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India women's bill sparks protests in upper house

8 March 10 14:19 GMT

The Indian government has reintroduced a bill which would reserve a third of all seats in the national parliament and state legislatures for women.

Voting had been due on Monday but was delayed by protests from opponents who forced the upper house to adjourn.

The bill was first proposed in 1996 but never passed. This time it has the backing of India's main parties.

At present women make up just 10% of the lower house of parliament, and significantly less in state assemblies.

Allies' anger

Law Minister Veerappa Moily tabled the bill amid loud protests from opponents in the upper house (Rajya Sabha).

Socialist MPs tore up copies of the legislation and shouted down speakers in an attempt to prevent the bill being debated.

After several adjournments and attempts by the government to calm tempers, voting was deferred by a day. The bill's backers had hoped voting would take place on Monday, International Women's Day.

The proposals will be tabled in the lower house (Lok Sabha) at a later date. An overwhelming majority there support the move.

While India's main parties back the legislation, smaller socialist parties argue it will reduce representation of minorities and socially disadvantaged groups.

They want set quotas for women from Muslim and low-caste communities.

Two parties, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Samajwadi Party, said they were withdrawing support for the Congress-led government in protest at the proposals.

'Gift'

Nonetheless, analysts expect the bill to be passed after 14 years of deadlock.

This time round it has the support of the governing Congress-led UPA alliance, the BJP-led NDA alliance and left-wing parties.

Sonia Gandhi, Congress party president, says she attaches the "highest importance" to the proposals and passing them would be a "gift to the women of India".

She is regarded as the most powerful politician in a country where politics is still largely a male preserve.

There are currently 59 women in the 545-member Lok Sabha. Under the proposals their numbers would rise to 181.

The composition of the 245-seat upper house, which now has 21 women, will not be affected as its members are indirectly elected by state assemblies.

India already reserves a third of local governing council seats in towns and villages for women, a move that is said to have significantly increased their role in decision-making.

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