the interview
You were a very successful Parliamentarian during your term as a member of the law making body. This was your first exposure to a new world quite different from the life before. What were your biggest challenges in acclimatising with the new atmosphere?
Thanks to the activists’ role from my college days as student’s union activist and then as a woman activist and main office bearer of AIDWA (All India Democratic Women’s Association) I was asked by CPM to quit my government job and join as a full timer. Though I have been a party member from 1992, I really didn’t think about becoming a fulltime politician because of my passion for teaching. Though initially I was hesitant, but then I decided to give back to society instead of being a part time political activist. I had been given important responsibilities in the party in the first stage itself, and then the candidature for Rajya Sabha elections after which I have been trying to do my bit through the political platform.
The first time I entered Parliament, It was a mix of pride, elation, little nervousness and a bit of anxiety. Probably never in my life, I felt so. The first day went off quite well with introductions and also helped break some myths I had. Although Rajya Sabha has a majority of senior members very serious and conscious of their stature in society and party, But for me it was more like a classroom with a mix of few vibrant, few silent, few jovial and few others very serious types. In the Central hall, even senior Ministers come and interact with new/junior MPs over a cup of coffee or tea. Overall, I felt very good being there.
Initial days it was a bit difficult for me to prepare questions and intervene but soon after we went through orientation sessions, I started identifying subjects to speak and intervene. I commit that I really did a lot of hard work in collecting data regarding various issues, studying and preparing my notes. Me being a good orator along with essential English speaking and a not too bad Hindi started participating in debates apart from raising several different issues and on different occasions and even had spoken in Hindi as well as Malayalam. I have covered almost all departments and still prepare late into the night the day before any debate/starred question/short notice question or any other form of intervention. Today I can claim with pride that I have really raised many newer and unique issues in Finance, Education, and Environment and even in Tribal and Social Justice Ministries. Even the previous and current ministers have acknowledged and appreciated my interventions with promises to look into them.
What do you think about the much talked 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament? The bill for it has been sidetracked without passing for obvious reasons or fears of some political parties. Do you think the parties objecting to it will ever have a political will and courage to get it passed in parliament even when they get a majority?
Constitution guarantees freedom for employment and representation to all. Unfortunately if you look at a composition of the present Parliament, you will not see that the average representation of women MPs (12.15%) which is very low with respect to the global average for women in parliaments (22.4%). India is placed at the 111th position out of 189 countries in a list prepared by The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an international organisation of Parliaments, even the immediate neighbours like Nepal, ranked at 35, led the pack, followed by China (54) and Pakistan (64) are placed way ahead. Even worse is the national average of women MLAs in state assemblies, which stands at a dismal 9%. One of the most important provisions that almost all the countries with better women’s representation have ensured is to create constitutionally mandated quotas or reservation for women. It's a sorry state of affairs when one has to demand reservation to ensure that women are equally represented.
CPM stands by reservations for women in parliament so as to bring about women's participation in effective law making for tackling cultural and societal barriers in the form of violence, discrimination and illiteracy and thereby guarantee education, employment and speedier justice. The Rajya Sabha has already passed the Women’s Reservation Bill on March 9, 2010. “Since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has a majority in the Lok Sabha now, the Bills should be passed. Some of the other Bills pending in the parliament which pertain to women include, The Constitution (110th Amendment) Bill for reserving half the seats in panchayats for women and The Constitution (112th Amendment) Bill reserving half the elected seats in municipalities for women. But these matters are never the priority of any government or even the prime minister(s) And I personally believe for that, the major role has to be played by men who are at the helm of most of the organisations in INDIA whether government, private or even political parties. Infact, I would say that all political parties should ensure sufficient representation to women in all levels of organizational structures and increase the pool of eligible women candidates in elections.
How safe is women in Kerala, the so called most literate state in India? What can be done to ensure safety for them, considering they have to travel alone and sometime live alone as circumstances demand?
Women’s safety is a serious problem in Kerala which affects lakhs of women from all strata of society on a daily basis. Women face sexual harassment at work and even at schools and homes sometimes. According to the official data, atrocities against women are on the rise in the state with every passing day, and women now feel unsafe even during broad daylight.
Infact it is one of the paradoxes of Kerala Model development that we have achieved many goals in education, health, social welfare and infrastructure, but the attitude towards women has not changed much. Literacy alone can’t bring a change in the mindset of the people, but every institution in the society from family to state should be sensitized towards being more gender sensitive. And it should start with politicians, judicial fraternity and government officials especially Police department. I believe the system should respond to the needs of women in a more responsible way.
When some tragedy happens, lots of media based discussions and speeches on accountability will be there, but thereafter everything will be the same. For example now more and more women are working in many sectors/fields which have different shift timings which make women travel alone even in the odd time. Who will ensure the responsibility for safety of those working women? For women’s safety employers are responsible, police is responsible, local bodies are responsible. But there are many lapses from all these institutions. When something happens, they will start blame game. For example if we look at the area adjoining Techno Park in Kazhakkoottam, where thousands of young women are working, there are no street lights at many patches! Similarly across Kerala there are innumerable streets with no lights. What about our police registering complains pertaining to women safety? Look at the Konni incident. If the police were vigilant enough to start the enquiry immediately after getting missing complaint, we would have saved three lives. The concerned authorities should be made accountable for these kinds of lapses and failures. I strongly believe that if the government takes initiative to coordinate with all stake holders who are responsible for women’s safety; we definitely can make our public places more women friendly especially with the help of latest advances in information technology. Safety of women should be the top most priority of any government not just in Kerala but the whole country!
As an MP what were your priorities and could you materialise all of them? If not, what were the problems faced by you?
Honestly speaking as a Rajya Sabha member especially for the first time you do not walk into the house loaded with aims, priorities and plans and that too when you belong to CPM; you are confident that the party will entrust you with certain responsibilities. However during my four years in the parliament, I had graduated and acquired lot of information and knowledge regarding governance and law making which in turn has helped me to set new goals and priorities not only for the parliament phase but also further in my life. Most of the people from my state even from my own party thought that I will just be raising issues related to Women. That was of course my prime goal and it will be till the end of my life, but what I really realised is that THERE IS LOT TO LEARN, LOTS TO CONTRIBUTE AND LOTS OF RESPONSIBILITY AHEAD ! I genuinely feel that we need people in politics who are committed without expecting any returns. Unfortunately, there is an absence of goals mission towards betterment and development of society. It’s more for the personal growth or for their own family today.
I have been interacting with state government and the centre on many issues. Not only Kerala, I had even raised issues on North Eastern states to Lakshadweep also. My focus areas have been health sector, rural education, starvation, drinking water facilities, environment and climate change. The increasing crime rate of offences against women, especially rape, is a matter of great worry to me. Female foeticide, Safety of women and Economic empowerment of rural women is what I want to involve myself more in my rest of the days in Parliament. I am now preparing a list of issues which I have raised earlier and still are pending with the government. As far as Member of Parliament Local Area Development (MPLAD) Fund is concerned, I had tried best to spend the optimum and for the best of welfare of common masses. Infact in a first of its kind, the MPLADS funds has been utilised for buying tri-scooters for people with locomotor disability. Developmental projects worth Rs 11 crore have been initiated for Thiruvananthapuram Parliament Constituency under my MPLAD scheme. Priority has been given to the education and health sector by setting aside a fund of Rs 6.25 crore. For health sector, Rs 1.25 crore has been allotted and Rs 32 lakh have been spent for Thiruvananthapuram Medical College and General Hospital, respectively.
How did you manage your role as an educationist, a political leader and a homemaker altogether?
Although dramatic changes had happened in the role, ambitions and attitude of women during the last few decades of twentieth century and are happening quite fast even now. But still this question is asked to most of the professional women that How you make a balance between home maker and the career responsibilities. This is never asked to the men. I also like other girls of that period have infact being brought up under the shadow of my parents and gradually I was able to establish my independent identity during my college days as a student and thereafter as a lecturer.
I love to cook, and I still prepare my food when I am in Delhi and also as and when try helping my mother in domestic chores. I love to read fiction and listen to music which has lessened a lot from earlier days and I am still learning to balance everything profession, passion, home and health.
I surely miss my teaching profession and was not able to read or research much on my subjects after getting into Rajya Sabha. I had received invitations from different educational institutions and soon I intend to associate myself with few institutions of Education and Research. I am also keen to taking up as a guide for projects related to collection, documentation, preservation and inventorisation of cultural expressions of Kerala including valuable manuscripts using modern technology.
T N Seema with husband Jayaraj and daughter Aparna
Both your parents were political activists, was it the reason why you entered politics?
Perhaps Yes! Both my parents were government servants and active members of unions at workplace. As a youngster I had exposure to lots of discussions and debates amongst my parents and their colleagues in our home. Newspapers and books especially of political genre fiction were essential ingredients of our daily routine. Apart from that the books like ‘The Mother’ by Maxim Gorky,’Padma Meghana ‘ and’ Harvest song ‘by Sabitri Roy, novels of Thakazhi, Cherukadu , Basheer in Malayalam read by me had not only inspired me but also initiated the activist mindset within me. Politics has never been a career option for me. It is an extension of the activist within me.
About your family, major achievements, your vision for Kerala
Home is where the heart is, and so is family. I still feel that joint families were the best and the relations were more open and with notes of love, respect and responsibility. My husband Shri G. Jayaraj is a technocrat and an active member of various organisations and associations. My daughter J S Aparna is research scholar at IIT Mumbai. My mother Smt Manasi Devi is a retired government official and author of many books. I feel I am lucky to have a very encouraging and understanding family. I have to admit that while shuttling between places with all my official responsibilities, my duty towards home gets secondary consideration, which I very much regret. But I am very fortunate to have a great support in my mother who very lovingly brought up my daughter and makes sure the household activities are managed very well. My regret at times is the lack of quality time with my family especially with mother who is now into her old age and age related health conditions.
I have authored numerous articles about development and role of women in society and planning including Women and Local Planning, Globalisation and Women (in Malayalam), etc. and has edited various collections including Equality in Development, Gender Status, Neighbourhood Collective and People’s Plan Campaign and Women’s Advancement. My doctoral thesis was on historical novels. While working in the Planning Board, I was involved in training of women for taking decision making at the panchayat level. It was an exhilarating experience to see the change in the women as they became empowered and confident about their abilities, I am aware that my term in Rajya Sabha will get over by May 2016 but that will not stop me from contributing towards the betterment of society and working for the common masses.
I hope home for homeless, education for all, good drinking water and sanitation, waste management system, 24x7 power supply, good health, safety and empowerment of women, means of livelihood for disabled and marginalised section of society and tackling pollution and climate change should be not only my vision rather vision of every individual in the state of Kerala.
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