Women Reservation Bill 2023: A baby step in the right direction?

While some are upholding it as a historic feat, some are labelling it as an "electoral gimmick." In reality, it lies somewhere in between

The Indian Parliament is set to witness history by finally agreeing to pass the Women Reservation Bill, introduced 27 years ago by the Deve Gowda government. This bill entitles the women in our country to a reservation of one-third of the total seats in the Lok Sabha, all the Vidhan Sabhas (State Legislative Assemblies), and the Delhi Legislative Assembly. 

On September 18th, the Union Cabinet, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at its helm, met at 6:30 PM and deliberated for 1.5 hours before declaring that the ‘Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam’ (Women Reservation Bill), under the draft name “128th Constitutional Amendment Bill,” shall be put before Union Legislators in the newly inaugurated Parliament building. 

History of the bill:

The bill was first promulgated by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and was first introduced before the Lok Sabha in 1996 under the Prime Ministership of H D Deve Gowda. However, due to a lack of substantial majority, it could not see the light of the day. Over the past 27 years, there have been repeated attempts by previous coalition governments to get it passed, but they have always fallen short of securing the needed mandate. 

In 2008, under the Prime Ministership of Dr Manmohan Singh, the UPA government introduced the Women Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha. The standing committee received the bill in 2009, and it was passed in the Rajya Sabha in May 2010. However, the bill again met a dead end when the partners of the UPA government jilted it in the Lok Sabha.

In 2023, owing to the BJP’s formidable majority in the lower house and the Congress pledging to support in this matter, the bill is expected to garner the assent of at least 431 of the 543 members in the Lok Sabha, the needed mandate being just 362. 

What does the bill say?

The bill conveys:

  • Of the seats in the Lok Sabha, all the Vidhan Sabhas (State Legislative Assemblies), and the Delhi Legislative Assembly, 33% (one-third) shall be reserved for women.
  • This reservation shall not extend to the Rajya Sabha or any other Vidhan Parishad (State Legislative Council).
  • If the bill gets passed, it shall be implemented only after the delimitation of the constituencies in 2027. Even after its implementation, the reservation shall continue for fifteen years, with provisions for further extension. 
  • One-third of all the seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribe (ST) and Scheduled Cast (SC) in the Lok Sabha shall be kept aside for women. There are no provisions for reservation of seats for women from the minority or the Other Backward Class (OBC).

Present status of female representation in India’s democracy:

One must fathom the current situation of ‘under-representation of women’ in the Indian democracy before debating on the necessity for the prescribed reservation. With almost an equal share in the demography (50-50), women have struggled to participate in the world’s largest democracy. Data reveals:

  • Presently, there are just 78 female legislators out of the 543 members (less than 15%) in the Lok Sabha!
  • In the upper house (Rajya Sabha), the percentage of female members plunges below 14%. 
  • Out of the thirty state legislative assemblies (SLAs), seventeen have women representation below 10%! 

Such disequilibrium proves the gender-biased nature of Indian politics. We are not sure whether a reservation by excluding the Minority and OBC women would do much to ease the issue of marginalisation of women from vulnerable communities. 

Providing women a fair representation in the parliament shall yield some improvement in the condition of women at the grassroots level. After all, women’s empowerment through the reservation of seats in the Gram Panchayats is a tale that won laurels for our country on the international stage. 

However, before we rejoice in this bill, we must get accustomed to the reality on the ground. It is rather difficult to ensure that the women who might enjoy this reservation are the ones who actually need it.

Often than not, at the Panchayat level, we see local male leaders nominating their wives, mothers, and daughters for the reserved seats, who are pretty well-to-do in their own spheres. Is this not veering the situation away from the desired goal? The exclusion of the minority and the OBC women from the domain of this reservation further raises speculations about the motive behind the Women Reservation Bill. 

Indian democracy faces a more significant threat from opaqueness in ‘electoral bonds’ and ‘criminalisation of politics’ than anything else. However, these pertinent issues won’t get resolved anytime soon as they don’t have an ‘electoral appeal.’ 

You and I will not vote for a cause unless it directly benefits us. The Netas are aware of this. Furthermore, they will face much trouble running their organisations if these issues actually get resolved. 

Hence, all we can do is hope that the Women Reservation Bill, which looks like the only thoughtful attempt at fostering a healthy democracy, does not unfold into a meagre ‘electoral gimmick’ before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections!

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