The Modi government has introduced numerous initiatives aimed at empowering women, such as the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Yojana, Ujjwala Yojana, Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana, and Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana. These initiatives underscore the government's commitment to enhancing the lives of women and providing them with opportunities for growth and development.
However, one particularly noteworthy step taken by the Modi government is the "Nari Shakti Vandana Adhiniyam 2023." This legislative measure reflects the government's dedication to acknowledging and empowering the strength and potential of women. As the name suggests, it seeks to ensure women's adequate representation and participation in policy and decision-making processes, further emphasizing their role in shaping the nation's future. This law stands as a significant testament to the government's commitment to women's empowerment and their vital contributions to society.
The demand for political reservation for women has been a longstanding issue in India's history. As far back as 1931, during the National Movement, three women's organizations wrote to the British Prime Minister, urging political reservation for women. While the Government of India Act of 1935 granted women separate electorates, it did not reserve seats for them in the legislative bodies. This was a notable step in the direction of women's political participation.
Even during the Constituent Assembly debates, the issue of reserving seats for women was deliberated. However, it was ultimately declined on the premise that a democracy should offer representation to all segments of society. In 1971, the Committee on the Status of Women recommended the reservation of seats for women in local bodies. Subsequently, the National Perspective Plan for Women in 1988 also supported this idea. These recommendations paved the way for the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution. These amendments mandated that all State governments reserve one-third of the seats for women in local bodies, marking a significant milestone in promoting women's political representation at the grassroots level.
This historic milestone has been a 27-year journey in the making, commencing in 1996 during the United Front government's tenure. However, the bill encountered resistance from several constituent parties, including the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, and Janata Dal-United, which prevented its passage as it necessitated a constitutional amendment. In subsequent attempts under the NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee from 1998 to 2004, the bill encountered similar hurdles, with parties like the RJD and Samajwadi Party impeding its introduction. Despite substantial support from leaders such as Sushma Swaraj, the bill failed to progress due to a lack of a majority and the influence of state-level politics. During these much of years, the participation of women voters has significantly increased, but their representation in legislative assemblies remains disproportionately low. In the most recent Lok Sabha election in 2019, nearly as many women as men turned out to vote, signifying a noteworthy milestone in India's progress toward gender equality in the realm of politics. However, there is still a substantial gap in the number of women holding legislative positions, highlighting the need for further efforts to bridge this gender representation divide.
In the Lok Sabha, there are currently 82 women Members of Parliament, representing 15.2% of the total, and 31 women in the Rajya Sabha, making up 13% of the total. While there has been a significant increase in the number of women in these positions since the first Lok Sabha, where they constituted only 5%, India's representation of women in parliament still lags behind many other countries. According to recent data from UN Women, countries like Rwanda (61%), Cuba (53%), and Nicaragua (52%) have notably higher rates of women's representation in their legislatures. Even countries like Bangladesh (21%) and Pakistan (20%) surpass India in terms of female representation in their political bodies. Therefore, there is an urgent need to take measures that provide women with adequate and equitable representation in both the Parliament and State legislatures.
This bill underscores and provides a justification for the necessity of such reservation measures. Recently, both the Lok Sabha (LS) and Rajya Sabha (RS) approved the 128th Constitutional Amendment Bill, which has now been signed into law by the President of India and is referred to as the "Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, 2023." This legislation reserves one-third of the seats in the Lok Sabha, State legislative assemblies, and the Delhi assembly for women. It's important to note that this reservation also extends to the seats designated for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in the Lok Sabha and State Legislatures, marking a significant step towards enhancing gender diversity and representation in India's political landscape. The Bill introduces Article 330A into the Constitution, drawing inspiration from the provisions of Article 330, which pertain to the reservation of seats for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in the Lok Sabha. In the seats designated for SCs and STs, the Bill proposes to reserve one-third of these seats for women on a rotational basis.
The Bill outlines that reserved seats for women can be allocated to different constituencies within states or Union Territories through a rotation system. It also introduces Article 332A, which stipulates the reservation of seats for women in every state Legislative Assembly. Furthermore, the Bill mandates that one-third of the seats reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) must be earmarked for women, and one-third of the total seats filled through direct elections to the Legislative Assemblies must also be reserved for women. Critics of the bill raised concerns about the absence of reservations for religious minorities and other backward section (OBS) women. However, the rationale behind this omission is straightforward. If the constitution of India does not provide reservations on the same basis to specific communities, it becomes challenging to extend such reservations under the 33% women's quota.
The reservation will initially be in effect for a period of 15 years, but it can be extended beyond this timeframe as determined by legislation passed by Parliament. The seats reserved for women will undergo rotation after each delimitation process, which will be specified by Parliament through a separate law. The reservation will come into force following the completion of the census, the publication of the relevant data, and the subsequent delimitation process that allocates seats specifically for women.
This Act is set to play a pivotal role in India's political landscape. It holds the potential to significantly enhance the political representation of women, empowering them to take on leadership roles and drive positive change. Additionally, it's anticipated that this legislation will contribute to the depolarization of politics, expand the women's vote share, and, most crucially, shatter patriarchal norms, fostering gender equality within the realm of political leadership and decision-making. This legislative initiative is poised to usher in a transformative shift in traditional gender roles and challenge the stereotypical perceptions of women. The commitment of the Modi government to women's empowerment has achieved yet another significant milestone.
This article was contributed by Dr. Seema Singh, Professor of Law, University of Delhi on the day when the Indian Parliament passed Nari Shakti Vandana Adhiniyam 2023