A historic bill to reserve a third of all Lok Sabha seats for women was passed by a whopping majority in Parliament. But not everyone is convinced it’s such a big win—at least, not for all women.
Researched by: Rachel John & Anannya Parekh
First, tell me about the bill…
The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-eighth Amendment) Bill, 2023, proposes the following:
- One third of all Lok Sabha and state legislative assembly seats should be reserved for women—or as close to that percentage as possible. Also included: the Delhi legislative assembly.
- A third of all seats currently reserved for Scheduled Castes and Tribes will also be set aside for women.
- The new law will become effective soon after the next census is conducted—and will require a delimitation exercise to decide which constituencies to reserve for women.
- The seats allotted to women will rotate every ten years—or after every delimitation exercise.
- The law will remain in effect for 15 years—and will continue until the Parliament passes fresh legislation to the contrary.
The effect, in numbers: Currently, there are 78 women Lok Sabha MPs out of a total of 543. They represent only 15.2% of the current LS seats—and 9% of assembly seats, on average. The number of women MPs in the lower house will surge to 181 once the reservations kick in.
Point to note: We have no idea how the government will identify which seats to reserve for women. The laws governing reserved seats for Scheduled Caste and Tribes say they should be located in areas where their numbers are largest—or comparably large. A similar system may be used to allocate seats to women, as well.
A very long term plan: The new quotas will not go into effect for a very long time—because of the delimitation clause. Here’s why:
- The Constitution requires the government to conduct a delimitation exercise after every census—which is supposed to be carried out every ten years.
- This is to ensure that the number and share of seats allotted to states are periodically readjusted to reflect changes in population.
- However, delimitation exercises until now have been based on the 1971 census. The reason: North India has far higher birth rates than the South. As a result, it will gain a decisive majority—if the government were to consider current population numbers (explained at great length in this Big Story).
- The government plans to conduct a fresh census sometime before 2026—and the delimitation exercise to allot women’s seats and rejigger state shares will happen after that.
- Even Amit Shah doesn’t expect it to happen before 2029. Some argue that the results of any delimitation exercise aren’t likely to kick in before 2031.
- And that’s only if it doesn’t spark a North-South maha-yudh over seat numbers.
Haven’t we tried this before?
Yup. The idea of reserving parliamentary seats for women is not new—but has been continually stymied by opposition from regional parties.
The first attempt: was made in 1996 by the Deve Gowda-led United Front government. But it fell apart due to opposition within the ruling government. Leaders like Nitish Kumar demanded reservation for Other Backward Caste women. This is also when Sharad Yadav made his infamous remark about “baal kati mahila” (short-haired women) monopolising all the seats.
The big BJP push: Atal Bihari Vajpayee tried multiple times to pass a reservation bill between 1998 and 2004. The opposition from OBC leaders remained every bit as fierce—primarily on caste grounds. A Rashtriya Janata Dal leader ripped a copy of the bill to shreds—claiming that “BR Ambedkar had appeared in his dream and asked him to do so.” Attempts in 2000, 2002 and 2003 also failed despite support from Congress and the Left.
The UPA effort: The Manmohan Singh government introduced a fresh bill in 2008. This time, the Samajwadi Party provided most of the theatrics:
Before Law Minister HR Bhardwaj could rise, SP MP Abu Azmi rushed towards him to snatch the copy of the Bill even as then Women and Child Development Minister Renuka Chowdhury, along with some other Congress MPs, tried to block him physically and cordon off Bhardwaj. Another SP MP hurled pieces of torn paper into the well of the House.
While the Rajya Sabha managed to pass the bill in 2010, the Congress couldn’t break the deadlock in the Lok Sabha.
Why it worked now: This time around, the same regional parties—including the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal—did not offer such fierce resistance. And they dropped their demand for an OBC quota. The biggest reason: the rising clout of the woman voter. The gender gap in voter turnout has disappeared over the past two decades. It shrank from 8.4 percentage points in 2004 to just 1.8 in 2014. The 2019 elections entirely upended the gap. Voter participation among women in 2019 was a whopping 67.18%—compared to 67.01% for men.
As a result, even regional parties have been forced to become more responsive to women’s issues. For example, Nitish Kumar brought in a strict alcohol prohibition law in Bihar to make female voters happy. That’s because not only women vote in greater numbers, they also make independent decisions based on their concerns—as you can see in the ORF Online chart below:
Today, even regional parties can no longer afford to be seen as ‘anti-women’:
Requesting anonymity, a source in the RJD said that the broader perception of the people about the party was also important, apart from flagging the party’s core concerns regarding the Bill. “Had the SP walked out, how would the media have presented it? Would they have not said that the party is against a progressive measure?” the RJD leader said.
Key data point to note: None of this means that more Indian women vote than men. That’s because India has far fewer women, period—943 for every 1,000 men. Also this: “The sex ratio among India’s registered voters is even worse. There are only 908 women for every 1,000 men on the country’s voter rolls.”
Why would anyone object to a bill like this?
Everyone agrees that there is a serious crisis of gender representation in India. Just look at the numbers:
- India is currently ranked #143 out of a total of 187 nations in terms of the percentage of women parliamentarians.
- As of July 2023, only 15.2% of Lok Sabha members are women. The number for the Rajya Sabha is even lower: 13.8%.
- While voter participation skyrocketed, the percentage of female candidates in Lok Sabha elections has risen at snail’s pace—increasing from 6.11% in 1999 to 9% in 2019.
- Only 726 out of the total 8,054 candidates were women in the 2019 election.
- The BJP doled out only 12.5% of its tickets to women. The Congress was equally dismal at 12.8%.
- States like Mizoram and Nagaland have zero women assembly members—despite high female literacy rates.
Point to note: Many studies show that higher numbers of women representatives results in policies that better reflect women’s concerns and issues. Simply increasing voter turnout isn’t enough to achieve full representation. Women members also add diversity to decision-making around core public policy concerns. There is also a knock-on effect on the number of women in the workplace:
Women’s participation in India’s formal and informal workforce is abysmally low, except in agriculture and poor-quality domestic jobs, which tend to be exploitative. At the very least, an increase in female political participation may ensure a conversation on gender-based policies at the highest level in India’s largely conservative society.
But, but, but: Setting aside arguments around tokenism—especially in India, where women candidates often represent their male relatives—the greater concern is caste. The big question is: Will all women be represented in the legislature? That’s why a number of critics and political leaders have flagged the absence of caste-based protections.
Let’s take Outlook Magazine’s example of how reservations for women from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes will work. According to the bill, one third of the Lok Sabha seats currently reserved for these communities will be allotted to women. This means 28 of the 84 SC seats—and 16 of the ST seats—will be given to women. That’s a total of 47—which is certainly more than double the current total of 20.
But in terms of the percentage of all women MPs, the dial does not move at all. Twenty out of 78 MPs are currently from SC/ST communities—which is nearly 25.6%. Once the reservations kick in, 44 out of 181 women MPs would be from these communities. That percentage: around 24%.
As for OBC women: The bill makes no provision for them at all. While we don’t have a caste census to estimate actual numbers, other data indicates that Other Backward Castes account for anywhere between 45-52% of the population. Some experts argue that’s why they have been sidelined: “[G]iven their numerical strength as well as their social location, pose a greater threat to upper castes than SC/STs, about whom some complacency was still possible.”
As for Muslim women: The numbers are truly shameful: “Between 1952 to 2004, only eight Muslim women were elected to the Lok Sabha, with some serving multiple terms. In the current Lok Sabha, there are only two Muslim women members, both from West Bengal.”
The bottomline: ‘Intersectionality’ is a clunky but important word because it resists attempts to erase the differences within communities—which offers great advantage to their more privileged members. As BehanBox notes:
[T]he immediate implementation of 33% women’s reservation without the intersectional inclusion will change the class and caste formation of the house, replacing lower caste men with upper caste women. In this understanding, the demand for quotas within quotas has been seen as an attempt to divide women rather than recognize the fact that women do not form a monolithic group.
The PRS Legislative Research overview in The Wire offers the best overview of the proposed law—and key concerns. Indian Express traces the rocky history of women reservation bills—and looks at how this one will be implemented. ORF Online and Milan Vaishnav over at Carnegie Endowment make strong arguments for quotas for women reps. Outlook magazine and BehanBox are very good on the importance of considering caste. Hindu Business Line looks at the numbers involved. For the delimitation angle, read The Print on how it will impact implementation, The Hindu on why it favours the BJP and our Big Story on why it will likely spark a North-South battle.