For 18 years, it has been stuck in legislation, although successive governments have tried to push it through. The 15th Lok Sabha has now been dissolved but the Women’s reservation Bill hasn’t passed the floor of the lower house, despite the lament of leaders like Sonia Gandhi.
It’s now up to the next government to pass the 108th constitutional amendment that will reserve 33 percent of seats in the Lok Sabha and all state legislatures for women. The Rajya Sabha passed the bill on March 9, 2010. The Lok Sabha hasn’t yet mustered the courage or consensus to do so.
As a result, the Parliament in the world’s largest democracy is left with fewer women (as a percentage of members of parliament) than even neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to rankings by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
But how did it all come to this?
Twenty-four of the 543 members in India’s first Lok Sabha were women. It was a motley crew that ranged from Vijaya Raje Scindia, the late Rajmata of Gwalior, who went on to win eight parliamentary elections to 40-year-old Bonily Khongmen, member of a scheduled tribe in Assam.
Many of them such as Sucheta Kripalani, Amrit Kaur, Maniben Patel (Sardar Patel’s daughter), Uma Nehru, Ammu Swaminathan and Annie Mascarene had been prominent nationalists. Kripalani became the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and Kaur served as India’s first health minister.
But the others – such as Ganga Devi from Lucknow, Indira Anant from Poona South, Anasuyabai Purushottam from Nagpur, and many more —have slid into obscurity.
What’s at stake?
In 1952, the women mentioned above made up less than 5 percent of the lower house’s strength. Sixty-two years later, their counterparts still account for only about 11 percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha.
In a country with a population of over 500 million women, this disproportionate representation has been the crux of the argument by activists and political parties that support the bill.
In 1993, India reserved one-third of seats in village panchayats and city councils for women. The bill’s advocates cite studies which say that women elected to local office have pushed legislation on issues — from safety to sanitation — that are integral to empowering women and the communities they live in.
Who’s for it and who’s not?
The Bill is backed by the Congress and the BJP, who have the largest number of women MPs in the Lok Sabha. The BJP’s tally of 13 female MPs might seem well below Congress’ 25, but in both parties women occupy only slightly more than a tenth of the total number of seats.
RJD, SP and BSP are the bill’s fiercest critics. The JD(U) is split between CM Nitish Kumar who is for the bill and party president Sharad Yadav who is against it. This group claims that the bill in its present form will only benefit upper caste women. Their solution is to provide quotas within the quota to assure seats for women from marginalized communities.
Their opposition is not without ground as there are 45 men from Scheduled Tribes but no women. There are 73 men from Scheduled Castes in the current Lok Sabha but only 11 women from the same communities. That’s a dismal two percent of the house. Of those 11 women, however, only two are from the SP and none from the RJD, BSP or JD(U).
The Samajwadi Party: In the last Lok Sabha, when the SP won its highest ever of 40 seats, only three (7.5 percent) of its MPs were women. This time the SP won half as many seats, but four of its MPs are women. At 18 percent, the SP has a greater share of women than either the Congress or BJP.
The Bahujan Samaj Party: The BSP, headed by Mayawati, also has four women sitting as MPs. At 19 percent, the BSP has the highest proportion of women in Parliament.
The Rashtriya Janata Dal: The RJD has no women in the current Lok Sabha, which is hardly surprising given that it won just three seats. But even at its peak when it won 17 seats in 1998, there were only two female MPs.
The Janata Dal (United): The JD(U) which contested national polls for the first time in 1999, sent only one woman to the Lok Sabha before the current house. Of its 19 MPs this time, just two are women.
What does this say?
The bill proposes rotating the reserved seats across all 543 constituencies, which means that women from every constituency, including those reserved for scheduled castes and tribes, will have the chance to contest.
Based on the numbers, it’s hard to say what the opposing parties are truly afraid of: that poor women will lose out, or that male candidates will lose their strongholds?
But if the bill is passed, women’s share of seats in the Lok Sabha will rise dramatically, jumping from the current 63 to a whopping 179. And the men’s share will inevitably drop.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article said Uma Nehru was no relation to India’s first Prime Minister. We are unable to verify that because there isn’t sufficient information available on Ms. Nehru. The error is regretted.
Aparna Alluri is a freelance reporter, finishing up a graduate degree at Columbia University. For now, she is tinkering with words and sound, and she is always plotting where to travel next. Follow her @aparnalluri
Anand Katakam dreams of working in Minnesota or Manipur after his time at the Columbia Journalism School. When he isn’t attending class, he is roaming the streets with his camera. Find out more about his wanderings @anandkatakam