Easy part over, now for the hard tasks

It's clear why the BJP did not pass the women’s reservation bill in 2014, and it’s equally clear why they did in 2023.The bigger effort now is to ensure an equable delimitation
Express Illustrations| Soumyadip Sinha)
Express Illustrations| Soumyadip Sinha)

It was politics all the way. First, the presidency of the G20 which by rotation was to be hosted by India in 2022 was shifted to 2023. Thereafter, the promulgation of a special session of parliament, without an agenda, followed by speculation, with the media going abuzz with possible ‘breaking news’ scenarios. Then, the element of secrecy and surprise which is typical ‘brand Modi’, allowing for mindless combative debates on channels competing for television rating points.

We were told that the government will introduce the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam 2023. This bill was destined to pass. No political party, no member of parliament could dare to oppose the bill. All this in the new seven-star, soulless parliament structure. A shaky Modi did this for 2024.

If this government truly wanted to politically empower women in India, this bill could have been passed much earlier. The BJP obtained an absolute majority in 2014. With the open support of the Congress, the bill would have sailed through. By 2019, it would have been implemented. The reason why the BJP did not move the bill in 2014 is obvious. The reason why they have moved it now in 2023 is equally obvious.

From Sub-Saharan Africa to the Caribbean, and from Europe to Australia and South America, women are adequately represented in their respective parliaments. Take the highest legislative bodies of BRICS countries: women’s representation in South Africa is over a third, in China exactly a fourth, in Brazil almost a fifth, and in Russia 16 percent. India stands at the bottom with 15.2 percent, much less than the global average of 26.5 percent.

Even among our neighbours, women’s representation in Nepal is exactly a third, in Bangladesh a little over a fifth, and in Pakistan exactly a fifth. Only Sri Lanka ranked below India at five percent. That women have been excluded from political participation in our parliament and legislative assemblies is a reflection of the male mindset in India despite the crying need for their political empowerment.Meaningful women’s representation in our legislative bodies is still years away. The reasons are not far to seek. A historical perspective will throw some light on the pitfalls ahead.

There have been four delimitations in our country—in 1952, 1963, 1973 and 2002. The delimitation in 1972 was completed in 1976. Delimitation is re-configuring boundaries of parliamentary and legislative constituencies in the context of the changing and shifting patterns of population over a period of ten years. The object is to ensure that each elected member represents, as far as possible, a uniform number of residents in the constituency. Each delimitation exercise follows a decadal Census. The first Census was held in 1951 and thereafter, every ten years until 2011.

In 2002, by virtue of the 84th constitutional amendment, the next delimitation after 1976 was to take place in 2026. This is because the health ministry opined that by 2026, the population in India will stabilise. After 2011, the next Census was to be held in 2021. But because of Covid, it could not be held. It has been delayed since, too. Now it is likely to be held in 2026, after which the delimitation exercise will be undertaken. Delimitation is a very complicated exercise requiring a dedicated army of enumerators to conduct house-to-house survey throughout the country. The process is unlikely to be completed by 2029.

Under our constitutional scheme, the number of parliamentary seats in a state depends on the population of the state. More populous states have a larger representation in parliament. The more complicated issue that will confront our polity relates to a significant shift in the centre of political power in India to the Hindi belt. The number of elected seats in the Lok Sabha will increase from 543 to above 750, and given the fact that population in the Hindi belt has not stabilised unlike in southern states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the number of seats will increase exponentially in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. By contrast, Tamil Nadu and Kerala will be adversely affected. In other words, states in the south which have been able to stabilise their populations will be punished, while those in the Hindi belt will be rewarded. This will become a huge issue, unlikely to be resolved through consensus.

Indeed, if the BJP does come to power, which seems unlikely, it will be difficult for the government to evolve a mechanism that will honour the passing of the bill in the special session and at the same time, give effect to the outcome of the delimitation process. My suspicion, therefore, is that the bill is not likely to see the light of day for some time.

The more fundamental issue in this context is that empowerment is a process through which individuals—be they members of the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Backward Classes (OBCs), or women—are provided with the environment to become self-reliant. Since independence, we have had reservations for the SCs and STs, and they are constitutionally protected. But the Dalits are targets of rampant inhuman discrimination. This is what Ambedkar talked about when he said that in the absence of social transformation and the dismantling of the caste system, empowerment will remain a distant dream. A static caste structure has been an impediment to the progress of our country, and the dominant castes continue to have a strong hold over the future of India.

Unless women are empowered through opportunities in education and uplifted socially and economically apart from just politically, we will never realise the dream of transforming India. The same applies to the SCs, STs and marginalised communities. Patting ourselves on the back for the passage of the women’s reservation bill is pointless unless we are honest about genuinely empowering women in our country. Empowerment does not take place by appointing women or people from marginalised communities to high positions. Let my colleagues in parliament place their hands on their hearts and ask themselves if passing this bill will truly empower the women of India. The answer is self-evident.

(Views are personal)

(Tweets @KapilSibal)

Kapil Sibal

Senior lawyer and member of Rajya Sabha

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