The Women’s Reservation Bill


Women’s Reservation Bill or the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill, is a pending bill in India which proposes to amend the Constitution of India to reserve 33 per cent of all seats in the Lower house of Parliament of India, the Lok Sabha, and in all state legislative assemblies for women.

The struggle for political rights by women’s groups has been the longest in the history of independent India as the proposed constitution amendment bill had been deferred several times by successive governments since 1996. While the Indian constitution is one of the most progressive in the world and guarantees equal rights for men and women, Indian women have always waited anxiously for their equal dreams to be translated into reality. There is no denying the fact that there is no adequate representation of women in the social, economic and political life of the country even after more than 60 years of independence. Though women have made their presence felt in many male dominated professions, their representation in the decision- making bodies/processes is far less than that of men. There has been a historical social exclusion of women from polity due to various social and cultural reasons and patriarchal traditions and due to systematic exclusions from policy options and protective measures in contemporary times. They are hampered by low levels of education, lack of access to health care, lack of employment, and low social status which manifests in crimes such as female foeticide, dowry deaths and domestic violence. Neither social legislations nor landmark judgments on these have had major effect to render gender justice on this count. As the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Women’s Reservation Bill observes, meaningful empowerment of women can be achieved only with adequate participation of women in legislative bodies, as inadequate representation of women in Parliament and State legislature is a primary factor behind the general backwardness of women at all levels. Taking all this into account, whether reservation for women in the Parliament is the right tool for empowerment may be debatable, but it is certainly true that it is a valid strategy to enhance women’s participation in the policy making process.

During the framing of the Constitution, some women members had argued against reservation for women. Later, the need for such reservation was gradually realised. In 1974, the Report of the Committee on Status of Women highlighted the low number of women in political bodies and recommended that seats be reserved for women in panchayats and municipal bodies. Two dissenting members of the Committee supported reservation of seats in all legislative bodies. The National Perspective Plan for Women (1988) recommended a quota of 30% in panchayats, municipalities and political parties. The National Policy for Empowerment of Women (2001) stated that reservation shall be considered in higher legislative bodies. The United Progressive Alliance’s National Common Minimum Programme includes reservation of one-third of seats in Parliament for women.

One of the landmark events in the Indian history during the women’s movement particularly in the late 80s was the vision of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who incorporated the 73rd and 74th Amendments in the Constitution of India providing reservation of 1/3rd seats in the Panchayats and Nagarpalikas for women. Such reservation ensured that women at the grassroot level take decisions for their own life and for their rural/urban communities on the main issues of concern and imparted a gender perspective to issues concerning social and economic life of women. It was from this decision that the need for reservation for women in higher legislative bodies was realised.

The Women’s Reservation Bill was first introduced in the Lok Sabha by the Deve Gowda government on September 12, 1996 and has not changed much in form since then. The battle for greater representation of women in Lok Sabha and State Assemblies was routinely punctuated by frayed tempers and war of words which sometimes got physical, as different governments since 1996 tried to get the Women’s Reservation Bill passed in Parliament without success. The Bill lapsed each time the House was dissolved and was re-introduced by the Government of the day. In 2008, the government tabled the bill in the Rajya Sabha. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice, and Personnel recommended passage of the Bill in Dec 2009 and it was cleared by the Union Cabinet on February 25, 2010. The subsequent passage of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha on March 9, 2010, the house voting 191 to 1 to amend the Constitution and reserve one-third of seats in Parliament for women, is a momentous, heart-warming step for India. The Bill now has to be passed by the Lok Sabha and ratified by 50% of the state Assemblies before it comes into effect.

The Bill seeks to reserve one-third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies (including Delhi). It means of the 543 seats of the current Lok Sabha, 181 seats will be only for women. Currently of the 545 seats, only 59 seats are being chaired by women, i.e. barely 10%. The allocation of reserved seats shall be determined by such authority as prescribed by Parliament. Moreover, one third of the total number of seats reserved for Scheduled Caste/ Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) in the Lok Sabha and the legislative assemblies shall be reserved for SC/ST women. Such reservation of seats shall cease to exist 15 years after the commencement of the Act. The Bill also provides that the reserved seats may be allotted by rotation to different constituencies in the state or union territory. The same rules apply for the seats reserved for SC/STs and for Anglo Indians.

Although there have been many supporters of the quota within quota which means, sub-reservation for STs, SCs, OBCs and minority communities within the 33 percent quota and the report examining the 1996 Women’s Reservation Bill recommended that reservation be provided for women of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) once the Constitution was amended to allow for reservation for OBCs, the Bill in its present form doesn’t favour this view – because of lack of political consensus around this issue. It was also recommended that reservation be extended to the Rajya Sabha and the Legislative Councils, but even this recommendation has not been incorporated in the Bill.

The proponents of the policy of reservation state that although equality of the sexes is enshrined in the Constitution, it is not the reality. Therefore, vigorous positive action is required to improve the condition of women. Also, there is evidence that political reservation has increased redistribution of resources in favour of the groups which benefit from reservation. A study1 about the effect of reservation for women in panchayats shows that women elected under the reservation policy invest more in the public goods closely linked to women’s concerns. A 2008 study, commissioned by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, reveals that a sizeable proportion of women representatives perceive an enhancement in their self-esteem, confidence and decision-making ability.

The provision of the rotation of seats would also help in horizontal spread of women’s involvement in the political affairs of the country. The argument that this may cause a changeover of experienced MPs and MLAs and, therefore, may adversely affect the political discourse cannot be subscribed to. The experienced members can seek candidacy from any other constituency and get elected. It is also a fact that women elected from these constituencies, if given a chance, are going to be equally or more efficient as compared to the present incumbents.

Research suggests that having more women lawmakers makes a huge difference, not only to women, but to society in general, especially in poor countries. In the Indian context, reserving seats for women in Panchayats has made a substantial difference to governance and brought hitherto-neglected areas into focus.
Studies have suggested that, in many areas, women representatives are often mere puppets and that their menfolk still pull all the strings. But they also show that in many instances, independent-minded women leaders have emerged and their emphasis on development issues, particularly those affecting women, have wrought some degree of change. Thus, it proves that those nominated are not all going to be wives, daughters and sisters of powerful political families. This could happen up to a point but not for long as women increasingly realised their rights. Also, it is likely that corruption and misbehaviour in the House may also come down with a proportionate increase in women members.

Opponents of the Bill argue that separate constituencies for women would not only narrow their outlook but lead to perpetuation of unequal status because they would be seen as not competing on merit.

Opponents also contend that reservation would not lead to political empowerment of women because firstly, larger issues of electoral reforms such as measures to check criminalisation of politics, internal democracy in political parties, influence of black money, etc. have not been addressed, and secondly, it could lead to election of “proxies” or relatives of male candidates.

Opponents have also argued that the reservation of seats in the Parliament for women restricts the choice of the voters to women candidates. Therefore, some experts have suggested alternate methods such reservation for candidates within political parties, dual member constituencies where some constituencies shall have two candidates, one being a woman and increasing the number of seats in Assemblies and Parliament to accommodate sufficient women candidates.

The Gill Formula, which was a proposal of the Election Commission of India to make it mandatory for the recognised political parties to ensure putting of minimum agreed percentage for women in State Assembly and Parliamentary election so as to allow them to retain the recognition with the Election Commission as political parties, is unacceptable to the majority of parties and women’s groups in the country. It is believed that it might lead to political parties giving those seats to women which they perceive are not winning seats, thereby negating the actual representation of women in elected bodies. There is kind of a consensus that reserving seats for women in Assemblies and Lok Sabha should be guaranteed in the Constitution itself and enforced by all means. Similarly, elected women representatives should be granted the same status as their male counterparts. However, providing for double-Member constituencies might result in women being reduced to a subservient status, which will defeat the very purpose of the Bill. Therefore, this concept also seems to deteriorate the political status of women. On the other hand, if it is proposed to increase the seats, there will be need of delimitation of constituencies. Delimitation has just been finished, and going in again for adding new seats is going to take you another 15 years and it is going to push the entire process backwards.

Another argument raised is against the rotation of seats – that it will lead to lack of accountability and that rotation of seats will prevent the incumbent from nurturing her constituency. However, the fact is that rotation is in the interest of democracy and it is the duty of the incumbent to work towards the welfare of the constituency, irrespective of whether she would be elected next time or not, therefore nullifying this argument.

It is also the view of the opponents that the male members who have nurtured their constituencies will suffer injustice, as will other males who might wish to contest from the reserved constituency, did not find favour with the political class.

The rationale behind reservation for women is to mitigate the deleterious effects of social and economic barriers that have prevented the political empowerment of women, and not to discriminate against men through the process of reservation, but to instil a new harmonious social order promoting genuine fraternity between both the sexes. Although the Bill has finally been greenlighted by the Rajya Sabha, it is still far from becoming an Act, because it still has to attain political consensus for that. But as the proponents of the Bill have argued, this legislation is essential for the larger political participation of women in the absence of any feasible alternative.


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