Kritika Joshi, student at Dr. BR Ambedkar National Law University, Sonepat, discusses India's recently passed Women Reservation Bill, which aims to reserve 33 percent of political seats for women...
The father of the Constitution of India, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, emphasised the centrality of equality as a measure of societal progress when he stated, “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.”
In a significant stride toward advancing gender equality, the president of India gave assent to the Women’s Reservation Bill. This landmark legislation, also recognized as the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, was passed as the Constitution (128th Amendment) Bill. Its primary objective is to provide women with a 33 percent reservation in the Lok Sabha, state assemblies, and National Capital Territory of Delhi. The Law Ministry formally promulgated this act through an official notification on September 29.
Both houses of Parliament passed the bill, and on September 21, it received unanimous support in the Rajya Sabha after it garnered nearly unanimous backing in the Lok Sabha.
Key Highlights of the Law
This act reserves for women “as nearly as possible” one-third of seats in the Lok Sabha, state legislative assemblies, and the Legislative Assembly of the National Capital Territory of Delhi. This allocation of reserved seats shall be determined by such authority as prescribed by Parliament. Within the 33 percent, there will be reservations for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Anglo-Indians.
The bill will take effect after the delayed 2021 census is conducted and subsequent delimitation exercise is complete. The reservation will then take effect for the 2029 general elections. Reserved seats for women will rotate after every delimitation exercise, approximately every 10 years. Subject to the provisions of Articles 239AA, 330A, and 332A, seats reserved for women in the House of the People, the Legislative Assembly of a State, and the Legislative Assembly of the National Capital Territory of Delhi shall continue until such date as the Parliament may determine. The reservation will initially last a period of 15 years, after which Parliament will review it.
Odyssey of Women Reservation in Indian Politics
The legislative history of the Women’s Reservation Bill in India spans several decades of political discussions and attempts at implementation. In 1987, during Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure, a 14-member committee, led by Union Minister Margaret Alva, was formed to recommend improvements in the status of women, including the reservation of seats in electoral bodies. This committee made various recommendations, one of which was related to the reservation of one-third of seats for women.
In 1992, Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s government passed the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts, which mandated 33.3 percent reservation for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions. In 1996, Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda’s government introduced the first Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament, aiming for one-third reservation for women in Parliament and state legislatures. However, it faced objections and lapses over the years due to concerns about the representation of Other Backward Category (OBC) women and political disagreements.
In 2008, the UPA government introduced the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill, aiming to reserve one-third of all seats for women in Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies, including seats reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). However, it lapsed again after the Lok Sabha did not pass it.
Since then, the Women’s Reservation Bill was mentioned in the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party’s (BJP) election manifestos in 2014 and 2019. The representation of women in politics in India has been dismally low, and this bill is a significant development in advocating gender-balanced political representation.
Gender Dynamics in South Asian and Indian Politics
In a data analysis, The Hindu, found that representation in Indian politics is characterized by significant gender disparity. Currently, women occupy only 15 percent of Lok Sabha seats. This disparity is even more pronounced when examining state legislative assemblies, where over 20 states and union territories have fewer than 10 percent female Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs).
Additionally, the study revealed variations in women’s representation among different political parties. The BJP has approximately 13.5 percent female members in the Lok Sabha, while the Trinamool Congress has a notably higher percentage of women MPs at 41.7 percent.
In an international context, India’s ranking among countries with the lowest female representation in Parliament, at 15 percent, underscores the necessity for comprehensive reforms and initiatives aimed at encouraging increased participation of women in the political sphere.
In 2023, India’s Gender Gap Index revealed a significant gender disparity in political empowerment, with a global closure rate of 22.1 percent, projecting a timeline of 162 years to attain gender equality in this sector.
Several Asian countries have seen success in implementing these types of reservations. The Philippines, which was among the earliest nations globally to introduce reservations for women, has exceeded the global average by reaching a representation of 28 percent. Furthermore, countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and South Korea have implemented policies for reserving seats for women. In the case of the latter two countries, as much as 50 percent of seats are reserved for women.
Challenges and Concerns
Reservation for women in Indian Panchayati raj institutions (PRIs), mandated by constitutional 73rd and 74th amendments, has empowered women in local governance. Elected women have enhanced their leadership skills and actively participated in poverty reduction programs, literacy drives, and healthcare initiatives. Poverty levels dropped by almost 51 percent, birth rates fell by 42.7 percent, and the infant mortality rate declined by 59.18 percent. The literacy rate among women surged from 30.25 percent to 60.22 percent. Self-help groups (SHGs) have further boosted women’s economic empowerment. Illiteracy remains a challenge, but reservation policies have made significant strides towards gender equality in local governance.
However, the present act faces opposition. The opposition is particularly regarding its link to the delimitation process. Critics argue that there is no valid reason to connect women’s reservation with delimitation, as this was not the case in previous parliamentary discussions of the bill. Some fear that this approach might lead to female candidates being nominated based on factors other than merit, potentially resulting in candidates with deficiencies in experience, education, abilities, and vision. These critics worry that such a practice could hinder effective governance and perpetuate disparities, raising questions about the quality of representation and its long-term impact on India’s political landscape.
As India attempts to stride for political equality for women, the words of a remarkable woman, spoken during the Constituent Assembly debates, resonate. As India embarked on its journey as a newly independent nation, women like her, representing countless others, stood unwaveringly for the principles of social justice, economic justice, and political justice. Their vision, encapsulated in the constitution, recognized that equal rights are not just a matter of policy but a cornerstone of a vibrant democracy. Hansa Mehta said in the Constitutional assembly debates:
We have never asked for privileges.…What we have asked for is social justice, economic justice, and political justice. We have asked for that equality which can alone be the basis of mutual respect and understanding and without which real co-operation is not possible between man and woman. Women form one half of the population of this country and, therefore, men cannot go very far without the co-operation of women. This ancient land cannot attain its rightful place, its honoured place in this world without the co-operation of women.
Kritika Joshi is a student at Dr. BR Ambedkar National Law University, Sonepat.
Suggested citation: Kritika Joshi, Charting the Path to Gender Equality in Indian Politics: The Women’s Reservation Bill and Beyond, JURIST – Student Commentary, October 11, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/10/kritika-joshi-womens-reservation-bill-india/.
This article was prepared for publication by Hayley Behal, JURIST Commentary Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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