High expectations for the Women’s reservation bill 

High expectations for the Women's reservation bill
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The bill was passed with a near consensus just months before the next general elections which is expected by May next year, in which PM Modi will seek his third term in power.

India witnessed a watershed moment in the history of its politics last week as Parliament passed the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, or Women’s Reservation Bill in a historic move towards gender equality.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the bill aims to reserve one-third of seats in the lower house and state legislative assemblies for women which signifies a monumental shift in the country’s political landscape.

The bill was passed with a near consensus just months before the next general elections which is expected by May next year, in which PM Modi will seek his third term in power. However, it may take several years before the reservation is implemented because of certain riders attached to its applicability. The bill now awaits the President’s signature to become law.

This move was long overdue and was first introduced 27 years ago in September 1996. However, the journey towards achieving this milestone has been far from easy.

First mooted in 1996

The inception of the Women Reservation Bill dates back to May 1989 when former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi introduced a Constitution amendment bill for the very first time in Parliament to provide one-third reservation for women in rural and urban local bodies. The bill made its way to through the lower house but failed to gather enough ayes from the Rajya Sabha. 

However, it was the efforts of then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao that made the bill a law of the nation after he reintroduced the amendment in 1992. The feat paved the way for the women’s reservation in the Parliament. In 1996, the Deve Gowda-led United Front government tabled the 81st Constitution Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha which reserved 33% of the seats in Parliament for 
women lawmakers.

But the bill failed to get approval in Lok Sabha and was referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee. The bill eventually lapsed with the dissolution of the constituent assembly. Two years later, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government pushed for the Women Reservation Bill in the 12th Lok Sabha in 1998. Unfortunately, fate repeated itself and the bill failed to garner enough support for its 
passage again.

It was subsequently reintroduced in 1999, 2002 and 2003 under the Vajpayee government, but with 
no success. The Manmohan Singh-led UPA-1 attempted to bat for the women’s reservation and inducted the provision under its Common Minimum Programme. The bill was tabled in May 2008, this time in Rajya Sabha to prevent it from lapsing again.

The bill was again sent to the standing committee of the parliament, which presented its report in December 2009. The development followed approval from the Union cabinet in February 2010. The Rajya Sabha passed it in March. However, the bill was never taken up for consideration in the Lok Sabha. The alliance partners of the UPA demanded sub-reservation under the bill.

As no consensus was received within its own alliance partners, the Congress-led union government never presented the bill in the Lok Sabha which eventually lapsed in 2014 with the dissolution of the constituent assembly. One of the elementary issues the bill faced during these years, which prevented it from being passed despite multiple attempts, was a sub-reservation to the OBC and SC/ST categories.

The current bill addresses the SC/ST reservation demand but has excluded the sub-reservation provision for the OBC category. Besides, the bill comes with a set of riders that has given the opposition political ammunition calling it “yet another jumla.”

Opposition objections
The Opposition parties have raised questions and concerns regarding the linkage of the implementation of women’s reservation with the periodical delimitation exercise. The implementation of this reservation provision is not immediate and hinges on two critical processes: a delimitation exercise and a census which could cause a significant delay in the bill coming into effect.

The most recent delimitation order was issued in 2008. However, there is currently a freeze on any further adjustments to the number of seats in state assemblies and the Lok Sabha. The primary concern raised by the opposition is whether this freeze on delimitation would result in the women’s reservation not being implemented until the 2031 census figures are available and the delimitation process is completed. The census, originally scheduled for 2021, was delayed due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The exercise is yet to be started. 

However, home minister Amit Shah has informed Parliament that both the census and delimitation exercise will be conducted immediately following the general elections scheduled for 2024. The Opposition said that the statement implies that the implementation of women’s reservation may be postponed for several years.

Another issue highlighted by the Opposition pertains to the absence of a sub-quota for women from the OBC category. While there is an existing reservation for the SC and STs, in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies, there is no separate reservation for OBCs, who constitute over 40% of 
the population. 

Besides, two members of the Lok Sabha, Asaduddin Owaisi and Syed Imtiyaz Jaleel of the AIMIM, opposed the Bill, arguing that it should include a separate quota for Muslim women as the community is underrepresented in Parliament and legislative assemblies.

This demand for a distinct OBC quota has received support from various parties including Congress, Samajwadi Party (SP), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), among others. “It goes without saying that we want more representation in positions of power. Be it politics, judiciary, and other areas. The bill addresses the fundamental issue.

However, the way the BJP-led central government has introduced the bill has left everyone wondering whether it’s another election jumla. It’s very demeaning for the 50 per cent of the country’s population.  Without sub-reservation, the bill will not make the impact it is supposed to. People across party lines want this bill to come into effect but the issue is with the proper implementation,” said Abhinandita Dayal Mathur, secretary, Aam Aadmi Party’s women’s wing.

Shagufta Chaudhary, Congress councilor in MCD, also said the riders of the bill are included only as propaganda during the upcoming election campaign of 2024 Loksabha polls. “If the ruling party had the intent of making moves towards women empowerment, they would have provided representation to the backward class with immediate implementation. Why wait for a census? It would not change the societal status of our women,” she said.

Rhetoric vs Reality
Indian politics has long been characterized by the rhetoric surrounding women’s empowerment and the announcement of various schemes and policies aimed at uplifting women across the country. 
Both the Center and the state governments try to woo the other 50 per cent of the voters with socialist and welfare schemes aiming to improve their health, education, safety, and economic empowerment. 
Despite the proliferation of schemes and promises for women, the participation of women in Indian 
politics remains significantly limited.

As it stands, women occupy a mere 15% of seats in the lower house with 78 elected members of the total 543, and a paltry 12% in the upper house. A 2015 report by the ministry of women and child development highlighted the dire representation of women in parliament and state assemblies, particularly in high-ranking decision-making roles.

In its entire post-independence history, India has seen only one woman Prime Minister and two female 
Presidents. Just 15 women have served as chief ministers of Indian states. The Women’s Reservation Bill is a much-needed remedy to address this gender disparity in Indian politics. In fact, out of 70 seats, only eight comprise women MLAs in the Delhi legislative assembly. The state’s cabinet has only one minister.

Glimmer of hope
Despite the contentions and questions raised at the ruling party’s intent over inducting riders in the reservation bill, the women leaders are hopeful that the yet-to-be-approved legislation holds the power to ensure women their meaningful participation in shaping society.

“In politics, candidates need a social standing. People don’t imagine seeing women as leaders. I hope the bill changes this perception,” said Mathur, adding that she hopes that the women will no longer remain second-class citizens.

“Starting from perception to societal status to the availability of resources, the whole ecosystem supports men which makes them an obvious choice to be in a fray for leadership roles. Finance is the biggest factor. Parties spend insane money in campaigning which can only be afforded by men. Women don’t spend such a huge amount of money on their ambitions even if they come from affluent families,” 
she said.

“Currently, the status quo and even the new initiatives are taken considering the priorities of men. We are merely a vote bank. The women will gain confidence that they are not second-class citizens of this society.  Women even feel ashamed when approaching the police,” she said. 

“Our future generation will have more confidence in expressing themselves freely. But 10-20 years down the line, the situation will improve with increased representation and will inch closer to achieving our long-pending right of equality,” Mathur added.

Shagufta said the country will see a monumental shift in the political leadership once the bill comes into effect. “The current politics is male-dominated and hyper-aggressive or sentimental. I believe women will bring more composure, class and efficiency in leadership as we are raised as multitaskers,” she said.
“Our democracy is not new now and there have been attempts to give women equal rights but the situation in this aspect is spiralling down continuously.

There are women in politics but they are largely instated to serve tokenism. There is a dire need to compel the political leadership to induct more women,” she said. Besides, the women also must see themselves in leadership roles. The reservation ensures that. It will change the landscape of the society, nature and everything around us,” Shagufta added.

Tracing bill’s Journey 27 years in making

The need to have more women in position of political power in India has been keenly debated for decades. Exactly 30 years back, Parliament amended Constitution to reserve 33% seats for women in village councils and municipal corporations in urban areas. Looking back:

Rajiv Gandhi
Introduced Bill to provide reservation for women in rural and urban local bodies. Bill approved in LS but failed to get passed in Rajya Sabha

Narasimha Rao
Bill to reserve 33% of seats and chairperson posts for women in rural and urban local bodies passed by Parliament, becomes law

Deve Gowda
Introduced bill in Lok Sabha to reserve seats for women in Parliament. Referred to Joint Parliamentary Committee, later lapsed

1998, 1999, 2002,  2003
Atal Bihari Vajpayee
NDA government pushed Women’s Reservation Bill in the 12th Lok Sabha in 1998. However, this time too, the bill failed to get support, and lapsed again. It was subsequently reintroduced in 1999, 2002 and 2003 under the Vajpayee government, but with no success

2008, 2010
Manmohan singh
UPA government tabled Bill in Rajya Sabha to prevent it from lapsing which passed it. However it was never taken up for consideration in the Rajya Sabha

Narendra Modi
Parliament passed Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam. It is to be implemented after census is held and delimitation exercise is completed. It currently awaits President’s assent

Women centric schemes 
 Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Centre)
 Ujjwala Yojana (Centre)
 Nirbhaya Fund (Centre)
 Janani Suraksha Yojana (Centre)
 Ladli Scheme (Delhi)
 Free Bus Ride (Delhi)
 Kanyashree Prakalpa (West Bengal)
 Mukhyamantri Mahila Utkarsh Yojana (MMUY) (Gujarat)
 Sakhi One-Stop Centers (Maharashtra)
 Maitri Abhiyan (Haryana)
 Mamata Scheme (Odisha)
 Aapki Beti, Hamari Beti (Himachal Pradesh)
 Mukhyamantri Kanya Vivah 

Yojana (various states)
 Mukhyamantri Mahila Utkarsh Yojana (various states)
 Ladli Laxmi Yojana (various states)
 Kishori Shakti Yojana (various states)
 Mahila E-Haat (various states)

With the passage of Women’s Reservation Bill, it is not the question of how but when the legislation will be implemented to reserve a third of seats for women in Lok Sabha and state assemblies. It still needs a long-drawn process of census and delimitation before it becomes a reality, writes Ashish Srivastava

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