Women’s Reservation Bill: Why the tumult?
Rebecca Thomas (Final year student pursuing the 3 Year LLB Program from Jindal Global Law School)
Meghan Markle once said “Women need a seat at the table, they need an invitation to be seated there, and in some cases, where this is not available, well then, you know what, they need to create their own table. We need a global understanding that we cannot implement change effectively without women’s political participation”[i].
One of the most essential ingredients to form a democracy is political equality. Ancillary to this, is the need for democratic participation. The Women’s Reservation bill was first introduced in the parliament in the year 1996. This bill sought to reserve 33% of the seats in the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies for women. The reservation was to be done on a rotational basis. The intention of bringing forth the reservation was to foster political empowerment of women, by eliminating gender inequality and discrimination.
The attempts to have seats reserved for women have a chequered history. After 1996, the bill was subsequently reintroduced in the years 1998, 1999, and 2008. The Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha in the year 2010. However, the bill lapsed when the Lok Sabha ended its term in 2014. After nearly 26 years since the bill was first proposed, it continues to remain pending before the Lok Sabha.
Over the years, the introduction of the bill has sparked conflicting opinions across the board. Certain political parties were unanimous in their decision to pass the bill, while some parties resisted from the very inception. The parties that resisted the bill sought for further reservation to be made within the 33%, for women who belong to the backward sections of society. This argument was premised on the understanding that a lack of reservation for the backward sections of society may result in upper and well-off sections of the society cornering these seats, thus reaping the benefit of this reservation. There are several layers to these arguments that are endorsed by different political parties. For instance, some parties are not opposed to reserving seats for women so long as the interests of women from backward classes, and religious minorities are adequately protected. Others, believe that 33% in addition to the already existing 22.5% reserved for ST’s and SC’s amounts to more than 55% of seats to be reserved (which is unapologetically unfair to other sections).
While the bill may be ideal in “spirit”, it poses several fatal defects in practise. For instance, 1/3rd of the seats are to be reserved via a lottery system. This translates into uprooting 180 male legislators every term and in their place assigning 180 women before the term. In the next election, these 180 women cannot contest for the same seats since the seats cannot be reserved for the same constituency twice under the bills rotation system. Ultimately, this lottery system results in scrambling for seats on short notice. This hits at the very root of accountability because it takes away the incentive to be accountable to their own constituencies since they will be uprooted to a different constituency at the end of the term. Moreover, the bill does not bar the relatives of a male politician, such as his daughter or wife, to contest for these seats. This takes away from the very purpose of representation and empowerment of women. How does a woman, loyal to her husband/father serve the constituency free of any bias? Not only does this negatively impact the intention of the bill but brings the concept of “female slavery”, a prominent feature in the familial structure, to the public realm.
As per the World Rankings of Women in Politics: 2021[ii] India ranked 148th out of a total of 193 countries. According to the ranking, 14.4% (78/540 seats) of women occupied the seats in the Lower House while only a meager 11.2% (27/241 seats) in the Upper House. These figures may seem appalling at a first glance. However, in 2014 when the government was asked whether they intend on passing the bill, elusive answers such as the bill is under “deep study” and “careful consideration” were thrown [iii]. The government continuously employs these phrases to dodge questions on the bill. With such responses it is no surprise that India finds itself tailing at the end of the World Ranking list. The defaults discussed can be cured, provided the government is willing to amend the bill to incorporate provisions that will facilitate substantive empowerment of women.
[i] Meghan Markle, The girl power speech that put Meghan Markle on the map, The Sydney Morning Herald, https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life-and-relationships/the-girl-power-speech-that-put-meghan-markle-on-the-map-20181009-p508lb.html [ii] https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/Headquarters/Attachments/Sections/Library/Publications/2021/Women-in-politics-2021-en.pdf [iii] Akshi Chawla, On women’s representation in Parliament, Modi government has nothing to show, The Indian Express https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/parliament-women-bjp-government-7470802/