Women’s Reservation Bill: A long, bumpy road ahead to implementation

Census 2021 and delimitation will begin only after the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, so the law is unlikely to be implemented any time soon.

Ever since the recent successful landing of the Vikram rover on the moon, made possible by a substantial number of women scientists in the ISRO team that did it, the mention of “women-led development” has gained currency in public discourse. The recent piece of legislation providing for women’s reservation in the Lok Sabha and all state assemblies will no doubt raise the decibels of this discourse.

Even as India celebrated its G20 moment, the government had emphasised its belief in women-led development.

The thought finally found takers in Parliament where The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth Amendment) Bill 2023 was introduced on September 19, and passed with the needed two thirds vote, with consensus from all parties, on September 21. With this, the idea of reserving seats for women in centre and state legislatures got closer to becoming a law since it was first introduced in Parliament in 1996.

Generally known as the Women’s Reservation Bill 2023, this Constitutional amendment intends reserving “as nearly as may be, one third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha, state legislative assemblies and the Legislative Assembly of the National Capital Territory of Delhi”.

Normally, the first day of every newly constituted Lok Sabha is a colourful affair filled with bonhomie and members dressed in their state attire, reflecting India’s cultural diversity. So, will Lok Sabha 2024 see a large number of women reflecting their state’s sartorial sensibilities?

Seems unlikely.

Implementation pathway

Even if it gets the Presidential stamp and becomes law soon after half the states have ratified it, it is not as if the Lok Sabha and state legislatures are going to see women in the very near future, say when the next Lok Sabha is constituted in the summer of 2024.

For the women’s reservation to be implemented on the ground some major and possibly time-consuming steps have to be completed. For one, the census has to be conducted. And then, the delimitation of constituencies.

Read more: As we celebrate Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, freedom remains a privilege for women 

The Census should have been held by 2021, but was deferred on account of COVID among other reasons. The enumeration exercise has now been pushed to 2024-25. Based on the new census report, which usually takes time, a new delimitation commission will be set up. Only after the delimitation process is over can they begin the process of identifying the seats to be reserved for women.

Delimitation, the process that determines the number of seats and boundaries of constituencies in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, is based on population distribution. To ensure that the entire country gets the benefit of women MPs, seats reserved for women will be rotated after each subsequent delimitation. And reservation will end after 15 years from the date of implementation.      

“As of now, it appears that over three delimitation exercises, women may be able to cover the entire country” said a former intern at NITI Aayog, not wanting to be identified.

A glimpse of the new Parliament Building in New Delhi
Initial glimpse of the new Parliament Building. One third of these seats will be taken by women once the new law has taken effect. Pic courtesy: Press Information Bureau

Union Home Minister Amit Shah told the Lok Sabha that Census 2021 and the delimitation process will begin after the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, confirming that reservation for women will not be implemented in the forthcoming Parliamentary elections.

Read more: How our city systems made women and girls lonelier during COVID 

Delimitation and uncertainties

And how quick are these processes? Consider this: Delimitation Commissions have been constituted just four times since Independence.

The most recent delimitation commission was set up on July 12 2002 after the 2001 census with Justice Kuldip Singh, a retired Judge of the Supreme Court as its Chairperson. The Commission had submitted its recommendations in January 2008.

In December 2007, the Supreme Court, on a petition, issued notice to the central government asking reasons for non-implementation. On January 4 2008, the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA) decided to implement the Delimitation Commission order. The commission’s recommendations was approved by President Pratibha Patil on February 19th.The commission’s term was till May 31, 2008.

There is also the distinct possibility of political protests against the delimitation outcome. It could change the dynamics of how the states are represented in Parliament.

According to a Carnegie Endowment estimate, the southern states will have fewer seats in the Lok Sabha as their population levels have remained the same or decreased while those in the north, where population levels have increased, will have more seats. This will result in more women from the north, and fewer from the south. The potential loss of seats to the southern states has already been highlighted by Tamil Nadu CM M K Stalin.

All these suggest the reservation may not happen at the speed with which the Constitutional Amendment was passed in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.

While there is joy among women that the reservation, for which a bill first tabled 27 years ago, has finally been passed in both houses, there is also growing impatience over the inordinate delay in its implementation.

One of the most vociferous voices of women in Parliament, Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra, lamented that the presence of a third of women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies is dependent on “totally indeterminate” dates: there is no clarity on when the Census will be completed and when the delimitation exercise will begin, and the rotation of seats for women will happen only with the implementation of subsequent delimitations.

“It is a women’s reservation rescheduling bill,” said Moitra. Like many others, she fears that even the Lok Sabha of 2029 may not see women elected from seats reserved for them.

What could women’s reservation bring?

As of now, it is not a reservation for ever, but for 15 years. According to the amendment, “the reservation shall come into effect after an exercise of delimitation is undertaken for this purpose after the relevant figures for the first census taken after the commencement of the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-eighth Amendment) Act 2023 have been published, and shall cease to have effect on the expiration of a period of fifteen years from such commencement”. However, it shall continue till such date as determined by a law made by Parliament.

But whatever the delay, there is no doubt that women MPs and women MLAs in large numbers will leave their mark in legislative chambers. 

“I feel women leaders will be more accessible, and more approachable,” says Kavita Prakash, a primary school teacher in Haryana’s Karnal district. “And I feel they will be more understanding, sensitive to our problems”.

That may be one benefit of having a woman MP, but a look at the diverse qualifications and skills of women who have made it to Parliament over the years indicates there is more to them than just a large heart. Women’s presence in Parliament has increased naturally from 4.5% in the first Lok Sabha to 14.6 % in the 17th Lok Sabha. 

Union Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal concedes in the statement of objects and reasons of this historic and much dragged and delayed issue, that “the role of women, constituting a half of the population, is extremely important in the realisation of the goal of India becoming “Vikasit Bharat “ by 2047, as public representatives in policy making.” 

Clearly, a large number of women in Parliament and legislatures, will embolden half the country’s population, to seek their rights.

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