In a momentous turn of events, the Women's Reservation Bill, aptly named the 'Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam,' found its way through the corridors of the Indian Parliament on the last day of a special session.
As we applaud this historic legislation, we embark on an exploration of the Bill's intricacies, delving into the controversies surrounding women's reservations and their potential ramifications.
Unveiling the Key Features
Reserving a Seat at the Table
The cornerstone of this groundbreaking Bill is the provision reserving "as nearly as may be," one-third of all seats in the Lok Sabha, state legislative assemblies, and the Legislative Assembly of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, exclusively for women. This resolute step towards gender parity extends to the seats already earmarked for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in both Lok Sabha and state legislatures.
Timing Is Everything
The reservation's implementation hinges on the census conducted after the Bill's commencement. Only after the census data has been published will the delicate task of delimitation begin, carving out spaces for women in the political arena. Notably, this reservation is set to persist for a duration of 15 years, unless altered by a subsequent law enacted by Parliament.
The Dance of Seats
In a bid to ensure equitable representation, seats allocated for women will undergo rotation after each delimitation exercise, guided by legislation passed by Parliament. This rotation aims to prevent stagnation and to foster an evolving political landscape.
What are the challenges?
Purpose of Reservation
One central question revolves around whether reserving seats for women can genuinely empower them. This reservation policy aligns with international commitments to eradicate discrimination against women in politics and public life. While there has been some progress, the representation of women in Indian legislatures remains limited. Studies have shown that women elected under reservation policies tend to prioritize public goods related to women's concerns.
Legislated quotas have also played a significant role in improving women's representation, as noted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Nevertheless, opponents argue that such segregated constituencies for women may not be the most judicious approach, as it may perpetuate the perception that women do not compete on the basis of merit. They also contend that addressing broader issues in electoral reforms, such as the criminalisation of politics and internal democracy within political parties, is equally vital.
Alternate Methods of Representation
The reservation of one-third of seats in Parliament for women does raise concerns about voter choice in the reserved constituencies. Some experts suggest alternative methods, including reservation for women candidates within political parties or introducing dual member constituencies, where one candidate must be a woman. India previously had multi-member constituencies with an SC/ST member, but these were converted into single-member constituencies in 1961. The rationale behind this change was to give more significance to SC/ST members in single-member reserved constituencies.
The bill introduces a rotation system for reserved seats after each delimitation exercise, which occurs approximately every ten years. This system could potentially reduce the incentive for MPs to work for their constituencies, as they might be ineligible for re-election from the same constituency. Research has shown that this rotation system can be problematic, particularly at the panchayat level, where a significant percentage of women elected are first-timers.
The Prequel: What Lies Ahead?
The Women's Reservation Bill itself outlines the requisite steps before its implementation can commence. Both the census and delimitation processes must precede the realisation of the reservation. Union Home Minister Amit Shah has clarified that the upcoming 2024 elections will not witness the immediate implementation of this reservation. Instead, the responsibility lies with the subsequent government to conduct the census and delimitation exercises after the Lok Sabha elections, thereby setting in motion the representation of women in politics.
Unpacking the Delimitation Exercise
But what precisely is the Delimitation Exercise? Under existing laws, the Delimitation Commission, led by a retired Supreme Court Judge, assumes the monumental task of analysing Census data. Their mandate includes the demarcation of fresh Lok Sabha constituencies, contingent on the Census figures. Once Parliament enacts a Delimitation Act, a high-powered Delimitation Commission is formed, its orders binding and beyond the purview of the courts. Notably, even Parliament lacks the authority to suggest modifications to these orders.
The Challenge and Controversy
The Women's Reservation Bill faces certain challenges and criticisms, particularly regarding the inclusion of the census and delimitation exercise as prerequisites for implementation. Critics argue that these preconditions contradict existing Constitutional provisions. While the bill suggests that reservations should be implemented after the first post-act census, existing Articles 82 and 170 (3) indicate that the next delimitation should occur only after the 2026 Census. This incongruity raises questions about the bill's timeline.
The Population Factor
An estimated 30% increase in the country's population since the 2011 census is expected to lead to an additional 210 seats in the Lok Sabha, bringing the total to around 753 seats. This expansion underscores the need for a 'triple test' as per a Supreme Court decision. This 'triple test' comprises a survey of the share of women in the population, an assessment of women's representation in Assemblies and Parliament, and the subsequent delimitation process. However, conducting the census, followed by delimitation, is a time-consuming endeavour.
Debate over Delimitation
Legal experts have questioned the necessity of the census and delimitation exercises as prerequisites for implementing women's reservations. They argue that constituencies are already demarcated and can proceed with elections, possibly using a lottery system to allocate seats. The 'triple test' and the involvement of the Delimitation Commission have been labelled by some as superfluous and a diversion from the core issue of women's representation.
The Ruling regime's Perspective
The current government contends that a delimitation exercise and census are necessary steps. They assert that the reservation issue is both horizontal (for women) and vertical (for SCs/STs). By conducting the delimitation first, potential overlaps can be addressed, ensuring that women have adequate representation in underserved constituencies.
Supreme Court's Stand
The Supreme Court's involvement in the validity of reservations and related issues is crucial. While Article 15 of the Constitution allows for "special provisions" for women, Article 16 emphasises "adequate representation" rather than "proportionate representation." Various petitions are pending before the Supreme Court concerning the validity of reservations, implementation methods, and the necessity of a caste census for assessing actual representation.
The Women's Reservation Bill, 2023, represents a crucial step towards achieving gender parity in Indian politics. While it addresses the urgent need for women's representation, it also sparks important debates about its effectiveness, alternative methods, and the implications of seat rotation. As India continues its journey toward gender parity, these debates will shape the course of women's political representation in the country.
Illustration from The Indian Express
Suggested reading: Will Women's Reservation Bill Raise Parliament Gender Balance? Experts Opine