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Before quota, delimitation: What is it, why is it needed

The Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam — The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Sixth Amendment) Bill, 2023, which provides for 33% reservation for women in Lok Sabha and state Assemblies — was passed by Lok Sabha on Wednesday, and will likely be cleared by Rajya Sabha as well in Parliament’s ongoing Special Session.

However, it might be several years before the reservation becomes applicable — mainly because it has been made contingent on the delimitation exercise. Home Minister Amit Shah told Lok Sabha that the “delimitation process” to decide which constituency is to be reserved for women will be “transparent”, and will be carried out by a delimitation commission.

What does the women’s reservation Bill say on the implementation of the quota?

The Bill says the provisions of the new law shall come into effect “after an exercise of delimitation” undertaken “after the relevant figures for the first Census” carried out “after the commencement” of this law is “published”.

In other words, the implementation of the reservation provision is not immediate, and is contingent on two processes — a delimitation exercise, and a Census. Delimitation is the process of redrawing Parliamentary and Assembly constituencies based on the latest population data.

Under the provisions of the Bill, the 2021 Census — whenever it is actually carried out — will become the basis for the delimitation exercise that would result in an increase, and redefining of boundaries, of Parliamentary and Assembly constituencies.

Of these increased numbers of Parliamentary and Assembly constituencies, 33% would be reserved for women, whenever the next elections are due.

Since the 2024 elections are now only months away, the 2029 election is the earliest that women’s reservation could take effect in Lok Sabha — provided the Census is carried out and its findings are published, and the delimitation exercise is completed before that.

Why is delimitation needed, and how is it carried out?

The boundaries of Lok Sabha and Assembly constituencies must be redrawn to ensure equitable representation — so that the vote of every person carries similar weight.

Lok Sabha constituencies have to be allotted to every state in a manner that the ratio of the number of constituencies and the population of the state is broadly similar. A similar approach is adopted for state Assemblies as well.

As populations change, there is a need to readjust the number and boundaries of the constituencies.

Apart from population figures, delimitation also aims at a fair division of geographical areas into seats to guard against allegations of gerrymandering, which means redrawing seat boundaries in a way that no political party has an unfair advantage over another.

It is a constitutional requirement to carry out delimitation of constituencies after every Census. Article 82 of the Constitution (“Readjustment after each census”) mandates the “readjustment” in the allocation of seats to every state in Lok Sabha, and the division of every state into constituencies “upon completion of each Census”.

Articles 81, 170, 330, and 332, which deal with the composition and reservation of seats in Lok Sabha and state Assemblies, also refer to this “readjustment”.

The delimitation exercise is conducted by an independent delimitation commission. Its decisions are considered final, unchallengeable in any court, to prevent indefinite delays in elections.

When was the last delimitation exercise carried out?

While the Census has been carried out seven times since Independence, delimitation has happened only four times — in 1952, 1963, 1973, and 2002. The last delimitation exercise, in 2002, only involved itself with redrawing the boundaries of constituencies. It did not result in the increase in the number of constituencies. This means that the number of Lok Sabha constituencies has not changed since 1976.

The Constitution has been amended suitably — the 42nd Amendment Act in 1976, 84th Amendment Act in 2001, and 87th Amendment Act in 2003 — to allow for deviations from the original provisions.

As per the current provisions in the Constitution, the next delimitation exercise should take place on the basis of the first Census carried out after 2026, that is 25 years after the 84th Amendment. In normal course, this would have meant that delimitation would happen after the 2031 Census. However, the Census of 2021 could not be carried out due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

If the house-listing exercise, the first phase of the Census, is carried out next year, the actual population enumeration can take place in 2025. The publication of the first results usually takes at least one or two years. This means that delimitation need not wait for the 2031 Census, it can happen on the basis of the delayed 2021 Census as well.

If everything progresses smoothly, and swiftly, the 2029 general elections could be held with an increased number of Lok Sabha seats.

What makes delimitation a political hot potato?

Delimitation results in a change in the total number of Parliamentary and Assembly seats. The delimitation following the 1951 Census increased Lok Sabha seats from 489 to 494, which further increased to 522 after the 1961 Census, and finally to 543 after the 1971 Census.

In the 1970s, the impending delimitation exercise based on the 1971 Census sparked concerns. The Constitution mandates that states receive seats based on a population ratio, which unintentionally implied that states (mostly in North India) with lower population control efforts may claim a larger share of Lok Sabha seats. And the southern states that promoted family planning faced the possibility of having their seats reduced.

The impact of delimitation on inter-state seat distribution is a strong reason for political tussles and controversies.

Is that why the strength of Lok Sabha has remained frozen at 543 since the 1970s?

Yes. In 1976, to address political concerns, Indira Gandhi’s government brought the 42nd Amendment. This Bill suspended the redrawing of seat boundaries and seat allocation until 2001, and justified it as part of the effort to promote family planning.

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The freeze on the number of seats in Parliament and Assemblies was extended in 2001 by the NDA-I government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee through the Constitution (Ninety-First Amendment) Bill, 2000, which was enacted as the Constitution (Eighty-Fourth Amendment) Act, 2002.

The “Statement of Objects and Reasons” for the Amendment brought by the Vajpayee government read: “There have been consistent demands, both for and against undertaking the exercise of fresh delimitation. In consideration of the progress of family planning programs in different parts of the country, the Government, as part of the National Population Policy strategy, recently decided to extend the current freeze on undertaking fresh delimitation until the year 2026 as a motivational measure to enable the State Governments to pursue the population stabilization agenda.”

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The year 2026 was chosen because, according to the National Population Policy, that was when the government expected population growth to level off. In other words, the assumption was that if population policies worked as planned, by 2026, there should be a roughly equal number of births and deaths in India.

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