The Narendra Modi government has linked the implementation of the Bill seeking 33% reservation for women, tabled in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday, with the delimitation of constituencies based on the next census. Since the census due in 2021 has not been conducted yet, it is expected to be conducted only after the Lok Sabha elections.
No such provision existed in the Women's Reservation Bill passed by Rajya Sabha in 2010 that, rather unfortunately, lapsed before it could be passed by the Lok Sabha and could not become an Act.
The linking of its implementation with delimitation, the exercise of redrawing of constituency boundaries, has prompted opposition parties to suspect the government is aiming to kill two birds with one stone – 1) try to divide the opposition INDIA camp on both women’s reservation and population-based delimitation, and 2) lift the Constitutional embargo on population-based delimitation riding sympathy over women’s reservation Bill, should they return to power in 2024.
“The aim for linking the implementation with delimitation is to give women a greater number of seats,” says a BJP Lok Sabha MP, unwilling to be named, as he is not authorised by the party to speak on the subject.
If his argument reflects the party’s, either the pending Census will have to wait till 2027 for the benefits to come in 2029, or the benefits will have to come on the basis of the 2031 census.
Congress and other opposition parties, however, argued that the implementation would not be possible even in the 2029 election because the whole delimitation exercise takes a few years from the publication of the census data.
The bill says that the provision “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.”
However, there is an embargo on redistributing Lok Sabha, state assembly seats based on the latest population census.
According to Article 170 (3) of the Indian Constitution, the allotment of Lok Sabha seats to each state and the total strength of their legislative assemblies can not be changed until the results of the first census conducted after 2026. This was done to ensure the states that fared better in population management were not ‘punished’ with a lower share of representation in the Parliament.
Therefore, if the pending census happens before 2026, it should not be able to serve as the basis for the reallocation of parliamentary seat share and state assembly strength.
Such population-based delimitation itself is a contentious issue, which is why there exists an embargo in the first place. The embargo on redrawing Lok Sabha boundaries, first imposed during Indira Gandhi’s rule in 1976, was reimposed in 2001 during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government.
According to economist and political activist Prasenjit Bose, the delimitation exercise across India, following the census, would take quite a few more years after the census.
“It is also bound to be controversial, because of the apprehension among several states that they would lose in the proportional share of total parliamentary seats due to their comparative success in controlling population growth. The national debate on delimitation therefore is expected to be lengthy and time-consuming,” says Bose.
The Congress dubbed the Bill a “colossal betrayal” that “shatters the hopes of millions of Indian women and girls.”
“The Women's Reservation Bill is in limbo, tied to the next Census, and the critical delimitation process hinges on the next Census. The Modi government has not yet conducted the 2021 Decadal Census. When will this vital Census finally happen?” the party asked in a tweet.
Population trends of the past four decades indicate northern and central Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar will make massive gains in terms of share of seats in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, while southern and eastern states, especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala, will see their share of seats coming down.
This is why southern states are opposed to such population-based delimitation. Leaders of Tamil Nadu’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the CPI(M) in Kerala have both made their objections clear.
However, as a senior leader of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) pointed out, while speaking on the condition of anonymity, it might be difficult for Uttar Pradesh’s Samajwadi Party (SP), a component of the INDIA alliance, to oppose population-based delimitation.
If the Modi government thought the Bill would be able to create division among the opposition camp, no such indication was seen till Tuesday night.
Delhi and Punjab’s ruling party, the Aam Aadmi Party’s veteran leader, Atishi Marlena, rubbished the Bill for its delayed implementation, without getting into the debates around population-linked delimitation.
Senior TMC leader and West Bengal women and child development minister Shashi Panja says the Bill it is “a huge disappointment”, as it turned out to be “just another election gimmick.” The party was ready to wholeheartedly support the Bill, as party chief Mamata Banerjee herself has been a flagbearer of this demand since the 1990s, Panja says, adding that the complexities regarding implementation, which would result in years of delay, have left them disheartened.
“While delimitation in Lok Sabha and the state assembly is not the state government’s domain, our party exhibited its intent by ensuring 50% reservation for women in the three-tier panchayat system and fielding a higher number of women candidates than other parties in all elections. Currently, 35% of our Lok Sabha MPs are women. In 2019, 17 of our 42 Lok Sabha candidates (40%) were women. The state government has seven women ministers. What intent has the BJP shown?” Panja asks.
Party leaders said that Lok Sabha MPs Mahua Moitra and Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar were to elaborate on the party’s stand in the Parliament on Wednesday.
Whether parties making up the INDIA alliance can respond to the Bill in the same tone remains to be seen.