The Women's Reservation Bill (Constitution of India (108th Amendment Bill)) proposes to amend the Constitution to reserve one-third of the seats in the Lok Sabha and in all state legislative assemblies for women. It is a bold step in a country and society that is mostly patriarchal. Unfortunately, patriarchal India seems to be steadfastly unrelenting and unwilling to encourage women’s active participation in politics on a vast scale. Arguments against it include the argument that preferential treatment of women is discrimination against men. Fortunately, Art.326 of our Constitution has instituted universal women’s suffrage. Yet, the feeling was that women would not be truly empowered unless they were actively encouraged by mandatory provisions to hold public office, at least for a fixed temporary period of, say, 2 decades. This is despite women leaders who have served in the highest public offices – Pratibha Patil, Indira Gandhi and Meira Kumar as President, Prime Minister and Speaker of the Lok Sabha respectively.
Women’s Reservation Bill: It has often been introduced in the RS, but has lapsed in successive LSs since 1996. Women at grassroot levels have been empowered by being made village Sarpanches, but successive predominantly male LSs have never passed the Bill that would empower women to enter the highest houses of legislature.
In 1993, a constitutional amendment was passed in India that called for a random one third of Sarpanch positions in gram panchayats (village councils) to be reserved for women. There are studies which show that reservation at the panchayat level has done much good for women empowerment at village level. A movement that deserves Notable Mention is the world-famous non-violent Chipko Andolan (started by women but steered by Sunderlal Bahuguna, who passed away in May 2021) that was really a women’s movement, protesting deforestation. Women's involvements in grassroot politics has largely been reactive, to protest against offences of gender discrimination and sexual violence like rape, female mortality, female foeticide, dowry deaths and domestic abuse. Also, a vast number of women are tethered to their homes with domestic responsibilities, and hence do not have energy and time required for activism. Nevertheless, women have formed tens of thousands of Self Help Groups (SHGs) at the village level as well as in towns and cities, which collectively take advantage of innovations like micro-finance to make villages better places to live.
The Women's Reservation Bill was first introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 1996 and lapsed in the Lok Sabha. This Bill has now become like a comet with an ever-lengthening tail. Similar Bills introduced in 1998, 1999, 2008 met the same fate – they all lapsed after the dissolution of the respective Lok Sabhas. It has now been 25 years since the first introduction of the Bill, but it has repeatedly lapsed. It is now the longest pending legislation in Parliament.
In the 17th Lok Sabha (2019), 78 women have been elected to the Lok Sabha out of 545- a mere 14%. The Bill aims to increase the participation of women in law-making, by reserving 1/3rd of all seats in the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas for women. Other than this, key features of the 2008 Bill include:
A quota-within-quota of one-third of seats reserved for women from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) and the Vidhan Sabhas (State legislative assemblies). Reservations for women from Other Backward Classes (OBCs) has not been incorporated in the Bill.
Reserved seats would be allotted by rotation to different constituencies in the Lok Sabha, State or Union Territory, so that in 15 years, every seat would have got reservation at least once, after which Reservation for Women would lapse.
Arguments in favour of Women’s Reservation Bill
Women's issues will be given much greater priority and attention of law-makers.
There will be more gender equality in Parliament and this will positively impact women's empowerment.
It will reduce discrimination against women and change attitudes towards women in the public sphere.
With more women members in our legislatures, men will behave more responsibly in Parliament.
Arguments Against Women’s Reservation
Women's presence in Parliament cannot by itself bring about change in the status of women in society.
Passing this law is no guarantee that socially backward and disadvantaged women will receive assistance.
Most MLAs and MPs will get their wives or other relatives to serve their seats.
Currently, the quota for SC & ST groups in Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas is 22%. If this bill is passed, the minimum quota will become 55%, which is way too high and iniquitous, and was not envisaged by the lawmakers.
Rajesh is a qualified CA & CWA. He has served as a Director of PricewaterhouseCoopers, a Director of a large urban co-operative bank and Dean of a B-School over the years. He has taught Finance for over 20 years & trained participants from several Companies and B-Schools. He is an educator and a learner (he believes both are inextricably intertwined), and a knowledge product developer. Law Gyani, which he has founded to help Law Students with their exam preparations, and to understand nuances of the law.
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