Autonomy required for Delimitation Commission

The Delimitation Commission is a statutory body, but it lacks the protection of comprehensive constitutional guidelines. There is an urgent need for parliament to buttress its autonomy so that it can discharge its mandate without fear or favour
Autonomy required for Delimitation Commission
Picture credits: ANI

The subject of constituency delimitation has become controversial over the past several months due to the Women’s Reservation Bill and the population disparity between the southern and northern states.  

Despite the heated discussion, there is a general lack of clarity about what delimitation implies. Basically, it denotes the fixation of boundaries of parliamentary and state assembly constituencies in a certain proportion to the country’s or state’s population that is tabulated after every national census. Delimitation is constitutionally mandated under Articles 82 and170. Articles 330 and 332 provide for the reservation of constituencies for SCs/STs, both at the central and state levels.

This function is performed by a statutory body called the Delimitation Commission that is set up after the passage of a Delimitation Act by parliament from time to time. The responsibilities of the commissions are individually prescribed by each Act. Four commissions have been established till date in 1952, 1962, 1972 and 2002.

Delimitation was suspended for 25 years from 1976 to 2001 by the 42nd constitutional amendment, and further deferred until 2026 by the 84th amendment, in order to encourage successful family planning endeavours by states. Presently, this has been postponed until the completion of the next census to be conducted after 2026.

Delimitation has evolved over the years. What began as a fairly innocuous, bureaucratic exercise in a fledgling democracy has now metamorphosed into a tool for success in a highly sophisticated, technologically advanced electoral scenario. 

Consequently, delimitation has been politicised and is fraught with challenges. One example is the reservation of constituencies for the SC/ST. The criterion for ST reservation as per various delimitation acts is their population should be the “largest” in the constituency. This presumes the ST population is still societally organised in cohesive groups, which may be an oversimplification and necessitate a relook at guidelines to better align with current realities.

Similarly, they prescribe the reservation of seats for SCs where their population in the constituency is “comparatively large”. This is fairly broad and subject to an array of interpretations. It allows the creation of a new SC reserved constituency where none existed before or the removal of an existing reservation. An SC reserved constituency with an SC population that has traditionally voted against the party in power could be converted into a “general” constituency and vice versa. Such political manipulation is possible since the criterion is vague. Such changes are often due to the compulsions of the ruling dispensation or made to suit their electoral stratagem.

After the Women’s Reservation Bill received parliamentary assent last year, opposition parties urged for the early delimitation of constituencies into “women’s reserved seats”. Conversely, they also argued delimitation would disproportionately favour states slack in managing population increase and punish those that had successfully implemented the population policy. Population-trim states are also likely to be affected with regard to constituency-related funding. For instance, states whose constituencies decrease will lose a proportionate portion of MPLAD funds as the scheme is linked to constituencies. 

Nonetheless, timely delimitation is essential to enable a functional democracy. India has the largest average number of voters per parliamentary constituency. Already individual parliamentary and assembly constituencies cover such large populations that adequately responding and attending to all their developmental requirements presents a serious challenge to representatives. It is imperative that constituencies are rationalised to have optimal population to representative ratio.

This requires a strong and autonomous Delimitation Commission. However, it is only a statutory body that lacks the protection of comprehensive constitutional guidelines or a rigorous procedural framework cemented in the Constitution. The concerned provisions are overarching rather than procedure or detail oriented. Without constitutional status, the Commission’s autonomy is liable to compromise. This apprehension is strengthened by the fact that the chair is appointed by the president upon the government’s advice and members are government servants.

Delimitation is also not subject to any form of judicial review, legal recourse or parliamentary/assembly scrutiny. This would imply the government is the only agency that has any power over this exercise. The only time the process can be deliberated upon is before the Delimitation Act is passed. After that, it cannot be questioned, even by parliament. There is thus an urgent need to initiate a parliamentary debate about buttressing the Commission’s autonomy to discharge its mandate without fear or favour, and to follow up, if need be, with a constitutional amendment.

Parliamentary discussions can also raise incidental issues. For example, after SC/ST and women’s reservation, will it create a demand for OBC or minority reservation? If so, will it result in easily manipulatable delimitation of a majority of constituencies to direct the course of elections?

It is possible delimitation can again be suspended to suit a particular agenda or party. It is difficult to predict the future. What is clear, though, is that the process of delimitation must be strengthened and shielded with adequate safeguards. Delimitation is as vital for the democratic system as elections, and it wouldn’t be wrong to surmise that delimitation reflects the country’s political philosophy, futuristic agenda and civic commitment.

(Views are personal)

RENUKA CHIDAMBARAM

Retired IAS officer, former UN bureaucrat & former head of Karnataka’s planning department

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