Explained: Features, timelines, other details of Nari Shakti Bill
The Women's Reservation Bill was cleared with a thumping majority of 454-2, but it's hardly been a smooth sail
The Narendra Modi government on Tuesday surprised everyone by introducing the Women’s Reservation Bill – a proposed law which has been tabled multiple times, in either House of Parliament, in the past 27 years but never enacted – on the first day MPs walked into the new Parliament complex.
The Bill, which proposes to ensure 33 per cent reservation for women in Lok Sabha and state assemblies, figured prominently in the BJP’s manifestos for the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and 2019 and is seen as the NDA’s masterstroke ahead of the 2024 General Elections.
While parties like Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM have opposed the Bill, the Congress has slammed the government for attaching conditions to the proposed legislation to allegedly delay its implementation.
What are the features of the Bill?
The Bill named ‘Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam’ aims to provide 33 per cent reservation to women in the Lok Sabha, state assemblies and the Delhi legislative assembly.
One third of the seats reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies will be kept aside once the law comes into force. This means 33 per cent of the 84 seats for SCs and 33 per cent of the 47 seats for STs in the Lok Sabha will be reserved for women.
When will it be implemented?
The reservation that the Bill proposes cannot be implemented before the 2024 General Elections as the government needs to first conduct a new Census and subsequently carry out the time-consuming exercise of delimitation of constituencies. The next delimitation exercise (for the presently reserved SC and ST categories) was due to begin in 2026 after the completion of the 2021 decadal Census. However, the 2021 Census has not been conducted as yet.
As such, the Opposition and several political commentators have claimed that the Bill, per its current provisions, cannot be implemented before 2026.
Since this is a Constitution Amendment Bill with direct impact on composition of state assemblies, the Bill is also required to passed by at least 50 per cent of state assemblies after its passage by both Houses of Parliament, before it can be sent for Presidential assent to become a law. Once passed, reservation for women will be applicable for a period of 15 years, with the provision for further extension by Parliament.
How many women MPs can we expect?
Once the law is enacted, the strength of women MPs in Lok Sabha will rise from the current 82 to 181. The Bill will have no effect on the composition of the Rajya Sabha and the Legislative Councils in states. The reserved seats will be rotated after each delimitation.
Historically, women’s representation in the Rajya Sabha has been lower than that in the Lok Sabha. The percentage of women’s representation in Lok Sabha remained in single digits from 1951 until 2009, when it rose to 11 per cent. It reached its current peak of 15 per cent after the 2019 General Elections.
The representation of women in the Upper House since 1952 has seen an erratic trend. While women formed 6.9 per cent of the House in 1952, their strength has seen ups and downs over the decades with the highest being recorded in 2014 (12.7 per cent). The strength of women in Rajya Sabha in 2020 was 10.2 per cent.
What do women gain from the Bill?
The government says the legislation will help women actively participate in the policy-making procedure at state and national levels. Gender experts agree that a larger space for women leaders will eventually shape policy and decision-making, in favour of women's welfare.
Gender parity is gaining ground worldwide, with the laws stipulating the earmarking of board seats, etc for women. Local bodies in India already have quota for women.
Is the Bill passed now the same as the one introduced in 2008?
There are differences. While both the Bills share the similar aims of providing 33 per cent reservation to women in Lok Sabha, state legislatures and the Delhi assembly for a period of 15 years from the day the law comes into being, the latest Bill makes a Census and delimitation compulsory before the implementation of the reservation.
The new Bill also doesn’t make any mention of states and Union territories which have just one Lok Sabha seat.
The old Bill envisioned immediate implementation upon its enactment but proposed that the reserved seats be rotated after every election to Parliament and legislative assembly for the three electoral cycles (15 years) for which the reservation was to apply. However, the new Bill wants the reserved seats to be rotated after every delimitation exercise.
The new Bill doesn’t talk about reservation for women in the Rajya Sabha or state legislative council neither includes women from the OBC community despite it being a major bone of contention over the years.
Now, the politics. The Bill was passed 452-2; are all parties at peace with it?
While all the parties did support the Bill, there has been much rancour over its ownership. A war of words flared up between the Congress and the BJP after the former, which had tabled the 2008 version of the Bill, sought to take credit for it.
Congress MP Sonia Gandhi said it is imperative to implement the Bill immediately and ensure that reservation to OBCs is provided within the quota. “This is a very poignant moment in my life. It was my life partner Rajiv Gandhi ji who for the first time had brought the constitutional amendment for participation of women in local bodies, but it was defeated in the Rajya Sabha by seven votes. Later, the Congress government under the leadership of Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao got it passed,” she said. “Today, as a result of that, there are 15 lakh elected women leaders through local bodies across the country.”
When asked about the Bill on Tuesday morning Sonia had said, “What’s the problem? Apna hai, it’s our own.”
The BJP lashed out at the Congress for trying to take credit for the Bill. Home Minister Amit Shah said the Bill the Congress had introduced had lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha and the party's attempts to take credit for the latest one only shows their “double standards”.
“The Congress either let legislations lapse or friendly parties prevented tabling of the Bill. Their double standards will never be hidden,” he said. “Sadly, the Opposition is unable to digest the bill. What is more shameful is that except tokenism, the Congress has never been serious about women’s reservation.”
Is credit for the Bill the only bone of contention?
There are disagreements over the clauses, too. Comparing the Bill with the 2008 version, the Congress on Tuesday asked why the Modi government has inserted the conditions of a Census and delimitation exercise to make it functional while the UPA’s Bill had no such conditions.
Also, Congress general secretary Jairam Ramesh, on X (Twitter), questioned Modi’s intent to 'stall' the Bill for nine years and table it when his “party’s electoral prospects started dimming.”
Trinamool Congress’ Mahua Moitra accused the BJP of “doublespeak”, asking why the Bill lacked a proper timeline.
The RJD which had warmed up to the Bill in 2010, has not been very enthusiastic about the Bill. Its ally JD(U) willingly extended its support emphasising on its demand for OBC quota within the 33 per cent reservation.
Timeline of the Bill
Deve Gowda introduced it first in Parliament:
The Bill was first introduced in the Lok Sabha by the HD Deve Gowda government in 1996.
Then called the Constitution (Eighty-first Amendment Bill), 1996 (insertion of new Articles 33A and 332A), the Bill was opposed by several leaders of the United Front government, a coalition of 13 parties, and referred to a Joint Committee headed by Geeta Mukherjee of the CPI.
The committee suggested that the phrase, “not less than one-third” in the Bill be replaced with “as nearly as may be, one-third”. The committee also recommended reservation of seats for women in the Rajya Sabha, consideration for Other Backward Classes, and a rotation policy for states that had existing reservation, in less than three seats, for SCs and STs among others.
Matters became complicated after JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar demanded sub-reservation for women from the Other Backward Class (OBC) community.
The Bill couldn’t be passed following resistance from members of the ruling coalition government.
Resistance during Vajpayee era:
The NDA government helmed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee between 1998 and 2004 also made three attempts to pass the Bill, but to no avail.
On July 13, 1998, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Samajwadi Party (SP) MPs raised a hue and cry when then law minister M Thambi Durai tried to introduce the Bill in the Lok Sabha.
In December the same year, the Bill was not only opposed by the SP-led Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha, BSP and the Muslim League but also by several NDA members in the Lok Sabha.
When it was again introduced on December 23, 1999, MPs from the BSP, SP and RJD had vehemently opposed it.
The Bill lapsed after attempts to reintroduce it in 1998, 1999 and 2002 failed even though the Congress and the Left parties were in its favour.
UPA reintroduced Bill:
The UPA government, headed by then prime minister Manmohan Singh, in May 2004 said it was committed to introduce a law to provide 33 per cent reservation to women in state assemblies and Lok Sabha. UPA allies like RJD, however, were not on board on the issue.
The Women’s Reservation Bill was re-introduced by the UPA government in Parliament in 2008 amid chaotic scenes. While the Parliamentary Standing Committee to which it was referred recommended its immediate passage, the Bill couldn’t go through due to differences on the OBC reservation.
In 2010, the RJD agreed to support the Bill which was then passed by the Rajya Sabha as the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill – the only time that the Bill has ever been passed by either House of Parliament in the past 27 years. Passage of the Bill by the Rajya Sabha was then transmitted to the Lok Sabha but the Bill itself was never introduced in the Lower House. The BJP claims that since the Bill's passage had been communicated to the Lok Sabha, it lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha in 2014 as per Article 107 of the Constitution. The Congress, however, claims that since the Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha but not introduced in the Lok Sabha, it is still an active legislation under provisions of the same Article.