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Women’s reservation Bill – imperfect but important

The introduction of the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2023, popularly referred to as the women’s reservation Bill, in the ongoing special session of Parliament by the Modi government, has captured the imagination of the country. The subject of a gender quota in legislative bodies was extensively discussed during the freedom movement. While framing the Constitution, the women members in the Constituent Assembly did not pursue reservation as a means of ensuring women’s political participation on the grounds that it would limit women’s representation. In July 1947, Renuka Ray spoke in the Constituent Assembly, “When there is reservation of seats for women, the question of their consideration for general seats, however competent they may be, does not usually arise. We feel that women will get more chances in the future to come forward and work in free India, if the consideration is of ability alone.”

Unfortunately, the number of women representatives in legislatures remained abysmal even after decades of independence. After the enactment of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments that reserved 33 per cent seats in panchayats and urban local bodies for women, the demand for gender quotas in legislative bodies gained steam.

Since 1996, multiple governments have introduced various versions of the women’s reservation Bill but failed to enact it as a law due to a lack of political consensus. The UPA government tabled a women’s reservation Bill in Rajya Sabha in 2008 and passed it two years later with 186-1 votes. The UPA came close to making the Bill a reality. However, when the Bill was sent to the Lok Sabha as per parliamentary procedure, it didn’t see the light of day due to opposition by various political leaders including UPA’s allies. Being a property of the Lok Sabha, it lapsed upon the dissolution of the House in 2014.

The hopes and dreams of the women of this country to be adequately represented in law-making bodies have been crushed six times in the past. Given the absolute majority the current government enjoys in Parliament, it is likely that the Bill will be enacted into law. The Modi government will etch its name in history if it ensures the fructification of this long-pending aspiration.

At the outset, the 2023 Bill looks like an abridged version of the 2008 Bill introduced by the UPA government. It mandates 33 per cent reservation for women in the Lok Sabha, the state Legislative Assemblies, and the Delhi Assembly. It also reserves one-third seats for women within the existing SC and ST reservation. Seats will be reserved on a rotational basis; and reservation will cease after 15 years.

The 2023 Bill deserves criticism on two grounds. First, the abstruseness of the timeline for implementation. The Bill merely reads that it shall come into effect “after an exercise of delimitation is undertaken for this purpose after the relevant figures for the first Census taken after commencement of the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-eighth Amendment) Act, 2023 has been published”. It doesn’t specify the cycle of elections from which women will get their due share.

Ideally, reservation should come into effect in the next general elections. Perhaps the government believes that announcing immediate implementation is not feasible with less than a year left for elections to the 18th Lok Sabha. Irrespective of that, it must at least put forth a clear timeline for the implementation. It is only fair that a historic decision spells out in no uncertain terms how and when the rights will accrue. Since the Bill is in the discussion phase, there is still time to remedy this failing. Members of Parliament must move amendments and ensure that the final legislation defines a clear timeline.

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Second, in line with the preceding governments, the current Bill does not provide women’s reservation in the Rajya Sabha and state legislative councils. The Rajya Sabha currently has lower representation of women than the Lok Sabha. Representation is an ideal that must be reflected in both the Lower and Upper Houses. Government and members of Parliament must think about how this lacuna can be filled, and come up with appropriate measures to ensure no segment of the population is under-represented. It will undoubtedly be a complex legislation but as I scour the Constituent Assembly debates for a solution, the following proposal by Purnima Banerjee looks promising: “I suggest to the House that in respect of the number of women who are now occupying scats in the Assembly, if any of them should vacate their seats they should be filled up by women themselves”. Her context was for the Constituent Assembly and was rejected then. But in today’s world, where adequate representation is considered a basic tenet of democracy, such a provision would be a good starting point for reservation in the Upper House, not just for women but also for SC, ST, and other minorities.

Some have also downplayed the positives of the Bill by suggesting that the women legislative members will be proxies and serve no real purpose. This is a misogynistic argument and ignores women’s agency. The fear of misuse of the law by a few is no grounds to deny others their right.

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The women of this country have waited for 27 years to see this Bill enacted. Even though the current Bill is far from perfect, we can’t afford to wait another two decades. Let’s welcome the government’s initiative to make women’s reservation a reality. There are miles to go in achieving gender parity in politics and this is just the beginning.

The writer is the founder, Femme First Foundation

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