Indian women voters are expected to be the main voters in 2019 general elections, but no one is expecting them to vote at all.
According to a new study by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), women in India’s northeastern states are unlikely to cast a ballot.
The NSSO has been studying voter turnout in the northeastern states of Bihar, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan since 2009, when the BJP won the assembly elections there.
The results have remained virtually the same, but a recent report by the government on electoral participation showed a marked decline in the number of women voters, with only a fraction participating in the 2015 general elections.
A study conducted by the Indian Statistical Institute, however, found that in the 2019 general election, women’s participation has risen by a whopping 67.2% from the 2015 poll.
This suggests that there is a high probability of women making it to the polling booths.
“We have not found any evidence that women’s turnout is increasing in the Northeast,” said Anand Kumari, an assistant professor at the National Institute of Public Administration and Planning, an organisation set up by the Centre to collect data on India’s electoral system.
“We can say that it is an area where there is some support from women and it is not clear whether this is an indication of general election turnout or something different.”
The Nissl Survey found that women in Bihar, Uttar and Rajsamantan, which form the heart of the northeastern assembly, are more likely to participate in the polling than women in other states.
Women in Haryna, Bihar’s most populous state, are also more likely than women elsewhere in the country to participate.
“The data indicates that the women in the northeast are not particularly interested in voting, but they may choose to vote, which could result in some electoral change,” Kumari said.
“There is a general perception that women don’t vote, but we need to understand that women vote because of the environment,” he added.
According to the NSSP, Bihar and Haryanas have the highest number of households with less than 10 people, a key factor in voter turnout.
“Women in these states are more open to participating, but also the availability of voting cards is limited.
We need to focus on improving women’s accessibility to voting and improving access to voting cards,” Kumaris co-author Pratibha Dutta said.
The results of the latest NSS data were published by the Election Commission of India (ECI) in its latest quarterly report.
In the previous year, women made up only a tiny fraction of the electorate in the states, making up 0.2%.
But in 2019, the number rose to 2.5%.
This is not a problem that is unique to the northeasterns, experts said.
The northeastern states have long been considered bastions of women’s empowerment and the latest study showed that in 2016, only 2.1% of women were in the workforce.
This has meant that women were left out of politics, education and the workforce altogether.
The report also found that the number in the labour force was up by 7.2 percentage points in the last decade, while the number going to education was down by 6.2 points.
The government has announced a series of programmes to attract women to the workforce, but experts say these are only the first steps.
“It is a positive sign that women are showing interest in participating, especially in the case of women who have been in the workplace, but it is clear that they are not in a position to be actively involved in politics,” Kumar said.
Kumar and Dutty pointed out that women have always been the breadwinners in rural areas, so their participation in politics is a direct result of their economic status.
The problem is that women tend to vote against the grain of the socio-economic status quo, she said.
For the next elections, Kumari and Duthta plan to undertake a similar study in 2019 in Rajasthani states of Odisha and Assam.
“The government needs to look at how to address women’s concerns and make sure they are getting the right opportunities,” Dutte said.
“Women will be voting for the first time in 2019 and we need the government to work to ensure that they can participate.”