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Editorial Articles


Issue no: 28, 07-13 October 2023

 

Empowering Democracy: India's Women's Reservation Bill

 

Jyoti Tiwari & Bhupendra Singh

In the annals of a nation's history, there come moments that stand as monumental milestones, etching their significance into the collective memory of its people. These moments become the linchpin of societal evolution, marking the transition from one era to another. Such a moment has dawned upon India, a nation deeply entrenched in its democratic roots, as it witnesses the culmination of a dream deferred for nearly three decades.

The passage of the "Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam" by both houses of Parliament has set the stage for a transformative journey, heralding a new era of representation and women-led develop-ment. It's a moment that resonates powerfully against the backdrop of the grandeur of the new parliament building, a symbol of boundless aspirations and untapped potentials. In one sweeping legislative motion, India has unfurled the banner of women's empowerment, embarking on a path to secure a long-awaited right for its women.

This historic bill, an embodiment of the collective will and aspiration of a nation, reflects India's commitment to nurturing and harnessing the strength of its women, symbolising the dawn of a new India- one where the mantra of "Nari Shakti" guides the ship of state towards a brighter horizon.

With unwavering resolve, the government led by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi presented 128th Constitu-tional Amendment bill that  seeks to reserve 33 percent of seats for women in the Lok Sabha, State Legislatures and National Capital Territory of Delhi. The "Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam" has not only flung open the doors of opportunity but has also paved the way for women of India to play a pivotal role in shaping the nation's destiny. Home Minister Shri Amit Shah, addressing the Parliament, declared, "After the forthcoming general elections, the census and delimitation exercise will take place, and soon, our mothers and sisters will occupy seats in Parliament, steering the course of our nation's future."

Furthermore, Finance Minister Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman articulated a vision of inclusivity by announcing reservations for women belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in seats allocated for these communities. This bill, a pivotal piece of legislation, represents not only a historic shift but also an embodiment of India's unwavering commitment to justice, equality, and representation for all, she remarked.

Debate and Voting: In the hallowed halls of the new Parliament, a robust discourse ensued, with 60 members participating in an eight-hour-long discussion in the Lok Sabha, and an impressive 27 of them being women parliamentarians. The resounding consensus in favour of the 128th Constitution Amendment Bill 2023 in the Lok Sabha, with 454 members extending their support, demonstrated the bill's undeniable mandate for change. A constitutional requirement demanding a two-thirds majority of members present and voting was comfortably met, with just two members opposing the bill- a testament to the widespread endorsement of this transformative legislation.

In the Rajya Sabha, the discussions were no less intense, with an impressive 72 members participating in the debate, which extended over 11 hours. The outcome was a resounding affirmation, with 215 MPs voting in favour of the bill and none against it.

Historical Context: To understand the significance of this new bill, it's essential to delve into the historical context. In 1993, India passed the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution, reserving one-third of seats for women in panchayats and municipalities. While this was a positive step towards gender inclusion in politics, the reservation did not extend to the higher legislative bodies, such as Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies. As a result, the representation of women in these critical decision-making bodies remained abysmally low.

Nevertheless, it was widely recognised that the necessity of reserving seats for women in legislative bodies within the context of a democracy as intricate as India's cannot be overstressed. Numerous compelling factors underscored this crucial imperative:

·         Under Representation- A Grave Imbalance: The current state of women's representation in India's highest legislative bodies is a matter of concern. In the 17th Lok Sabha, women constitute a mere 15% of the total members, while in State Legislative Assemblies, the average hovers at a dismal 9%. This glaring underrepresentation is not merely a statistical anomaly; it is a stark reflection of the systemic gender bias that persists within our political landscape. Such disparities stifle women's ability to effectively influence policy-making, essentially sidelining half of the nation's population.

·         Empowerment Through Inclusion: Empowerment through representation lies at the heart of the argument for reserving seats for women. It is widely acknowledged that when a specific group is underrepresented in the political system, their ability to influence policy decisions is severely constrained. This isn't merely a matter of political participation; it's a fundamental issue of human rights. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) underscores this, emphasising the imperative of eliminating discrimination against women in political and public life. CEDAW serves as a poignant reminder of the international commitment to upholding the equal rights of women and girls.

·         Lessons from Local Governance: Positive Outcomes: Experience at the grassroots level provides compelling evidence of the transformative impact of reservations for women. When women are elected under such policies, they exhibit a pronounced propensity to invest more in public goods that closely align with women's concerns. These elected representatives become agents of change within their communities, addressing issues such as healthcare, education, and sanitation that disproportionately affect women. These successes aren't merely anecdotal; they are quantifiable proof of the potential unleashed when women's voices are heard and heeded.

·         International Benchmarking: A Humbling Reality: India's representation of women in politics pales in comparison to many other nations. Countries like Sweden and Norway have achieved remarkable levels of female representation without the need for mandated quotas. These countries demonstrate that political empowerment and equal representation of women are not only attainable but also conducive to better governance and more comprehensive policy formulation. The glaring disparity between India's progress and these global benchmarks serves as a stark reminder that our democracy remains far from inclusive.

Country data on political representation of women (as of September 2023)

Country

% of Elected Women

Quota in Parliament

Quota in Political Parties

Sweden

46%

No

Yes

Norway

46%

No

Yes

Sweden

46%

No

Yes

South Africa

45%

No

Yes

Australia

38%

No

Yes

France

38%

No

Yes

Germany

35%

No

Yes

UK House of Commons

35%

No

Yes

Canada

31%

No

Yes

US House of Representatives

29%

No

No

US Senate

25%

No

No

Bangladesh

21%

Yes

No

Brazil

18%

No

Yes

Japan

10%

No

No

Note: In several countries, there is no law mandating quotas for women but some political parties reserve seats for women

 

Sources: Inter-Parliamentary Union: PRS

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In light of these compelling arguments, the reservation of seats for women in legislative bodies emerges as a paramount imperative. It is not a matter of favouring one gender over another but rather a recognition of the systemic imbalances that have perpetuated gender inequality in India's political landscape. Implementing such reservations is a strategic step toward fostering an environment where women's voices are no longer marginalised but central to the democratic discourse.

Moreover, it reaffirms India's commitment to international agreements like CEDAW, signaling to the world that gender equality is not merely a lofty ideal but a concrete and actionable commitment. By affording women the representation they deserve, India takes a bold step toward a more inclusive, equitable, and just democracy-one where women and men stand shoulder to shoulder in shaping the nation's destiny. It is not just about politics; it is about realising the full potential of a nation by harnessing the talents, perspectives, and aspirations of all its citizens, irrespective of gender.

Key Features of the Bill: The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2023, heralds a new era in Indian democracy with these essential features:

Reservation for Women: At the heart of the bill is the resolute commitment to ensuring women's active participation in legislative bodies. It mandates the reservation of one-third of all seats for women not only in the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies but also in the Legislative Assembly of the National Capital Territory of Delhi. This transformative step towards gender parity extends even to seats already reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in the Lok Sabha and State Legislatures.

Commencement of Reservation: The bill sets in motion this epochal change through a systematic process. It stipulates that the reservation for women will come into effect following the census conducted subsequent to the bill's enactment and publication. Following the census, the critical task of delimitation will be carried out, ensuring that seats are allocated to women in a fair and equitable manner. This reservation will initially be implemented for a span of 15 years, ensuring a substantial period for the empowerment of women in legislative bodies. Importantly, the bill empowers the legislature to extend this reservation further through subsequent legislation, ensuring the continuity of this progressive measure.

Rotation of Seats: An innovative feature of the bill is the provision for the rotation of seats reserved for women. After each delimitation exercise, a new set of constituencies will be reserved, ensuring that women from diverse backgrounds and regions have the opportunity to represent their constituencies in the legislature. This dynamic approach fosters inclusivity and prevents the entrenchment of a select few, ultimately strengthening the fabric of our democracy.

Key Changes in the 2023 Bill:  The table below captures certain key changes between the 2008 Bill as passed by Rajya Sabha and the Bill introduced in 2023.

Key changes between 2008 Bill and Bill introduced in 2023

 

Bill introduced in 2008 as passed by Rajya Sabha          

2023 Act

Reservation in One-third of Lok Sabha

One-third of Lok Sabha seats in each States/UT to be reserved for women

One-third seats to be reserved for women

Rotation of Seats

Reserved seats to be rotated after every general election to Parliament/Legislative Assembly

 Reserved seats to be rotated after every delimitation exercise

Sources: The Constitution (One Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2008; The Constitution

 (One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2023; PRS

 

Counterviews and Concerns

Critically evaluating the reservation of seats for women in legislatures unveils three vital perspectives:

        i.            The first dimension revolves around whether this policy can effectively empower women. It is irrefutable that when any group is underrepresented in the political system, their capacity to shape policy and decision-making is constrained. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) unequivocally underscores the necessity of eliminating discrimination against women in politics and public life, a commitment India has ratified. The undeniable fact remains that despite some progress, the representation of women in legislative bodies remains inadequately low. Research demonstrates that when women are elected under reservation policies, they tend to invest more in public goods closely aligned with women's concerns, making a substantial difference in their communities.

      ii.            The second perspective probes whether there are viable alternatives to reservations for increasing women's representation in legislatures. It's an essential question that demands careful consideration. Alternative mechanisms like reservations within political parties or dual-member constituencies have been suggested, each carrying its set of advantages and disadvantages. However, the key lies in implementing a mechanism that effectively amplifies women's voices and addresses historical disparities.

    iii.            The third perspective pertains to the validity of the reservation policy itself. Opponents argue that creating separate constituencies for women may inadvertently pigeonhole them and impede their ability to compete on merit. This viewpoint asserts that the focus should solely be on merit-based considerations rather than gender-based reservations. Additionally, critics suggest that reservations, while a significant step, might not singularly ensure the political empowerment of women. Broader electoral reforms, encompassing the reduction of criminalisation in politics, enhancing internal democracy in political parties, and curbing the influence of black money, are essential components that must be addressed for a holistic transformation of the political landscape.

    iv.            While alternatives like political party reservations and the implementation of dual-member constituencies have been considered in pursuit of gender equality and enhanced representation, they are not without significant drawbacks. Political party reservations, while widening the candidate pool, do not guarantee increased women's representation, potentially leading to the underutilisation of women candidates. Moreover, strategically placing women in constituencies perceived as weak may create internal strife and hinder party cohesion. On the other hand, the establishment of dual-member constituencies, though preserving voter choice, introduces the risk of diluting representatives' commitment to their constituents due to shared constituencies. Additionally, this model may inadvertently relegate women candidates to a secondary status within the dual-member framework, and the logistical challenges associated with implementing it on a large scale could complicate parliamentary deliberations. These cons highlight the complexities and potential pitfalls of these alternatives in achieving the goal of gender-balanced representation.

Conclusion

This historic legislation, the "Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam" is not just a legal text; it embodies a profound commitment and a promise delivered. It stands as a radiant beacon of hope, illuminating the path for countless women across the nation. This moment signifies the advent of an extraordinary era, where the voices of women cease to be mere whispers in the corridors of power but instead resound with undeniable authority throughout the hallowed halls of the Indian Parliament and State Legislatures. It heralds a transformation where women's agency and influence will fundamentally shape the destiny of the world's largest democracy. As India embarks on this remarkable journey, the horizon gleams with boundless opportunities, unfettered aspirations, and the vision of a prosperous nation, undeniably steered by the indomitable force of "Nari Shakti." This isn't just a bill; it's a testament to the resilience and determination of women, and it's a resounding affirmation of their rightful place at the helm of the nation's progress.

Ms. Jyoti Tiwari is are content writer, Delhi-based web journal and Shri Bhupendra Singh is correspondent All India Radio. Feedback on this article can be sent on feedback.employmentnews@gmail.com

 

Views expressed are personal.