Women's reservation: remaining hurdles too should be overcometext_fields
The Constitution Amendment Bill, which provides for 33% reservation for women in Parliament and state legislatures, was passed by the Lok Sabha with a thumping majority (454-2) and unanimously by the Rajya Sabha. At this juncture, there has been a renewed demand for reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) within this existing reservation framework, alongside a call for a caste-based census to facilitate this process. The demand for OBC reservation is something that the opposition parties, primarily those within the INDIA alliance, should have considered and decided upon before wholeheartedly welcoming and voting in favour of the bill. The NDA government introduced this bill hastily, as it has done with many other legislative initiatives. Since the bill is passed in its current form, it may necessitate a separate demand and effort for OBC reservations at a later stage. When the women's reservation bill was first introduced by the United Front government at the Centre in 1996, the Lok Sabha's scrutiny committee had recommended that the demand for OBC reservation be considered "at an appropriate time". Ultimately, the bill failed to pass because the constituent parties of the United Front at the time were not in agreement with passing it without the inclusion of the OBC reservation. But this time, is likely that they did not oppose the bill out of fear of being branded as opposed to women's reservation if they did so. In 2010, a similar bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha during the UPA government and subsequently introduced in the Lok Sabha, but it failed to garner enough support and eventually lapsed. This failure was largely due to the insistence of parties including those friendly with the ruling Congress party, who demanded OBC reservation within the bill, and Congress did not yield to this demand. However, the current political landscape is different, and it can be said that the Congress and other opposition parties advocating for OBC reservation are now on the same page regarding this issue. They also concur on the necessity of conducting a caste-based census as a precondition for implementing OBC reservation. Rahul Gandhi emphasized this issue during the discussions of the Congress party leaders. Additionally, it is worth noting that Rahul pointed out the under-representation of backward-class members in the governance sphere, highlighting that out of 90 secretaries in the central ministries, only three are from the backward classes.
One of the aspects that can be considered a loophole in women's reservation is the absence of OBC reservation within it. Women candidates vying for seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislatures, unlike those in local self-government bodies, are currently required to possess better education and communication and leadership skills. In the current scenario, if OBC candidates compete directly with women from the upper castes in an open competition, they are likely to be marginalized. The inclusion of backward reservation would not only address this issue but also, in a way, rectify the absence of representation for upper castes within the framework of women's reservation. While it is acknowledged that political parties, rather than individuals, compete in elections, it should be recognized that even then there is a personal appeal element in elections as well. And for parties with a majority of OBC members, this absence of OBC reservation may further work to their disadvantage. Therefore, it becomes imperative to ensure opportunities for a balanced competition when demarcating constituencies for women's reservation during the constituency delimitation process.
The demand for a caste census has been raised by numerous opposition MPs. This process was initially initiated by the Bihar government, then passed through the Patna High Court, and has ultimately reached the Supreme Court, yet it remains incomplete. Furthermore, the INDIA alliance collectively, and its constituent parties separately, have recently highlighted this demand. The 2021 national census, which was slated to take place, experienced delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then has not made progress owing to negligence on the part of the central government. In the interim, Bihar has taken the initiative to conduct such a census at the state level. To accurately gauge true backwardness, it is imperative to consider population data obtained through the census alongside status information pertaining to social, educational, and economic conditions. However, objections have been raised by some petitioners before the Supreme Court, and the Central government supports their contention that only the central government has the authority to conduct a census. This has resulted in opposition to Bihar's efforts in court. Nonetheless, should the bill be passed, there remains uncertainty regarding the extent to which actions will be founded on caste-related information.
Even if we accept the Centre's assertion that the bill will be implemented only after the census and the constituency delimitation, it's crucial to recall that India has not conducted a caste-based census since 1931. In subsequent decennial censuses, only the enumeration of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were made, and that of OBC's were not. The country's population has surged from 54 crores in 1931 to 140 crores today. Furthermore, there is a pressing need to update the information about the caste-wise break-up too. In summary, the realization of the intended benefits of women's reservation can happen only if a caste census is conducted, women's reservation constituencies are determined based on this data, and reservations are extended to include backward communities. Otherwise, there is a risk that more members from forward communities will secure seats in the Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies through the reservation for women.