Uncertain Timing, Census and Delimitation Hurdles Cast Shadow Over Women’s Reservation

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“God has given me the opportunity” said the Prime Minister as the women reservation Bill was tabled in the Lok Sabha on the second day of the five-day special session of Parliament. Truth be told, God had given him this “opportunity” in 2014. It was part of the Party’s manifesto and it has existed for nine years. So was it about empowering women or does it have to do more with the upcoming general elections? The answer is as obvious as daylight.

Putting even the delay and intent aside, there is still a caveat to the Act. It cannot be enforced until and unless a new Census and the delimitation process is undertaken.

The issue of women’s reservation is a long awaited one. There are only 78 women members in the Lok Sabha who account for less than 15 per cent of the total strength. Women account for only 14 per cent of Rajya Sabha members. Their representation is worse in the state legislative assemblies – only 9 per cent of the total number of members on average. The National Policy for Empowerment of Women (2001) had stated that reservation will be considered in higher legislative bodies.

The journey of women’s reservation and increased representation in Parliament and state assemblies began in 1996. In Manmohan Singh’s tenure in 2010, it did pass in the Rajya Sabha but could not in the Lok Sabha. Since then, the promise to India’s women has not been kept, including in the current form that it has been cleared. The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts which institutionalised grass-root level democracy provided for women reservation. These Constitutional Amendment Acts were tabled in the Parliament in 1992 and came into effect a few months after their introduction.

The current version doesn’t have a clear time frame for its implementation. In this case, it depends on two factors, that is, the Census and delimitation. Just to reiterate, the Bill could have been made immediately implementable like the 73rd and 74th amendment was done within six months and without linking it to Census and delimitation. So this amendment becomes, perhaps, the only one to be passed, but whose implementation is left for a future undecided date.

The last Census was held in 2011. The Union government attributed the Covid-19 pandemic for postponing the exercise and the last two notifications by the Registrar General of India did not mention any reason. Even if the Census process is carried out, the delimitation exercise could end up being a tussle between the Union and the southern states. As per a research paper (India’s emerging crisis of Representation) after the 2026 delimitation, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh will have a total of 222 MPs, while the four south Indian states will have a combined representation of 165 in the Lok Sabha.

The current variant differs from its 2008 version in some ways: Ignorance of “intra-state women representation” and reserved seats to be rotated after every delimitation exercise. The 2008 bill mandated that one-third of Lok Sabha seats in each state/UT should be reserved for women. However, the current bill does not provide any such “intra-state” reservation.

The rotation of reserved seats will happen after every delimitation exercise, according to the current Act. It takes nearly four to five years for the delimitation commission to issue its report after its commencement. The government hasn’t clarified what will be the status of women’s reservation when the delimitation exercise is on-going.

The last Census was held in 2011. The Union government attributed the Covid-19 pandemic for postponing the exercise and the last two notifications by the Registrar General of India did not mention any reason. Even if the Census process is carried out, the delimitation exercise could end up being a tussle between the Union and the southern states. As per a research paper (India’s emerging crisis of Representation) after the 2026 delimitation, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh will have a total of 222 MPs, while the four south Indian states will have a combined representation of 165 in the Lok Sabha.

The current variant differs from its 2008 version in some ways: Ignorance of “intra-state women representation” and reserved seats to be rotated after every delimitation exercise. The 2008 bill mandated that one-third of Lok Sabha seats in each state/UT should be reserved for women. However, the current bill does not provide any such “intra-state” reservation.

The rotation of reserved seats will happen after every delimitation exercise, according to the current Act. It takes nearly four to five years for the delimitation commission to issue its report after its commencement. The government hasn’t clarified what will be the status of women’s reservation when the delimitation exercise is on-going.

The issue of women’s reservation had come up in Constituent Assembly debates as well. But it was rejected as being unnecessary. For instance, in 1947, noted freedom fighter Renuka Ray said, “We always held that when the men who have fought and struggled for their country’s freedom came to power, the rights and liberties of women too would be guaranteed.” However, in the following decades, it became clear that this was not to be the case.

As a consequence, women’s reservation became a recurrent theme in policy debates. For instance, the Committee of the Status of Women in India, set up in 1971, commented on the declining political representation of women in India.

A country that gave equal rights and opportunities for representation to all its citizens when the Constitution came into effect, unlike the women of the West who had to fight for their voting rights, is now having to constantly push the idea of women’s representation to a later date. This is a blot on the ideas of our visionary founders.

Source: The Indian Express