India okays women’s reservation bill

The Indian parliament has passed a bill that guarantees a third of seats for women in the lower house of parliament and state assemblies.

But the country is a long way away from seeing more women elected to its legislatures soon since it will be implemented only after India completes the next census and an exercise to redraw the boundaries of constituencies – the complicated processes are expected to take several years.

On Wednesday, the Lok Sabha, or the lower house of parliament, approved the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam (which loosely translates from Hindi to Saluting Women Power Act) almost unanimously – with 454 of the 456 MPs present voting in favour.

On Thursday, the upper house, or the Rajya Sabha, debated the bill and passed it unanimously.

It now requires the president’s signature, but analysts say that is a mere formality and the bill is “tantalisingly close” to becoming law.

The passage of the bill, which has been in the works for over a quarter of a century now, has been described as “historic” by the government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said it will “boost women empowerment and enable greater participation of women in our political process”.

But opposition politicians have accused the government of “betraying the hopes of millions of Indian women and girls” by keeping the timeline “vague”.

Demanding its immediate implementation, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi asked: “How many years will they have to wait – two, four, eight?”

What does the bill say?

The bill reserves one-third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha, state assemblies and also in the capital, Delhi, which is a federally-administered territory but has an elected assembly.

The law will also apply to the seats that are already reserved for some of India’s most disadvantaged communities known as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In the 545-member Lok Sabha, 131 seats are reserved for these two groups and add up to thousands in state assemblies.

BJP activists celebrate the introduction of Women's reservation bill in Parliament at the party office in Patna on September 19, 2023
Image caption,Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called it a “historic legislation” and his party members have celebrated its tabling

The reservation, once implemented, will be for a period of 15 years, but it could be extended by parliament.

A law made by parliament will decide which seats will be reserved for women – and they will be rotated after every few years.

India’s ‘dismal’ record

India boasts a history of powerful women in politics, both in the past and the present. The country had a female prime minister as early as in 1966 and some of the biggest political parties are headed by women.

Female chief ministers have run some of India’s largest states and several women helm powerful ministries at federal and state levels. The country has also had two female heads of states, including current President Droupadi Murmu.

A Pew Research Center survey last year saw most Indians saying that “women and men make equally good political leaders“. And data shows that as many women voted in the last general election as men.

But the representation of women in Indian parliament and its state legislatures has often been described as “dismal” and data shows it remains poor.

Tushar Chakrabarty, senior analyst at non-profit PRS Legislative Research, says the first Lok Sabha in 1952 had 5% female MPs and though it’s risen to 15% after the 2019 elections, it continues to be quite low. In legislative assemblies, the PRS data shows it’s even poorer at about 9%.

“We have seen that their numbers have not increased organically. And if a group is not adequately represented in legislatures, experts note their ability to influence policy-making is limited,” he says.

India also needs to address this gender disparity since it is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women which includes equal political rights for them.

27 years in the making

The need to have more women in position of political power in India has been keenly debated for decades.

Exactly 30 years back, the parliament amended the constitution to reserve 33% seats for women in village councils and municipal corporations in urban areas.

A similar bill to reserve seats in the parliament and state assemblies was first proposed in 1996 by the then federal government, led by Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda. It was reintroduced in parliament in 1998, 1999 and again in 2008.

Each time, it fell through because of opposition from many political parties, including from BJP MPs.

As the latest bill, tabled in parliament by Mr Modi’s government, borrows heavily from its predecessor, his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress have been claiming credit for it.

The debate in parliament

Speakers from the treasury benches in both houses applauded the prime minister for seeing the bill through in the parliament.

“Women’s security, respect, equal participation have been the life force of PM Modi’s government,” Home Minister Amit Shah said.

Appealing to all parties to support it, he said the bill was a “good start” and added that if needed, it could be improved later.

Congress leaders and supporters celebrates thanking Sonia Gandhi for constantly pursuing the Women's Reservation Bill in Delhi on September 19, 2023
Image caption,Congress supporters have thanked former party president Sonia Gandhi “for constantly pursuing” the bill

The opposition parties demanded that some of the seats be reserved for women from Other Backward Classes (OBCs) – a grouping that involves disadvantaged castes not covered in Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes – and Muslims and called on the government to carry out a caste survey in the next census. But their demands were rejected.

MP Asaduddin Owaisi, one of the two MPs who voted against the bill in the Lok Sabha, said in its current form, it would only benefit upper caste women.

So when will we see lots of women politicians?

The gender composition of India’s parliament and state assemblies is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Mr Shah has promised that the census – which was due in 2021 but got delayed because of the pandemic – would be done “soon” after next year’s general elections. Experts say the mammoth task of counting 1.4 billion people could easily take a couple of years.

Then, the government would start “delimitation” – simply put, the exercise to redraw boundaries of constituencies is to ensure that each represents similar numbers of voters. Due to uneven population growth in different parts of the country, some seats have many more voters than others and the delimitation exercise would fix that.

But it’s a long drawn out process and could take several years to complete – as one commentator pointed out, the last delimitation panel took five years to give its final report.

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