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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Two for the price of one

Dump the current women’s bill,and solve two problems at once....

Written by Rami Chhabra |
August 19, 2009 1:56:13 am

The prime minister,in his traditional Independence Day speech,reiterated the UPA’s commitment to the bill reserving seats for women in legislative assemblies,which has been jinxed for over 13 years. Beginning as the 85th Constitutional Amendment Bill in 1996,it has travelled a difficult path — and is now the pending 108th Constitutional Amendment Bill.

The ugly spectacle of the 1999 debate on the women’s reservation bill (WRB),as well as the undignified subterfuges adopted to table its latest avatar,testify to basic problems with the bill. So why fixate on nothing-but-the-original WRB? What is sacrosanct about the formula? Especially as it is premised on ousting sitting members ,on constant flux,which could conceivably weaken,not strengthen,the democratic frame?

Women’s representation issues aside,the unseemly spectacles of desperation witnessed around seat allocation call for re-examination of the basic issue: huge,unwieldy constituency sizes. (In 6 states,the average LS electorate is 2 million-plus. The constitutional mandate is for no constituency being “less than 500,000 and more than 750,000”.)

Representational fairness required fresh delimitation of constituencies after each decadal census; but the unintended consequences — penalisation of progressive southern states for successful population control — were defused by behind the scene negotiations disentangling the mess; Parliament postponed fixing the tangle to 2026. Parliament agreed to not lift the constituency-numbers freeze on seats,thus retaining the existing,delicate inter-state balance; but 2001 Census figures would be used to rationalise constituency demarcation.

That process is now done and dusted. So an interesting opportunity now exists to redress two democratic deficits at one go,without destabilising existing balances: first,the grossly disproportionate sizes of constituencies and two,the deficit of women legislators.

The WRB’s essential objectives should be kept in mind: a minimum one-third representation for women in the legislatures,one-third being the internationally-researched “critical mass” that in turn triggers transformative politics — a more inclusive,socially-sensitive,engendered perspective.

The Standing Committee on Personnel,Law & Justice,chaired by Rajya Sabha MP E.M.S. Natchiappan,which was supposed to review the WRB and arrive at a consensus — its report is presently pending — found serious merit in the suggestion that we increase the number of MPs/ MLAs across and within states without altering the number and territorial demarcation of the constituencies per se. It argued that the constitutional mandate is to protect balance between and within states; it does not actually impose any ceiling on the number of actual representatives. Thus they suggested a substantive increase in legislators — accommodating additional members through dual-membership,a route which had both historical precedence and constitutional validity. Unfortunately the committee was dead-locked by politicking,with parties combining to score political points off the Congress even at the cost of women’s rights.

The historical precedents are there: the first two general elections and assembly elections in the ’50s saw almost a third of all MPs and MLAs being returned from dual-member constituencies. These were eventually bifurcated after passage of the Double Member Constituency (Abolition) Act 1962 in the wake of V.V. Giri’s electoral defeat from a dual-member constituency,and the subsequent dismissal of his court appeal. The cited reason for abolition at the time — how one-million-voter constituencies were “unmanageable” — is ironically exactly what militates for the revival of dual-member constituencies today. That reverse-mirror act also provides an interesting model for how constituencies can be efficiently reworked within a very brief period.

This alternative strategy provides a win-win situation for all parties. It would increase the number of representatives by 50 per cent,in the Lok Sabha as well as in each state assembly (and proportionately in the Rajya Sabha and legislative councils). This addition,earmarked for women alone,would automatically translate into a one-third share,whatever the starting figures. It also brings in larger numbers of women: 271 additional women LS MPs as opposed to 181 seats under the current WRB; 2000 state legislators as opposed to 1300. Increased numbers are accommodated by simultaneously converting half the constituencies in the country into double-member constituencies leaving one-half as single-member constituencies.

The selection of double-member constituencies could be by listing all constituencies by population and picking the top half for the course of two general elections; the two sets would interchange for the next two elections,bringing us up to Delimitation 2026. This provides a perfect level playing field that is gender-neutral,equal effect across constituencies neutralises the current OBC-bias argument. Costs,logistics,modalities are practical,sustainable — and completely worked-out elsewhere.

Today’s need is imaginative innovation: opening up new spaces,not dead-end avenues.

The writer served as an advisor at the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and two terms on the National Population Commission

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