The story so far: In a historic move, Parliament passed the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty Eighth Amendment) Bill, commonly referred to as the women’s reservation Bill, which provides 33% reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies. On September 21, the Bill secured all the votes in the Rajya Sabha, a day after securing near-unanimous support in the Lok Sabha. It will now require the President’s assent to become law.
What does the Bill say?
The Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, as the Bill is called, seeks to reserve one-third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha, the State Legislative Assemblies, and the National Capital Territory of Delhi. This will also apply to seats reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in the Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assemblies. The seats reserved for women will be rotated after each delimitation exercise.
What are the main issues regarding the Bill?
The Opposition has questioned the linking of the implementation of women’s reservation with the periodical delimitation exercise as this would mean a prolonged delay in the quota coming into force. Delimitation, or the readjustment of territorial limits of the Lok Sabha and Assembly constituencies, as well as the number of seats in the Assembly and the Lok Sabha in each State, is a periodical exercise done based on the figures available in the latest Census.
The last delimitation order of the Delimitation Commission was issued in 2008, fixing the boundaries of all constituencies. However, there is currently a freeze on the readjustment of the number of seats in the State Assemblies and the Lok Sabha. In 2002, Article 82 was amended to the effect that it shall not be necessary to readjust the allocation of Lok Sabha constituencies State-wise and the division of each State into constituencies until the figures of the first Census held after 2026 were available.
The main issue raised was whether this would mean that the women’s quota would not be implemented until the 2031 Census figures are available and delimitation is subsequently done. The decadal Census due in 2021, but delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is yet to be conducted. However, Home Minister Amit Shah informed Parliament that the Census and delimitation exercise would be done immediately after the general election (due in 2024). This means that women’s reservation will not be possible for a few years at least.
Another issue raised by the Opposition concerns the question of having a sub-quota for women from Other Backward Classes (OBCs). While there is reservation for SCs and STs in the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies, there is no separate reservation for OBCs, who constitute more than 40% of the population. Two members in the Lok Sabha — Asaduddin Owaisi and Syed Imtiyaz Jaleel of the AIMIM — opposed the Bill on the ground that it should have separate quotas for OBC and Muslim women as both communities are under-represented in Parliament and Legislative Assemblies. The demand for a separate OBC quota was supported by the Congress, the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Nationalist Congress Party, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), among others.
What laid the ground for the Bill?
It was the enactment of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution in 1993 which laid the ground for the women’s reservation Bill. The two amendments, which introduced panchayats and urban local bodies in the Constitution, mandate one-third reservation for women in these bodies. In 2006, Bihar became the first State to provide 50% reservation for women in panchayat bodies. At present, more than 20 States have 50% reservation for women at the panchayat level.
There have been several studies on how reservation has led to greater representation of women in political bodies and also influenced policymaking. In a 2001 paper, Raghabendra Chattopadhyay and Esther Duflo studied the impact of women’s leadership on policy decisions in West Bengal and found that “women invest more in infrastructure that is directly relevant to the needs of rural women (water, fuel, and roads)...” and that “women are more likely to participate in the policy-making process if the leader of their village council is a woman.” In the book And Who Will Make Chapatis?, Bisakha Datta, Meenakshi Shedde, Sonali Sathaye and Sharmila Joshi published their findings on all-women panchayats in Maharashtra, where they too found that women leaders gave priority to women’s problems. In the qualitative study, they also found other benefits of representation — for instance, some women had learned to speak independently of caste and domestic interests and some had even ventured into public spaces more daringly.
Was this the first attempt to pass the Bill?
There were several attempts made to bring about reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies. The 81st Constitution Amendment Bill was first introduced in the Lok Sabha in 1996 by the Deve Gowda-led United Front government. It was referred to a Joint Committee which gave certain recommendations. The Bill failed to get the approval of the House in 1997 and lapsed later with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha. In 1998, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government introduced the Bill, but it lapsed after the government fell in 1999. The Bill was reintroduced in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003, but failed to get passed. In 2010, the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government tabled the Bill in the Rajya Sabha. However, the Bill was never taken up for consideration in the Lok Sabha and lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha.
At present, there are 82 women in the Lok Sabha; after implementation, there should be at least 181 women. The share of women will also increase significantly in Legislative Assemblies, where women now comprise less than 10% in 20 States and Union Territories.