Commitment to women’s empowerment will become apparent at the time of ticket allocation by parties

The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2023 or the women’s reservation Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha on September 19 during the special session of Parliament, under a new name, Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, and was passed by an overwhelming majority of 454 votes in favour and only two against, on the very next day.

The Bill is the culmination of a legislative debate that has spanned over 27 years since 1996, including the lapsed Women’s Reservation Bill (2010), due to lack of consensus among political parties. At this point, I salute Pramila Dandavate, an MP (Janata Dal) from Mumbai who, in the 7th Lok Sabha (1980-84) introduced a Private Member’s Bill and first floated the idea of reservation for women.

The women’s reservation Bill was the first that was considered in the new Parliament building, Sansad Bhavan, and was passed in the Rajya Sabha on September 21.

The legislation seeks to allocate 33 per cent seats in the state and central legislative bodies for women which, at present, is abysmally low — around 15 per cent in the Lok Sabha and 12 per cent in the Rajya Sabha. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, India ranks 148th out of 193 countries in terms of women’s representation while the global average is 26.5 per cent. Similarly, women’s representation in state assemblies is also dismal, ranging from 3.1 per cent in Nagaland to 23.1 per cent in Bihar. The Bill aims to increase the number of women MPs to 181 from the current 82 and women MLAs to more than 2,000 from the current 740.

However, there has been a gradual increase in the number of female MPs in the Lok Sabha from a mere 5 per cent in the first Lok Sabha to 15 per cent in the current 17th Lok Sabha. A total of 716 female candidates participated in the 2019 general elections, out of which 78 were successfully elected. This is about a third higher than the previous election in 2014, where 62 women MPs were elected. Similarly, the present Rajya Sabha consists of 224 members, out of which 24 are women. At present, there are a total of 102 women parliamentarians.

The proposed legislation mandates that the 33 per cent reservation for women continue for 15 years. The Bill needs ratification from a minimum of 50 per cent of the states. The constitutional reasoning for requiring ratification by states is the potential impact of the Bill on the rights of states. Seats reserved for women will be rotated after each delimitation exercise.

The reservation is proposed to be implemented after a new Census is published and the delimitation exercise is completed. The process of delimitation entails the revision of constituency boundaries pertaining to Lok Sabha and state Assemblies, with the aim of accurately reflecting the increase in population distribution. By conservative estimates, it will not be implemented until the 2029 general elections. Many Opposition parties feel this amounts to a fraud on women and have demanded its immediate implementation. The demand is that the provisions of delimitation and Census be done away with.

The Bill, when enacted, will empower women and promote gender equality in society. Women face various forms of discrimination, violence, and oppression in India, such as female foeticide, child marriage, dowry, domestic abuse, rape, sexual harassment, honour killing, trafficking, and the wage gap. The Bill hopes to create a conducive environment for women to voice their concerns and demand their rights. It also hopes to inspire more women to enter public life, take on leadership roles and challenge the patriarchal norms and stereotypes that limit their potential.

It is hoped that the Bill will improve the quality and effectiveness of governance and policymaking in India. Studies have shown that women legislators tend to be more responsive, accountable, honest, and collaborative than their male counterparts. They also tend to focus more on issues related to health, education, welfare, environment, and social justice, which are crucial for human development. By increasing the number of women in Parliament and assemblies, the Bill expects that the policies and laws will be more inclusive, progressive, and beneficial for all sections of society. However, the Bill has also faced some criticisms from various groups, who have raised concerns about its feasibility, desirability, and implications.

Foremost is the concern that the Bill will create divisions among women based on caste, religion, region, and class. Some parties have demanded that within the 33 per cent reservation for women, there should be a sub-quota for women from backward classes and minorities. Without such a provision, the Bill will benefit only upper-caste and urban women at the expense of lower-caste and rural women. However, some others have opposed this demand, on the ground that it will further fragment society along communal lines and undermine unity and solidarity among women.

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Another point of criticism is that it may reduce the merit and competence of legislators. By reserving seats for women based on gender alone, the Bill may compromise the quality and efficiency of governance. In some instances, women may be nominated by male relatives or patrons who will influence their decisions. Women candidates may lack the necessary experience, education, skills, and vision to perform their duties effectively. It may also lead to perpetual inequality as they would be perceived as not competing on merit.

There is also an apprehension that this new system may disrupt the existing electoral system and political dynamics. By reserving seats for women by rotation, the Bill may create instability and uncertainty in the electoral process. This may affect the continuity and accountability of legislators who will have to change their constituencies frequently. It may affect the loyalty and representation of voters who will have to choose from among different candidates every time.

Overall, while it is a step forward, we will understand the commitment of each political party towards empowerment of women within the political sphere, when they allocate tickets to women candidates in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

The writer is a women’s rights lawyer

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