Union Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal on Tuesday introduced the women’s reservation bill in the Lok Sabha.

The bill reserves one-third of the seats in Lok Sabha and state Assemblies for women. The provision will also be applicable as a sub-quota within the seats already reserved for the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe categories.

The seats will be reserved after the completion of the delimitation exercise, which will be based on the first Census conducted after the passage of the Bill. A delimitation exercise refers to demarcating boundaries of Assembly and parliamentary constituencies as well as civic wards.

The last census in India was held in 2011. In 2020, India was set to begin the first phase of the exercise – in which housing data is collected – but the coronavirus pandemic hit. Since then it has been delayed three times and is now likely to be after the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

The bill was approved by the Union Cabinet on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Tuesday in his first address in the new Parliament building.

He said it is necessary that women have maximum contribution in policy-making at a time when they are moving forward in every sector in leadership roles. “This bill is another step in the list of efforts towards women’s empowerment,” he added.

Opposition parties, including the Biju Janata Dal and Bharat Rashtra Samithi, have been pushing the government to take up the bill. On Sunday, the Congress had passed a resolution on the issue during its Hyderabad Congress Working Committee meeting.

In the Lok Sabha, currently there are 78 women MPs out of 543 legislators, accounting for less than 15% of the total strength. In the Rajya Sabha, there are 24 women MPs (14%) out of its current strength of 245.

Women have less than 10% representation in several state assemblies, including Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Odisha, and Gujarat.

Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttrakhand have 10-12% women MLA representation. Chattisgarh has the highest women representation at 14.44%, followed by West Bengal at 13.7% and Jharkhand at 12.35%.

Several governments under Rajiv Gandhi, Deve Gowda, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh had tried to pass the bill but had faced opposition from parties in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, according to Deccan Chronicle.

Last time, the bill was introduced by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in 2008. It was passed in the Rajya Sabha in 2010 but was not taken up in the Lok Sabha.

Political reactions

After the approval of the bill, Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge stated that it was already passed in 2010. “They don’t give us credit, but Women Reservation Bill was already passed in 2010,” Kharge said in his speech in Rajya Sabha on Tuesday.

He also stated that very often, political parties choose women from Scheduled Caste groups whose literacy levels are low. “They will not choose those who are educated and can fight,” he said.

Reacting to this, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that such sweeping statements are “absolutely unacceptable”.

The Congress also questioned why seats for women will only be reserved after the delimitation process, and called it a “colossal betrayal.” It said: “Today, the bill grabs headlines with nothing but a vague promise for implementation.”

Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) MP Priyanka Chaturvedi said that she hopes the bill turns into an Act soon. “It was written in the bill that it would not be enacted immediately as it would only come to act once delimitation is exercised,” she said. “That means till 2029, this reservation won’t be implemented. They have opened the doors but still there is no entry for women.”

Asaduddin Owaisi, the president of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, said that the bill’s biggest flaw is that it has no quota for Muslim women. “Who are you giving representation to?” he asked. “Those who don’t have representation should be given representation.”