Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Women's Reservation Bill: Is ratification by state legislatures necessary?

The Women's Reservation Bill has been the subject of much political controversy over the last decade and a half. Notwithstanding the merits of the bill, which have been debated in the media and also previously discussed on this blog, in an unprecedented move, the bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha a few days ago. The passage of the bill was enabled by unity across the political spectrum, with the news media presenting us with unlikely pictures of Brinda Karat, Sushma Swaraj and Jayanthi Natarajan holding hands while applauding the passage of the bill.

However, even though the bill is one step closer to becoming law, its becoming so is by no means guaranteed.  It faces stiff opposition from various political parties that have a larger presence in the Lok Sabha as compared to the Rajya Sabha. Even after passage in the Lok Sabha, it is widely believed that the bill insofar as it seeks to reserve seats for women in the state legislative assemblies, would require ratification by at least half of the state legislative assemblies. Given the lack of clarity on this issue, the government has decided to tread the more cautious route and seek ratification by state legislative assemblies. 

PRS Legislative Research has taken the stand that the bill does not require ratification by state legislatures to become law. Their interpretation if true would certainly reduce the logistical and time delays inherent in the requirement for ratification by state legislatures.  On their blog, they have argued that none of the conditions stipulated in Art 368 of the Constitution as requiring ratification by state legislatures is implicated in this case. The relevant provision is Art 368(2) (d) which requires ratification by at least half of the state legislatures in case the law passed by Parliament seeks to make a change in the “representation of states in Parliament”.  

The question is whether one third reservation for women in state legislatures would in any way alter the representation of states in Parliament. The answer to this question depends upon the interpretation of the word “representation”, as well as upon how the reserved seats are determined, allocated and rotated because conceivably this could have some impact on the representation of states in Parliament. The Women's Reservation bill does itself does not make provision for the allocation and rotation of reserved seats. The law Minister M. Veerappa Moily has made it clear that the government would bring a fresh law after the women’s reservation bill becomes a law to decide which seats would be reserved and “all other matters related to its implementation”.

However, it would be interesting to hear what people think about the PRS view on this issue.  One thing is clear however. Even if the Women’s Reservation bill is passed by the Lok Sabha in the near future, it faces numerous political and administrative hurdles thereafter. Consequently, considerable time may elapse before greater representation of women in Parliament and state legislatures (even assuming that this is the best way to go about achieving it) becomes a reality. 

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