The fanfare around the ongoing special session of Parliament includes a seminal legislation. The Constitution (128th Amendment) Bill, 2023, the ‘Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam’ or the Women’s Reservation Bill to provide 33 per cent quota for women in the House of the People and the State legislatures, became the first piece of legislation to be passed with an overwhelming majority in Parliament after shifting into the new building. This is a much-awaited and welcome law. The import of this law in ensuring gender parity and representation at the highest level of decision-making cannot be overstated. Although women were given one-third reservation in panchayats and urban local bodies in the early 1990s, their representation in Parliament and state legislatures is still exceptionally low.
The 17th Lok Sabha has 78 women MPs, or 14 per cent of the total strength of 543. The State legislatures score even more poorly with 19 Assemblies having less than 10 per cent women lawmakers. Despite bipartisan support, the Bill has been hanging fire since 1996 when the United Front Government first introduced it. It was passed by the Congress-led UPA in March 2010 in the Rajya Sabha but was again derailed in the Lok Sabha. The Bill seeks to ensure that the number of women in the Lok Sabha rises to 181. It also proposes to introduce sub-reservation for SC/ST women by inserting a clause in Article 330A that one-third of the seats reserved for SCs and STs in the Lok Sabha (which works out to 40) be reserved for women in these categories. The reservation comes with a sunset clause of 15 years, though Parliament can extend this deadline.
Regrettably, the government has tied the implementation of the Bill to delimitation and the Census exercise, although the number of voters is not strictly relevant or crucial here. The proportion of women in the population is a given. The decadal Census is unlikely to be undertaken until much after the next general elections. As regards the delimitation exercise, the 91st Amendment to the Constitution in 2001 has frozen the total number of seats in the Lok Sabha till 2026. Even after the 2026 freeze, the delimitation exercise is set to be a politically fraught exercise. Effectively, it postpones the rolling out of women’s reservation at least until the 2029 general elections. Although the Home Minister Amit Shah has sought to assure that delimitation will commence soon after the 2024 general elections, a historic process of women’s empowerment that would have spilled over from the legislatures to the boardrooms and the civil society, in effect stands postponed.
It could, in fact, have come into force even in the 18th Lok Sabha. Within a day of its introduction, it was passed in the Lok Sabha with a majority of 454 members against two and a similar passage is assured across State Assemblies. If the Bill had not been tied to the Census and delimitation, a process of empowerment would have taken firm root in the immediate years to come.