India’s social fabric is complex and diverse, and women’s ability to realise substantive equality in this environment has long been of concern to advocates for social justice. In particular, the issue of gender representation in politics has been a persistent theme. As a significant first step towards addressing the underrepresentation of women in decision-making bodies, on 20 September 2023 the Indian parliament approved the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, widely referred to as the Women’s Reservation Bill.
The Bill guarantees one third of seats for women in the lower house of parliament and in state assemblies, with exceptions for the Rajya Sabha (the national upper house of parliament) and for state Legislative Councils. This reservation is on a rotational basis, meaning different constituencies would be reserved for women in different election cycles. However, while the Bill also significantly extends the seats designated for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), it does not incorporate horizontal reservations, which encompass marginalised groups such as Other Backward Classes (OBCs), minorities, and transgender women, thus limiting its scope for broader inclusivity.
This Bill has long been the centre of deliberation. Its inception can be traced back to the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts of 1993, which mandated the reservation of one third of the sarpanch (council leader) positions in gram panchayats (village councils) and municipalities for women. Subsequently, in 1996, the bill was introduced as the 81st Constitutional Amendment Act. It was then reintroduced in 1998, 1999, and 2008, but confronted significant debate and opposition. In 2010, a vital development occurred when it was referred to a standing committee and ultimately received approval in the Rajya Sabha (the legislature’s upper house). Following this, the Bill progressed to the Lok Sabha (the lower house of India’s bicameral parliament), where it then lapsed at the conclusion of the 15th Lok Sabha’s term.
A notable difference between the 2008 Bill and the 2023 Bill is that the latter includes provision for a delimitation exercise, following the first census conducted after the Bill’s enactment. The sunset provision, which foresees the policy’s eventual discontinuation after 15 years, is still present. The 2023 bill does not attempt to amend Articles 331 and 333, in contrast to the 2008 bill, leaving the provisions relating to the reservation for the Anglo-Indian community untouched. The 2023 bill also includes three more articles, with Articles 330A and 332A advocating seat reservations for women in the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies, respectively, while Article 334A, conversely, outlines a mechanism for the gradual discontinuation of this affirmative action program after 15 years.
India has made remarkable leaps in its global standing on gender equality, moving from the 135th position in the 2022 rankings to the 127th position in the 2023 edition of the Gender Gap Report. This shift underscores the nation’s achievement of a substantial 25.3 percent parity in the realm of political empowerment for women, thus signalling progress in women’s participation in political decision-making processes. However, despite the increasing presence of women in influential political positions worldwide, achieving gender equality within the parliamentary sphere remains elusive. According to a comprehensive map-based report, India is ranked 140 out of 186 nations for women’s participation in Parliament, with women making up only 15.1 percent of the Lok Sabha and 13.8 percent of the Rajya Sabha. In the context of the Union Cabinet, India ranks 171st, with women holding just 6.7 percent of Cabinet positions. These statistics lag behind Asian counterparts such as Nepal, China, Bangladesh, and Pakistan in terms of women parliamentary representation.
While the Bill has garnered substantial support, it has also faced opposition and controversy. Critics argue that women’s reservation can lead to tokenism, potentially undermining meritocratic values, and that it may also limit voter choices, compelling support for women candidates regardless of their qualifications. However, these claims conflict with evidence from the OECD concerning the positive impacts of parliamentary quotas for women. Additionally, valid concerns exist around intersectionality, particularly regarding the potential reduced representation of marginalised communities within reserved constituencies. These issues highlight the need to implement critical supplementary measures and policies alongside the Bill which are aimed at fostering inclusivity and proactively engaging women from marginalised backgrounds. Such endeavours would help to level the political playing field and contribute to a more equitable and representative reflection of society within the legislature.
The Women’s Reservation Bill stands at the crossroads of gender equality, political empowerment, and social inclusion in India. Its enactment into law would represent a landmark step forward in the journey towards a more egalitarian and representative democracy which seeks to secure substantive equality for all citizens, regardless of gender, caste, ethnicity or class.