Women’s reservation bill tabled in Lok Sabha

By, New Delhi
Sep 20, 2023 12:05 AM IST

The Indian government has introduced a bill in the Lok Sabha to reserve a third of seats in the Lower House and state assemblies for women. The bill, which requires constitutional amendments, is expected to pass Parliament after receiving support from prominent parties. However, its implementation may take a few years, and quotas for women may not come into effect until after the 2026 delimitation exercise. The bill has sparked a battle for political credit, with the Congress and BJP both claiming credit for the move.

The government introduced in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday a bill to reserve a third of seats in the Lower House and state assemblies for women, making the landmark legislation the first piece of official business in the new Parliament and sparking a battle to take political credit.

Modi leads MPs to the new Parliament building on Tuesday. (ANI)
Modi leads MPs to the new Parliament building on Tuesday. (ANI)

The Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam — which came 13 years after a previous attempt to legislate on the fractious issue stumbled in Parliament — will require constitutional amendments but is expected to pass Parliament after a number of prominent parties backed the legislation, albeit with caveats.

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“I assure all mothers, sisters and daughters of the nation that we are committed to making this bill into a law,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the Lower House in his first speech in the new building.

“For that work of ensuring rights of women and putting their power to use, and for many such noble works, God has chosen me,” he added.

The long-awaited bill — which will apply to the Lok Sabha, the Delhi legislative assembly and state Houses — also inserted quotas for women within the existing quantum of seats set aside for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, but its implementation might take a few years. If passed into law, political reservation for women will only come into effect after delimitation — an exercise comprising revision of seat numbers and redrawing of constituency boundaries – that can only happen after 2026, and after the relevant census figures are published. The decennial census was scheduled to be conducted in 2021 but was delayed by the government due to the pandemic. There is no clarity on when the exercise is likely to be held. In effect, the 2024 general elections are likely to take place without quotas for women.

“In order to enable greater participation of women as public representative in policy making at the state and national level, it is decided to introduce a fresh legislation for constitutional amendment to provide for, as nearly as may be, one third of total seats… to be reserved for women,” said the statement of objects and reasons to the 128th constitutional amendment bill, signed by Union law minister Arjun Ram Meghwal.

The bill stated that the quota will be in place for 15 years and that the rotation of seats that will be reserved shall be rotated after each subsequent exercise of delimitation. The 2023 bill also added that reservation shall continue till such date as Parliament may determine — a repository of residuary power with Parliament to continue such a move even after 15 years.

But the absence of a timeline for implementation irked the Opposition with the Congress dubbing the move as a huge betrayal and the Trinamool Congress calling it another jumla (empty promise). A political war also broke out over credit for the move, with the Congress pointing out that it passed the previous version of the bill in the Rajya Sabha in 2010 – it never came to the Lok Sabha under pressure from the erstwhile government’s allies – and the BJP calling it a historic day. Congress parliamentary party chief Sonia Gandhi called it “our bill” when asked about it outside Parliament. She will be the main speaker from the Congress during the debate on the bill on Wednesday.

“This is another classic Modi Jumla. Make the promise but forget about the implementation. The title of the bill should be 2034 as it won’t be implemented before that,” said Trinamool Congress’s Rajya Sabha leader Derek O’Brien.

Reserving seats for women in Parliament and state assemblies is a decades-long demand to bolster the number of female lawmakers, but previous attempts have stumbled in Parliament due to deep political divisions. The new bill is a significant political step but the modalities of implementing the quota will be important to gauge its efficacy.

Previous attempts to institute grassroots reservations in panchayati raj institutions yielded mixed results — while some women found themselves empowered, others found their power usurped by male relatives who installed their wives, sisters and mothers as political proxies. Hence, while quotas might be a welcome sign to signal political intent, women’s empowerment should encompass structural improvements in education, health and economic indices.

Since 1996, at least four attempts have been made to legalise reservation for women in legislatures but have failed in the face of staunch opposition by a section of heartland parties. This time, however, the bill is likely to succeed as a number of parties — including both the BJP and the Congress — are set to back it.Lok Sabha functionaries said that the bill is likely to be passed in the Lower House on Wednesday and the Upper House by Friday — the last day of the ongoing special session.

India trails a clutch of democratic countries when it comes to the share of women in politics, and while the number of female lawmakers in Parliament has risen significantly since the first elections in 1951-52 — at 78, the 2019 polls saw the highest number of women parliamentarians getting elected — a lot more needs to be done. Data shows that state assemblies are even farther behind.

“Across the length and breadth of India, people are rejoicing the introduction of the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam in Parliament. It shows the unwavering commitment of the Modi government to empower women,” Union home minister Amit Shah said on X.

Minutes after Parliament shifted to the new building at 1.15pm, Meghwal introduced the Constitution (128th Amendment) Bill in the House, which will need the assent of two-thirds of Parliament, and the approval of at least 50% of the states.

Modi appealed to all members to support the bill. “For years, there have been several debates and controversies around women’s reservation. Earlier too, there have been many efforts to bring the bill in Parliament. But it was in 1996, when the first women reservation bill was introduced during the tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee,” he said.

In the Rajya Sabha, Modi called it a historic day and underlined his government’s focus on women-led development, ease of living and quality of life for women. “It is the end of ifs and buts...,” he said referring to the need to ensure no impediments for women.

But the Congress alleged that the move was aimed at publicity and garnering eyeballs. “They don’t give us credit but I want to bring to their notice that the Women Reservation Bill was already passed in 2010,” Rajya Sabha leader of Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge said.

Jairam Ramesh, chief whip of the Congress in the Rajya Sabha, highlighted the delay in the 2021 census. “Now it says that the reservation for women will come into effect only following the first decadal Census conducted after the women’s reservation bill has become an act. When will this census take place?” he asked.

Union minister Smriti Irani hit back. “Gandhi family is only interested in empowering the women in their family. They are not interested in empowering the women in poor or Adivasi or Dalit families,” she said.

Heartland parties such as the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal (United) — which had staunchly opposed any previous attempts to implement women’s quota — appeared to be caught in a bind, with some announcing their support for the bill, but with caveats.

SP chief Akhilesh Yadav said gender justice must be balanced social justice. “Reservation for backward, Dalit, minority, tribal women should be clear in definite percentage form,” he posted on X.

The Aam Aadmi Party too, remained unimpressed even as it offered to support the bill. AAP leader Atishi alleged that it was a bill to “befool women ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls”.

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