WHILE the Punjab government is yet to answer for its policy on the religious extremists, its shadow-boxing with the National Accountability Bureau and the orange train mega scandal, it will be unfair not to recognise some of its recent initiatives.
Most commendable is the first Punjab Gender Parity Report jointly prepared by its Urban Unit, the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women and a British NGO. The full report is yet to be released but some of its features disclosed on Monday testify to the quality and relevance of the project.
The report draws upon the data collected by the Gender Management Information System on women-related matters. The six themes under focus are demographics/governance, health, education, economic participation, legal rights and violence against women. Although much has become known over the past few decades about the denial of women’s rights and discrimination against them, the facts now revealed will cause widespread dismay and concern.
Punjab has done well to focus on gender parity and violence against women, among other things.
For instance, in statutory entities (commission, committee, board, syndicate, council and authority), women have merely 10pc of the seats of board chairpersons, secretaries, and directors, and their representation jumps to 20pc only in the category of members.
Labour force participation rates and wages show significant gender disparity.
Women involved in the 93,264 family cases and 10,325 custody/guardianship cases pending in courts need legal aid, but free legal aid offered by the Punjab Bar Council is grossly inadequate. In 2014-2015 only 12 of the 49 applicants received aid and barely four of them were women.
Cases of violence against women increased from 5,391 in 2012 and 5,387 in 2013 to 5,967 in 2014 and 6,505 in 2015. The conviction rate fell to 1pc in 2015 when only 81 offenders were punished as against 378 in 2012, 316 in 2013, and 211 in 2014.
The authorities promise to prepare the gender parity report every year. This should help in keeping track of improvement/regression and regularly compute the investment-return ratio. Ultimately, the usefulness of the report and the data repository will depend on the government’s ability to devise and implement appropriate action plans.
The role of the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women again underlines the potential of such institutions at both the federal and provincial levels as agents of change. The other commissions can perhaps do equally valuable work if they are allowed the resources, human and material, and the freedom to operate that the Punjab entity has been fortunate enough to do. Another achievement of the Punjab government that should do immense benefit to the people is the computerisation of the land record in the rural areas. Regardless of the unnecessary controversy as to who started the ball rolling the project has brought huge relief to the landowners by reducing the oppression of the patwari.
As the keeper of land ownership documents in the monumental scheme of maintaining land records designed by the British, the patwari was one of the most important functionaries. He was also the key person for recording changes (dakhil kharij/intiqal) in land ownership necessitated by the process of inheritance or any other form of transfer. Instead of issuing a land ownership sheet (fard-i-haqqiat), promptly and for a fraction of a rupee he often used his discretion to delay the matters and charge exorbitant fees. In pre-emption cases involving big landlords he could charge incredibly high amounts and literally decide the matter before it reached a court.
The patwari’s post has not been abolished but he has been relieved of the functions of issuing land ownership certificates and recording land transfers. The entire land record of the revenue estates (rural) in the province has been computerised and modern record centres have been set up in the 143 tehsils. The costs for copies of record have also been cut down and the centres are reported to be issuing 100,000 ownership documents per day.
Computerisation is also said to have helped correct and cleanse the record and delete wrong, fictitious or misleading entries. This by itself is a significant accomplishment, and it should now be possible to eliminate chances of manipulation by corrupt functionaries and their associates among the land grabbers as was done on a vast scale during the disposal of evacuee lands.
One should like to hope that computerisation of land records in the urban areas, that is still kept in the manner devised for the rural land, will be taken up without much delay.
Finally, the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act deserves to be defended as vigorously as it is attacked by the entrenched women-baiters. One cannot understand why this measure has caused greater consternation in the obscurantist camp than the Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa enactments. The provision that is being attacked (and ridiculed) the most says that “in case of an act of grave violence if the life, dignity or reputation of a woman is in danger” the court may order the husband, who has already committed “an act of grave violence”, to move out of the house. The provision may be criticised for leniency to the culprit and there is no reason for the clerics’ violent reaction. Perhaps they are so used to the idea of women being thrown out of the house by their violent lords that a reversal of the parties’ fates is not acceptable.
Like any law that aims at curtailing the privileges of the dominant gender the present enactment should not be presented as a perfect law. Civil society itself has pointed out a few areas in which it needs improvement. The demand that violence against women should be made a criminal offence or that the law should be made comparable to the central bill as adopted by the National Assembly in 2012 merit serious deliberation that should never end. Also one should like to hope that the district committees envisaged under the law do not fare as badly as the district vigilance committees under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act.
Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2016