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Whose Bill is it anyway?

Reserving seats for women by rotating constituencies is definitely not in consonance with parliamentary democracy, not to speak of the conse...

Written by Rami Chhabra |
June 2, 2003

Reserving seats for women by rotating constituencies is definitely not in consonance with parliamentary democracy, not to speak of the consequences of women’s electoral ghettoisation through the prescribed process. It is therefore time to explore alternative solutions.

However, the media appear to be tilting public opinion towards what is clearly a further dilution of an already diluted demand: 33 per cent reservation for an electorate that is roughly half the population. A mandatory allocation of 33 per cent of party tickets to women will, in the end, mean a far lower percentage in the Parliament and Assemblies, while allowing everyone to feel complacent about having done their bit. Perhaps, it is more pragmatic and plausible. But why worry about the issue at all, if all that it is to be achieved at the end is a little more of the same?

Ironically, on the very day that the Women’s Reservation Bill was scuttled yet again, the Lok Sabha passed the 96th amendment to the Constitution modifying the Delimitation Bill, a new piece of legislation equally relevant to democracy issues that has drawn no similar flak in processing. Delimitation will redress some of the problems arising from misplaced population strategies that had earlier frozen delimitation since 1971, creating grave distortions. However, what no one is saying is that in its present limited avatar, it continues to perpetuate a major disjoint with democracy norms.

It is doubly ironic because the delimitation exercise could have been — and could still be — the medium for satisfactorily recreating more democratic reach and resolving the women’s justice question in one swoop. Since the mid-’90s, I have argued for such a convergence — at the National Commission of Women, meetings of women’s groups and later in the National Population Commission. However, entrenched interests have marginalised more creative debate and women’s organisations have fixated exclusively on the defective Women’s Reservation Bill to the present dead-end scenario.

Let me explain how delimitation could link with equity for Women’s Representation as also greater equity for the democratic processes themselves.

The main task of the Delimitation Commission set up, under the Delimitation Bill 2002, pursuant to the 84th Amendment, is to re-adjust the territorial constituencies in the House of the People with regard to the seats allocated to each state and the re-adjustment of the territorial constituencies of the Legislative Assembly of each state. The rationalisation of the constituencies, including refixing of the number of seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, was earlier to be done on the basis of the 1991 Census — and now the 2001 Census — but within the overall number of seats allocated to each state for Parliament and within the state for its Assembly as frozen at the 1971 levels. The 96th Constitutional Amendment passed on May 6 is a progressive step that updates delimitation against the very latest count of the population.

However, the delimitation exercise itself continues to remain a limited one. Limited, because as explained above, the overall numbers of Lok Sabha/ Assembly seats will remain frozen at 1971 levels, so as not to discriminate against those states that performed well on family-planning measures, the cause for freezing the number of seats in the first place. All that it seeks is to bring about territorial adjustments of each constituency within the states so as to ensure intra-state electoral equity in the size of each constituency. Altogether, as per 1996 electoral figures, over 41 per cent of the Lok Sabha constituencies are reported to exceed their state averages by 10-30 per cent; 208, mainly urban constituencies, were identified as grossly oversized. This particular anomaly will now be resolved by the current delimitation being undertaken after a gap of 30 years.

But what political attention and legal revision has ignored is the equally crucial reality of huge, unwieldy constituencies that will not change by merely bringing down sizes to an equitable state average. The freeze of seats in 1976, at the 1971 population level, had produced an average size of 1.1 million per parliamentary constituency. By 1991, this figure had already risen to an average of almost 1.6 million. The size of each constituency is expected to be around 1.9 million according to the 2001 Census. This will further increase to an average of 2.4 million per constituency by 2016; and, much beyond that in 2026, when the current overall freeze is to be reconsidered. The size of the Assembly constituencies is a matter of similar concern.

Ignoring the perils inherent in such constituency behemoths is to leave politics resolutely in the grip of money and muscle power. It may be noted that as originally conceived, the Constitution envisaged no restrictions on absolute numbers of representatives. But it was very concerned with establishing the norms of constituency sizes to preserve democratic principles. It proposed not more than one representative for 500,000 citizens and not less than one representative for 750,000 citizens. These clearly enunciated and crucial democratic criteria are given the go by for the sake of what one can only term as stultified strategic planning for population. Once again we are adopting a linear extension of failed thinking — what could not deliver adequate results over the past 30 years is now extended to yet another quarter of a century, creating even more grossly elephantine constituencies.

Despite having been successfully lobbied for by population lobbies, the present delimitation will actually go against the grain of the present population policies that are projected as being not about numbers but people and their development; and, in which the empowerment of women and the improvement of their condition is a critical prerequisite. At the same time, the battle for women’s political participation is being waged to bring about an extension of the ineffective and obsolete SC/ST model that failed to achieve its intent in half a century.

The delimitation exercise has just begun. It offers a unique opportunity. That is, if the Government gets its act together quickly with all political parties and brings to the Parliament’s Monsoon Session agreed Constitutional amendments that further amplify Articles 81 & 170-17 to deal with overall numbers of representatives in the Lok Sabha/Assemblies and to further sub-divide each territorial constituency now being drawn up into two segments.

What is proposed is an exact doubling of the numbers of representatives in the Lok Sabha and the Assemblies, alongside providing a mandate to the Delimitation Commission to bifurcate every constituency into two segments, each to be represented respectively by one male and one female MP/MLA. This is not as outlandish an idea as it may sound.

While the population-seat ratio has increased dramatically over the decades, the ratio is more or less the same between states. Therefore, a bifurcation of each constituency would maintain the present status quo in all other respects. It would preserve equity on all population concerns that presently form a consideration. But it would create current constituency sizes of around a million each, an altogether more manageable baseline size.

Such a step would restore the constituency-representative balance of the 1971 scenario. Plus, it would achieve a qualitative change in the character of political representation through a critical mass of equal numbers of men and women at the political helm. Men would actually gain another eight per cent of the seats currently occupied by women. Women will get not just 33 per cent or less as now being proposed, but full parity of representation, the only way to envisage equality and equity concerns in the 21st century.

The upper limit on representation for election to the Lok Sabha/Assemblies has never been sacrosanct. It has been re-adjusted from time to time, the very first re-adjustment of scale being as early as the Second Amendment Act in 1952. Equally, the Constitution of India had envisaged dual member constituencies, albeit for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, a practice that was only discontinued for administrative reasons not valid any longer. Those that argue about the expenses involved in the expansion to double member/ doubling of constituencies would do well to think of the price that has to be paid as democratic structures break down further.

India needs radical rethinking to overcome its social backlog. It needs more democracy, not less. Democracy that serves the unserved. It is time to think fifty-fifty; not horse-trading, to bring quotas within quotas. A critical mass capable of bringing qualitatively different perspectives and ways of functioning to political life is the only justification for seeking women’s wider political participation.

Double member constituencies are not a fanciful idea. It is the sterile expansion of the failed past and the strident import of new gender militancy that is far more fearful. Corporate India has successfully pulled off previously unimaginable changes from earlier times. The social agenda demands no less. We need men and women to work together — the model being our own freedom struggle and not the protracted suffragette movement of the West.

(The writer is a Member of the National Population Commission and a pioneer women’s activist)

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