India’s ‘Women’s Reservation Bill’ Helps Break A Glass Ceiling – OpEd


To address an acute gender imbalance in the Indian parliament and State Legislators the Lower House of the Indian parliament on Wednesday passed a bill to reserve 33% of seats for women

To address an acute gender imbalance in the Indian parliament and State Legislators the Lower House of the Indian parliament on Wednesday passed a bill to reserve 33% of seats for women.

While it was obvious that the bill was presented by the Narendra Modi government in the ongoing session of parliament with an eye on women’s votes in the forthcoming State Assembly and parliamentary elections, it did not come a day too soon given the gross gender imbalance in India’s legislatures. 

Only 15% of the Members of the Indian Parliament and 10% of the members of State Legislative Assemblies are women, though there are 950 million registered women voters. This has put India at the bottom of global rankings on gender parity in legislatures, though the country loudly claims to be a “representative democracy.”   

According to Amber Kumar Ghosh of the Observer Research Foundation, the global average for female representation in national parliaments in 2022 was higher at 26.2%. South Asian countries other than Sri Lanka and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, show a higher representation than India. 

In Nepal women’s representation was 34%; in Bangladesh 21%, in Pakistan 20% and Bhutan 17% . Only Sri Lanka was lower than India with 5% female representation. Interestingly, prior to the Taliban take-over in 2021, Afghanistan had 27% representation for women.

A proposal to provide a reserved quota for women made at the time of drafting the Indian Constitution in 1946-49 had been discarded. Ironically, the opposition came, not from the religious right wing conservatives, but from leading Indian women’s associations and the ruling Congress party. 

These organizations argued that reservation would stunt women’s political development. Women should be encouraged to compete with men on an equal footing and not cocooned by the system, they argued. 

However, years after independence, in 1974, the report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India proposed greater representation of women in political institutions with reservation of seats for women. But no decision was taken by the powers-that-be.  

But the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution made in 1992, enabled the reservation of one-third of the total number of seats in Panchayati Raj (local government) institutions and municipal bodies for women. 

Following this bold step, in 1997, proposals for reservation in Parliament and the State Assemblies began to be made, but to no avail again.   

However, at the same time, India was advancing the women’s cause in other areas. The Supreme Court conferred coparcener status on daughters in Hindu families, providing them with inheritance rights. The court also ruled that women officers in the army should be entitled to permanent commissions and command postings in all services other than combat. The minimum age of marriage for girls was raised from 18 to 21. 

When elections on the basis of universal adult franchise began in 1952, women were not enthusiastic voters. But enthusiasm grew albeit gradually. It became a noticeable feature in the 1990s. Twenty years down the line in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections (elections to the Lower House of parliament), almost as many women as men voted. 

Increasing female participation was attributed to a number of improvements in the general condition of Indian women and also in the election system, Amber Kumar Ghosh says. 

Firstly, female literacy and female participation in the labour market had gone up. Secondly, thanks to the expansion of the media, especially TV, women’s awareness level went up. Thirdly, the Election Commission had taken steps to encourage women to vote, by ensuring their security at polling stations. Women-friendly ‘pink booths’ were set up where the entire staff including the police were female. Fourthly, from 1992 on, reservations for women in panchayats and municipalities had oriented rural women to political participation. 

The number of women candidates fielded by major political parties in both the Parliamentary and State Assembly elections was low till the early 1990s, but that too increased in the mid-1990s. 

All this rekindled the demand for reservation for women in Parliament and State Assemblies.  

Meanwhile, the bigger political parties began to put up more women as candidates though this was still very low at the national level. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, of the total of 8,049 candidates in the fray, less than 9% were women, Ghosh points out.

The number of women candidates and MPs varied greatly across States and parties,  In the current Lok Sabha (Lower House of parliament) Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal have the highest numbers of women MPs – 14%  and 26% respectively. The Congress fielded 54 women in 2019 (12.9% of its candidates) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fielded 53 women (12.6%). 

Women’s representation in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of parliament) has been slightly lower than in the Lok Sabha, not crossing 13% of the total membership of the house according to 2020 data. In the State Legislative Councils (Upper Houses) women’s representation is lower at 10%.

Surveys by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) Delhi show that women’s participation election rallies, conducting door-to-door campaigns, distributing election pamphlets, and collecting election funds, has increased in the last three decades, but is still low. 

Another noteworthy feature in the advancement of women in politics is that 20 of India’s 28 states have raised the reservation limit to 50%, Ghosh points out. 

A large number of skills development programmes and leadership training sessions for women at the grassroots, conducted by both government and NGOs, have helped improve the performance of elected women political leaders. .

Ghosh asserts that the women who were elected did not necessarily do the bidding of their husbands or other men in the family. They learned to act independently and boldly.  

On the question as to why women have not been able to break into higher legislative councils at the State and national level, Ghosh says the political parties are still to consider women as candidates who can win, unless they are wives, sisters or widows of a formidable male politicians. 

National and State-level politics demand a lot of money. Electoral  violence puts off women unless they are from political families. Besides, culturally, women are expected to take the primary responsibility of running families and bringing up children which leaves them with little time for sustained political activity. 

However, the proposed 33% reservation at the State and national level will force women to contest and political parties will be forced to put up women candidates. 

Though the Lok Sabha passed the reservation bill on Wednesday, implementation will take place only in 2029, Home Minister Amit Shah told parliament. 

The bill will now have to be passed by the Rajya Sabha and at least 50% of the State Assemblies. But more importantly, the allocation of women’s constituencies will have to await the delimitation of electoral constituencies. And that process will have to wait till the national decennial census is completed. 

The census exercise has been indefinitely delayed as the last census was conducted in 2011. The central government initially gave the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse for the postponement. Disappointingly the last two notifications by the Registrar General of India (RGI) had not specified any reason for the continued delay, reports said.

Meanwhile, the BJP expects to sweep women’s votes in the forthcoming elections to some of the State Assemblies and the parliamentary elections in May 2024.

Not to be left behind, the Congress and other opposition parties supported the bill. In all, 454 MPs voted for and only two against it. The two negative votes came from the Majlis Ittehad ul Muslimeen whose leader Asadullah Owaisi said that a percentage of seats should have been reserved for Muslim and Backward Class women. He pointed out that Muslim women were 7% of the Indian population of 1.3 billion but occupied only 0.7% of the legislative seats at the State and national levels.  

(This article was published in Counterpoint)

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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