The Constitution (128th Amendment) Bill – better known as the women’s reservation bill – is a step away from becoming law after Rajya Sabha on Thursday cleared its long-pending passage in a rare sight of total majority with 171 votes in favour and none against it. The Bill passed in the Lok Sabha with bipartisan support as well with 454 members voting in its favour and only two against it. It will now be sent to President Droupadi Murmu for assent.
The historic bill, which has formally been given the name ‘Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, 2023’ was tabled by Union Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal on Tuesday. It is the first bill tabled in the new parliament building. The bill seeks to reserve one-third of the seats in the Lok Sabha, the state legislative assemblies and the legislative assembly of Delhi.
The debate in Rajya Sabha went on for 11 hours with several Opposition members reiterating the need to accelerate the process of implementation instead of waiting for a fresh census and delimitation exercise. They also demanded the inclusion of OBC and minority quota within the women’s reservation.
Rajya Sabha Chairman Jagdeep Dhankhar also reconstituted the panel of Vice-Chairpersons comprising 13 women Rajya Sabha Members for the day.
However, the bill requires a delimitation exercise to be undertaken based on census data to come into effect.
A similar women’s reservation bill was passed in Rajya Sabha 13 years ago in 2010. However, the legislation had then stalled in Lok Sabha due to strong opposition from SP and RJD over the lack of a sub-quota for OBC women. The Rajya Sabha had witnessed chaotic scenes with SP MPs Nandkishore Yadav and Kamal Akhtar climbing atop the table of Chairman Hamid Ansari, and Yadav uprooting a microphone.
This was the first time that the women's quota bill had been put to vote in Lok Sabha and it cleared past the required two-thirds majority, with only two leaders of the AIMIM including Asaduddin Owaisi opposing it. They contended that the proposed law would provide reservation only to "savarna women" and exclude OBC and Muslim women who have little representation in Parliament.
The Road Ahead
The women's reservation bill has been in the works for the past 27 years. While it received a broad consensus from across political lines, with even Congress lending support to it, apprehensions about the bill included the exclusion of other backward classes (OBCs) and minorities and the requirement of delimitation and census for the implementation of the reservation.
The bill includes a provision that the law, once enacted, will come into force only after a fresh census and delimitation. This means that women are unlikely to get their reservation in the 2024 Lok Sabha election or for several years after that.
According to Article 82 of the Constitution, which was amended in 2002, the delimitation process can be carried out based on the first Census taken after 2026. The reservation for women is nowhere in sight till at least after the 2029 Lok Sabha polls, as confirmed by Home Minister Amit Shah in Lok Sabha.
The decadal census after the last one in 2011 was to be conducted in 2021 but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the timeline of the exercise. It has been pushed eight times with the official rationale of the pandemic.
Another point of contention is the misplaced quota for SC/ST women as well as the absence of quota for OBC and minorities, which can make it difficult for marginalised women to become a part of the administrative voices. Samajwadi Party (SP), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) – parties that had strongly opposed the passage of the bill since its inception for the same reason – have now joined the chorus for its passage as proposed.
Only time will tell if the women’s reservation bill can make a difference and increase representation of women from all walks of life in decision-making or if it favours only a section of the society.