The empowered group of ministers (EGoM) met recently to review the draft food security bill. Two issues have been reported to have gained prominence in their discussions – the exact number of poor families that are likely to be beneficiaries under the Food Security Act and reforming of the targeted public distribution system. On the issue of estimating poverty, it is reported that the Planning Commission has been asked to submit a report in three weeks on the number of (BPL) families that are likely to be legally entitled to food under the said Act. The Minister of Agriculture is reported to have said “It is up to them [Planning Commission] whether they base it [BPL list] on the Tendulkar Committee report or the earlier N.C. Saxena panel or the Wadhwa committee.” The estimation of poor persons in India involves two broad steps: (i) fixing a threshold or poverty line that establishes poverty, and (ii) counting the number of people below this line. Estimating these numbers is a contentious issue – ridden by debates around norms and parameters for defining poverty, methodology to estimate poverty, etc. The Planning Commission estimates the percentage and number of BPL persons separately in rural and urban areas from a large sample survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) which operates under the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. In addition various government social sector schemes are targeted specifically at the poor and require the government to identify BPL beneficiaries. For this purpose the Ministry of Rural Development designs a BPL census and that is conducted by the States/UTs. The BPL census website gives data on BPL households for 2002 based on the poverty estimates for 1999-2000, by state, district and block. The targeted public distribution system was recently subjected to scrutiny by a Supreme Court appointed vigilance committee headed by Justice D P Wadhwa. Amongst many issues, the committee reported that “the PDS is inefficient and corrupt. There is diversion and black-marketing of PDS food grain in large scale. Subsidized PDS food grain does not reach the poor who desperately need the same. These poor people never get the PDS food grain in proper quantity and quality.” The two issues highlighted here are important to ensure that the proposed legislation on food security is not a leaky bucket in the making. As the draft food security bill is not in the public domain it is difficult to comment on how the government is thinking on length and breadth of issues that govern giving access to food security.
There have been articles in the media on the future passage of the Women's Reservation Bill stating that the Bill will have to be ratified by state legislatures before it is signed into law by the President. Our analysis indicates that ratification by state legislatures is not required. We state the reasons below: This Bill amends the Constitution. It (a) amends Article 239AA, Article 331, and Article 333, and (b) inserts Article 330A, Article 332A, and Article 334A. In doing so the Bill:
- Seeks to reserve one-third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies;
- One third of the total number of seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes shall be reserved for women of those groups in the Lok Sabha and the legislative assemblies;
- Reserved seats may be allotted by rotation to different constituencies.
Article 368 regulates the procedure for amending the Constitution. It states that the ratification of the state legislatures to a constitutional amendment is required in the following cases: a. If there is a change in the provisions regarding elections to the post of the President of India. b. If there is a change in the extent of the executive power of the centre or the state governments. c. If there is any change in the provisions regarding the Union judiciary or the High Courts. d. If the distribution of legislative powers between the centre and the states is affected. e. If any of the Lists in the Seventh Schedule is affected. f. If the representation of the states in the Rajya Sabha is changed. g. Lastly, if Article 368 itself is amended. None of these provisions are attracted in the case of the Women's Reservation Bill. The Parliament recently extended the reservation of seats for SCs, STs and Anglo-Indians in Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies by another ten years. Article 334 was amended to state that such reservation "will cease to have effect on the expiration of a period of seventy years from the commencement of the Constitution." The 109th Amendment Bill was passed by both Houses of Parliament and did not require the ratification of the states before being signed into law by the President. It follows that if Bills amending provisions for reserving seats for SCs and STs don't need ratification by state legislatures, a bill reserving seats for women does not need ratification either. Thus Article 368 very clearly lays down situations in which state legislatures have to ratify a piece of legislation before it can receive the assent of the President.
Speaker Meira Kumar has urged political parties to arrive at a consensus on the women’s reservation bill. The 2008 Bill has the following main features. 1. It reserves one-third of all seats in Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies within each state for women. 2. There is quota-within-quota for SCs, STs and Anglo-Indians. 3. The reserved seats will be rotated after each general elections – thus after a cycle of three elections, all constituencies would have been reserved once. This reservation will be operational for 15 years. This Bill has had a chequered history. A similar Bill was introduced in 1996, 1998 and 1999 – all of which lapsed after the dissolution of the respective Lok Sabhas. A Joint Parliamentary Committee chaired by Geeta Mukherjee examined the 1996 Bill and made seven recommendations. Five of these have been included in the latest 2008 Bill. These are (i) reservation for a period of 15 years; (ii) including sub-reservation for Anglo Indians; (iii) including reservation in cases where the state has less than three seats in Lok Sabha (or less than three seats for SCs/STs); (iv) including reservation for the Delhi assembly; and (v) changing “not less than one-third” to “as nearly as may be, one-third”. Two of the recommendations are not incorporated in the 2008 Bill. The first is for reserving seats in Rajya Sabha and Legislative Councils. The second is for sub-reservation for OBC women after the Constitution extends reservation to OBCs. The 2008 Bill was referred to the Standing Committee on Law and Justice. This Committee failed to reach a consensus in its final report. The Committee has recommendedthat the Bill “be passed in Parliament and put in action without further delay. Two members of the Committee, Virender Bhatia and Shailendra Kumar (both belonging to the Samajwadi Party) dissented stating that they were not against providing reservation to women but disagreed with the way this Bill was drafted. They had three recommendations: (i) every political party must distribute 20% of its tickets to women; (ii) even in the current form, reservation should not exceed 20% of seats; and (iii) there should be a quota for women belonging to OBCs and minorities. The Standing committee considered two other methods of increasing representation. One suggestion (part of election commission recommendations) was to requite political parties to nominate women for a minimum percentage of seats. The committee felt that parties could bypass the spirit of the law by nominating women to losing seats. The second recommendation was to create dual member constituencies, with women filling one of the two seats from those constituencies. The Committee believed that this move could “result in women being reduced to a subservient status, which will defeat the very purpose of the Bill”. It is interesting to note that the Committee did not reject the two recommendations of the Geeta Mukherjee Committee that are not reflected in the Bill. The Committee concluded that the issue of reservations to Rajya Sabha and Legislative Councils needs to be examined thoroughly as the upper Houses play an equally important role under the Constitution. Incidentally, it is not possible to reserve seats in Rajya Sabha given the current system of elections to that house (see Appendix below). On the issue of reservations to OBC women, the Committee said that “all other issues may be considered at an appropriate time by Government without any further delay at the present time in the passage of the Bill”. Though the Bill does not have a consensus – it has been opposed by SP, RJD and JD(U) – most parties have publicly expressed their support for it. The government will likely not find it difficult to muster two-third support in each House of Parliament were the Bill be taken up for consideration and passing. It would be interesting to see whether the Bill is brought before Parliament in the upcoming Budget Session. Appendix: Impossibility of Reservation in Rajya Sabha Article 80of the Constitution specifies that members of state assemblies will elect Rajya Sabha MPs through single transferable vote. This implies that the votes are first allocated to the most preferred candidate, and then to the next preferred candidate, and so on. This system cannot accommodate the principle of reserving a certain number of seats for a particular group. Currently, Rajya Sabha does not have reservation for SCs and STs. Therefore, any system that provides reservation in Rajya Sabha implies that the Constitution must be amended to jettison the Single Transferable Vote system.