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Delimitation, and the changing India political map

RESERVATION for women is to come into effect only after the next Census and the delimitation process that follows, with the government arguing that this is needed to ensure fair distribution of quota. The next delimitation, changing the number of seats in Parliament and state Assemblies, is slotted for 2026.

In Independent India’s history, delimitation has taken place four times – 1952, 1963, 1973 and 2002. A look at how they changed the political landscape.

What is delimitation and how is it done?

The Election Commission defines delimitation as the process of drawing boundaries of constituencies for elected bodies based on the population in the most recent Census. Article 82 of the Constitution states that after every Census is completed, the allocation of Lok Sabha seats to each state must be adjusted based on population changes. At the same time, Article 81 states there can be no more than 550 members in the Lok Sabha – 530 from states and 20 from Union Territories. It also says that “the ratio between (the number of seats) and the population of the state is, so far as practicable, the same for all states”. So, each constituency across the country should ideally have the same population.

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Under these provisions, an independent Delimitation Commission is to be set up once every decade to reapportion seats among states. The Commission is appointed by the President of India and comprises a retired judge of the Supreme Court or a high court, the Chief Election Commissioner and the State Election Commissioner.

The Commission, in consultation with State Election Commissions, examines changes in the population to redraw constituencies or create new ones. It then publishes in the Gazette of India its draft report, which is open for public feedback. After accounting for the feedback, the Commission publishes its final report. Once published, the Commission’s orders are final and, as per the Delimitation Commission Act 1952 and Article 329A of the Constitution, have the “full force of law and shall not be called into question in any court”.

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Delimitation also affects the number of seats reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), which are determined on a state-by-state basis as per the share of these communities’ populations in each state. The last such update was in 2008.

The history of delimitation

Prior to 2021, an updated Census has been published every decade since 1951, but a Delimitation Commission has been set up on only four occasions – 1952, 1963, 1973 and 2002.

The 1952 delimitation exercise set the maximum number of Lok Sabha seats at 500 after the Commission held three public meetings to gather feedback. In the 1952 Lok Sabha polls though, elections were held in 489 seats. In 1957, 494 seats went to polls.

In 1963, the Delimitation Commission made its first set of changes to the composition of the Lok Sabha. Noting that the average population per constituency had risen from 7.3 lakh to 8.9 lakh, the final order raised the total Lok Sabha seats to 522. Despite the increase in total seats, Uttar Pradesh lost one seat, and Andhra Pradesh and the erstwhile Madras lost two each. Assam, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and West Bengal were among the states that saw their seats increase.

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In its 1973 order, the Commission raised the maximum Lok Sabha members to 545 to account for population growth and the formation of new states.

Since then, the number of members has remained unchanged. Of the 545 members, 543 were directly elected and two were nominated posts for the Anglo-Indian community, until a 2019 Constitutional Amendment removed this provision. So the Lok Sabha strength now is 543.

In 1976, the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution froze the number of Lok Sabha seats and put off delimitation for 25 years until the 2001 Census under Article 82. The Indira Gandhi-led Congress government at the time, during the Emergency era, cited “family planning policies” as the reason for this suspension, saying it did not want to punish states with effective population control measures, as their representation in the Lok Sabha would fall compared to states with high populations.

The idea was to give states time to reduce their fertility rates and ensure parity across the country.

But in 2002, delimitation was delayed for another 25 years, with the 84th Amendment under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP government. Though constituency boundaries were redrawn to account for changes in population according to the 2001 Census, the total number of Lok Sabha seats and the number of seats allotted to each state remained unchanged. The Amendment froze the allocation of seats in Article 82 until “the relevant figures for the first Census taken after the year 2026 have been published”.

Delimitation for Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur was deferred separately owing to “security concerns” in those regions. Jammu and Kashmir, after it was split into two UTs in 2019, was also the subject of a reconstituted Delimitation Commission in 2020.

Assam’s delimitation exercise was completed last month. Though no new Parliamentary or Assembly constituencies were added, 19 Assembly seats and one Lok Sabha seat were either renamed or redrawn. The state now has four additional SC and ST Assembly seats and one additional reserved Lok Sabha seat. Most notably, delimitation in Assam was based on the 2001 Census, not the latest 2011 Census. That means despite delimitation, Assembly seats are unlikely to each have roughly the same population or account accurately for growth in population, particularly for the minority Muslim community.

In the Supreme Court earlier this week, the Centre said it is considering delimitation in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. But given the ongoing ethnic conflict in Manipur, the state is unlikely to see delimitation any time soon.

Delimitation for Assembly seats in Jammu and Kashmir was completed last May based on the 2011 Census. The Assembly is set to have 90 seats over the previous 83, with 43 seats in Jammu and 47 in Kashmir. Six of the seven new seats went to Jammu, the Hindu-dominated region of the erstwhile state.

What the 2026 delimitation could look like?

According to the 84th Amendment, the next delimitation would ordinarily have happened only after the 2031 Census. But with the 2021 Census delayed, the government plans to change this.

Work on the 2021 Census was set to begin in 2020 with the house listing survey followed by the population enumeration, but was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is still to be held.

Before counting can begin, administrative boundaries must be frozen. The deadline for this is now January 2024. During discussions on the women’s reservation Bill in the Special Session of Parliament, the government said work on the Census will begin soon after the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Since the Census exercise can take up to two years to complete – with the house listing in 2024 and enumeration in 2025 – updated population figures are unlikely to be published before 2026.

What the gap between delimitation exercises has meant

With the total number of Lok Sabha seats frozen for almost 50 years, there are now wide discrepancies between states on the average number of electors represented by each MP. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, for example, each MP from Delhi represented 20.5 lakh voters compared to just 55,000 for the MP from Lakshadweep. The map below shows the average number of voters represented by each state or UT’s MPs.

The delimitation exercise in 2026 would presumably seek to allocate seats so that each parliamentary constituency has roughly the same population. This would mean an increase in seats in states with high populations.

Take Uttar Pradesh as an example. In the 1971 Census, on which the current seat allocation is based, UP had a population of 8.8 crore (including Uttarakhand). According to population projections from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, UP’s projected population is 23.1 crore in 2021, 24.3 crore in 2026 and 25.1 crore in 2031. If population data published around 2026 becomes the basis for the next delimitation exercise, UP could gain an estimated 14 Lok Sabha seats.

Though there are no binding stipulations on the population of each constituency, Article 81 says that “states shall be divided, grouped or formed into territorial constituencies and the number of members to be allotted to each such constituency shall be so determined as to ensure that there shall be not less than one member for every 7,50,000 of the population and not more than one member for every 5,00,000 of the population”.

The map below shows how many Lok Sabha seats each state and UT would get if they are allocated according to the projected population figures in 2026, and the above formula.

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The graph below show which states might see the biggest increase in their seat tallies. Eight states and UTs could have more Lok Sabha seats, and the seat tally may remain unchanged for 12. Depending on the formula worked out, seats for some states might fall. Northern states are the most likely to benefit from a reallocation of seats based on population. Southern states tend to perform better than northern states on many socioeconomic indicators, including fertility rate, per capita income and educational attainment.

However, while it remains unclear when the next Census will be published, whether before or after the delimitation exercise scheduled for 2026, the exact formula for seat reallocation is still unknown.

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An 2019 analysis by political scientist Milan Vaishnav for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that to ensure proportional representation based on population projections for 2026, the Lok Sabha would have to expand to 848 members so no state loses out on seats.

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