The enactment of a law to reserve one-third of seats in the Lok Sabha and in state legislative assemblies was the highlight of the Special Session that took place on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Indian Parliament during 18-22 September, 2023. Almost all the Members of Parliament voted in favour of this law and declared it to be a significant step forward for the women of India. At the same time, several opposition party representatives criticised the provision that the newly enacted law will become operational only after the next delimitation of constituencies takes place, following the next Census. This implies that it will be another five or six years before the proportion of women representatives rises to one-third.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Volker Türk, considered the enactment of this law to be “an important step towards implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals as well as India’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.”
It is worth noting that the proportion of elected representatives who are women is at present only 15 percent in the Lok Sabha. This compares poorly with several countries at a similar stage of development, including Mexico (48 percent), South Africa (46 percent), Argentina (41 percent), Tanzania (37 percent), China (25 percent) and Pakistan (20 percent).
While the enactment of this law appears to be a step forward for the women of India, closer examination makes one wonder if it is not at the same time a backward move as far as the democratic rights of women and of all citizens are concerned.
The proportion of women members of elected legislative bodies is just one symptom of the position and condition of women in our society. Does raising this proportion through a fixed quota amount to a real improvement in the condition of women? Or is it only an artificial measure? This is a serious concern, that reserving one-third seats for women does not address the root cause of their inferior status.
An important indicator of the status of women is the degree to which they participate in the social labour process and contribute to the income of their family. Several recent studies have observed that the Female Labour Force Participation Rate (FLFPR) is not only very low in India but that it has also declined in recent decades. One such study found that while 40 percent of women between 20 and 30 years of age were part of the social labour force in 1999, this proportion declined to 20 percent by 2018. Another study pointed out that more than half the decline in FLFPR is due to the lack of availability of suitable jobs, while a little less than half is due to cultural norms that prohibit women from working outside the home.
Once the new law becomes operational, only women will be allowed to contest elections in one-third of Lok Sabha and state assembly constituencies. Women will compete with other women in these reserved constituencies. Given the need to field women candidates in such constituencies, most political parties will be reluctant to field women in any of the other constituencies. Instances of women competing with men are likely to become even more rare than at present. Is this not a backward step?
Apart from introducing some new female faces in the parliament and assemblies, the new law will have no impact on the nature of the political system. The political process will continue to be dominated by the same political parties which are financed by the corporate houses. The elected women MPs and MLAs will have to vote according to the party whip and not according to their conscience.
What women need is the power to set the agenda, to make the decisions which affect their lives. They must be able to change the economic and political conditions that perpetuate their discrimination and inferior status.
From being geared to enrich a wealthy minority through the exploitation of those who toil, the economic system must be transformed into one that is geared to fulfil the needs of all women and men. Putting an end to the domination of the political process by parties which represent a super-rich minority is a necessary step to open the path for the empowerment of women.
Without any qualitative change in the economic and political system, artificially raising the proportion of women MPs and MLAs to one-third, through reservation, cannot by itself be considered a significant step forward towards the empowerment and liberation of women. Nay worse, it is tantamount to a backward motion, as it treats women as a special interest group rather than as equal members of society who deserve to play a leading role in its development.
Image source: https://www.india.com/news/india/womens-reservation-bill-how-is-nda-govts-proposal-different-from-upa-version-explained-6336454/
 Dipa Mukherjee & Rajarshi Majumder, “Youth Employment in India”, Economic & Political Weekly, 4 Nov 2023.
 Chatterjee U, Rinku M and M. G. Rama, “Job Opportunities along the Rural-Urban Gradation and Female Labour Force Participation in India”, Policy Research Working Paper No. WPS7412, World Bank, 2015.