The Women’s reservation bill has for years languished in the halls of India’s Parliament. Now finally after it has been passed in 2023, there is a need to study what this bill entails and how effective will the bill actually be.
The special session of the Parliament in India’s new Sansad Bhavan has begun a new chapter in India’s democratic politics. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the, 19th of September, 2023 introduced ‘The Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam Bill’ or ‘The Women’s Reservation Bill.’ The bill is the One Hundred and Twenty Eighth Amendment bill, 2023 to the Indian Constitution. However, this is not the first time this bill has been tabled in the Indian Parliament. In this policy update article, we trace the history of the bill and then chart out what this bill entails.
History of Reservation
In 1957, the Government of India set up the Balwant Rai Mehta Committee. The committee recommended the setting up of a three-tiered system of governance which came to be known as the Panchayati Raj system. The committee also recommended reservation of seats for women in this tier of local governance.
In May 1989, the Rajiv Gandhi government introduced a Constitutional Amendment Bill based on the recommendations of the Balwant Rai Committee. This bill provided for one-third reservation of seats in the local bodies for women. Even though the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, it failed to get the numbers in Rajya Sabha by 7 votes. The bill was again tabled in the Parliament, this time by the Narasimha Rao government in the form of 72nd and 73rd Amendment in 1992-93. This time the bills were passed and became the law of the land.
The bills have the provision of 1/3rd reservation for women in all local bodies. And also chairperson posts for women in rural and urban local bodies. Now there are nearly 15 lakh elected women representatives in panchayats and nagarpalikas across the country. The Panchayati Raj system had laid the groundwork for the Women’s Reservation Bill in India. In September 1996, the United Front government led by Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda for the first time introduced the 81st Amendment to the Constitution for reservation of seats for women in the Lok Sabha.
This bill was then sent to a Joint Parliamentary Committee under the chairmanship of veteran Communist Party of India’s leader Geeta Mukherjee. She became a well-known advocate of the Women’s Reservation Bill and could be called as one of the pioneers of this bill.
The Mukherjee Committee presented its report in December 1996. However due to the dissolution of the Lok Sabha, the bill lapsed. In 1998, the Atal Behari Vajpayee government reintroduced the Women’s Reservation Bill in the 12th Lok Sabha, however due to lack of support, it never got passed. Similar attempts were made by the Vajpayee government in 1999, 2002 and 2003 but the bill never made it. In 2008, the bill was tabled again by the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government.
However, this time the bill was tabled in the Rajya Sabha. The legislation was then sent to a standing committee in May 2008, after which the committee report came out in December 2009. Finally the bill was passed in the Indian Parliament’s Upper House for the first time on March 9th, 2010.
But the Bill was never taken up for discussion in the Lok Sabha and eventually lapsed after the dissolution of the Lok Sabha in 2014. Finally in 2023, a new bill had been tabled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the form of ‘The Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam Bill’ and it was passed by both the houses of the Parliament. And ultimately the women’s reservation bill became a reality. What does the new bill say ? This single piece of legislation is perhaps one of the most important decisions of this Government and has the power to impact Indian polity for generations to come.
This bill seeks to reserve one-third of all the seats in the Lok Sabha for women, the state legislative assemblies and the legislative assembly of National Capital Territory of Delhi. The new bill will also apply to the seats that have been already reserved for the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. The reservation is to be provided for a 15 year period, however it will continue till such date as determined by law made by Parliament. The seats that will be reserved are also to be rotated after each delimitation exercise.
According to the Constitution – delimitation should be conducted after every Census, so the seat rotation thus will happen after every 10 years. The reservation will, however, be only applicable after the Census is conducted and also after the commencement of the Bill has been published. Based on this Census, delimitation will be undertaken to reserve seats for women.
It must be noted that Home Minister Amit Shah in his address to the Lok Sabha on the 20th of September said, that the Census and the delimitation process can only take place after the General Elections of 2024. Also according to the 84th Amendment to the Indian Constitution, the delimitation must be conducted after 2026, if not postponed.
Even though the bill has become an Act in 2023 after it cleared the Rajya Sabha hurdle, it is only after 2026 that the bill can actually be implemented. The Census that was to be conducted in 2021 has been delayed inadvertently, and no timeline has been given by the government about the next Census.
Hence, the implementation of the Bill after it has been passed in both the Houses of the Parliament, remains quite literally in the air. When a bill gets cleared in the Rajya Sabha, it does not lapse even if the Lok Sabha is dissolved. So it might be asked of the present dispensation, why was the bill that was already passed in the Rajya Sabha not taken up for consideration and passed as
‘The Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam Bill’? After all, the earlier bill had no clause of implementation after delimitation. Since the introduction of this bill this year, in all the debates of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, leader after leader from different political parties claimed their piece of pie and boasted how they have always stood for the Women’s Reservation Bill and played a major part in its adoption.
By far, it is only the All India Trinamool Congress Party which sends more than 33% women representatives to the Indian Parliament. The party has done so without any law, which other parties can easily emulate. And perhaps a more legitimate and magnanimous approach of the parties would be that, since the bill has already been passed in the Lok Sabha in a non-partisan way, all the parties must introduce an internal 33% reservation for women in the General election in 2024, to prove to the nation that they just do not want this bill to be a paper tiger.
One question that still remains unanswered is how effective this bill will actually be. Even at the Panchayati Raj level, the reservation has led to an informal position of ‘Pati Pradhan/Sarpanch Pati’ or literally ‘Sarpanch’s husband’, who makes the major decisions and in many cases is the de facto head. So it would not be surprising if the The Women’s Reservation Bill meets a similar fate after its implementation.
Political legacy problem
Another dangerous and worrying trend would be the dynastic progression that of MPs, MLAs, political families and leaders sending their wives, daughters or mothers as MPs/MLAs to carry on their so-called political legacy and political parties by giving them tickets. This needs to be arrested at any cost otherwise there would be no meaning for those common women who have it in them and want to pursue a political career.
Number of women representatives
The bare statistics say it all, laying threadbare the lip service of various political parties claiming to empower women through political representation. In 75 years the increase in women representation in Parliament is just 9%. In the first Lok Sabha formed in 1952, there were 24 women, the second (1957-1962) was not very different with exactly the same number of women MPs.
The number increased when the third Lok Sabha (1962-67) was formed with 37 women, according to data available on the Lok Sabha website. The number again increased to 32 women in the seventh Lok Sabha (1980-84) whereas in the eighth (1984-89) 45 women members were elected. Surprisingly when the ninth Lok Sabha was elected in 1989, the number of women MPs dropped to 28, the 10th Lok Sabha (1991-96) however had 42 female members and the 11th was one less. The 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14) saw a major increase: it touched 64 females — about 12 percent of the total House strength.
The 16th Lok Sabha had 66 female MPs, two more than the previous term. The 17th Lok Sabha has 78 MPs, which is nearly 14% of the House. In fact, founding members of our Constitution were not in favour of reservation for women, saying it would limit their chances in general categories and that women would get more chances in a free and fair India.
But ironically, after 75 years of freedom, Indian women still need reservation to stake their claim in the political arena. In an article by Angellica Abraham, founder, Femme First Foundation in the newspaper, The Indian Express, she has explained this paradox well. She has written that while framing the Constitution, the women members of the Constituent Assembly did not pursue reservation as a means of ensuring women’s political participation on the grounds that it would limit women’s representation.
In July 1947, Renuka Roy spoke in the Constituent Assembly, “When there is reservation of seats for women, the question of their consideration for general seats, however competent they may be, does not usually arise. We feel that women will get more chances in the future to come forward and work in free India, if the consideration is of ability alone.”
Secrecy around the Bill
Another question which is affecting the public discourse is why was the Bill shrouded in secrecy ? When the old Parliament was first used to draft the Indian Constitution, there was widespread debate and discussion within the larger public for each and every clause of the new Constitution, so one would have expected the same to have happened when the new Parliament building was being inaugurated right then.
But some critics say the Bill was introduced in complete silence and there was a veil of secrecy surrounding it.
Alternate method for increasing representation
A PRS Legislative study suggests an alternate method of representation where there are quotas implemented within the political parties. A study of several countries show that this system works better and even sends more percentage of women parliamentarians than in countries where there is constitutionally mandated reserved seats for women in the legislature. Even though the bill has been passed by the Lok Sabha, we hope the MPs in Rajya Sabha will examine all alternatives to this bill and take it up for discussion.
Therefore all in all, this Bill gives us a lot of hope about the future. While it is easy to get swayed by emotions, there should have been a much greater debate around this bill. Both the Houses discussed the bill for a single day and this was not even referred to a joint parliamentary committee. While all speakers in the Parliament were all praises about this bill and enlisted how they had helped in reaching this milestone, important drawbacks were virtually not discussed. There are still many important questions to be answered about this bill, and one can only hope that even if the bill has been passed, we can look forward to having a greater debate around it.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.
Acknowledgment: The author would like to thankSamprikta Banerjee and Aishwarya Dutta for their kind comments and suggestions to improve the article.
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