A Bill with limitations

Print edition : August 18, 2001

The Constitution Amendment Bill on the delimitation of parliamentary and Assembly constituencies, which will have far-reaching implications, is in need of amendments.

THE Constitution (Ninety-First) Amendment Bill, 2000, which is to be taken up for consideration by Parliament in the monsoon session, suffers from certain infirmities that do not seem to have received due attention from the lawmakers. The Standing Committee of Parliament on Home Affairs and the Union Cabinet have approved it. Introduced in November 2000, the Bill seeks to lift the freeze on the apportionment and delimitation of Lok Sabha and Assembly constituencies and allow delimitation within the States on the basis of the 1991 Census. However, the freeze on the inter-State allocation of Lok Sabha seats will remain until 2026.

The respective strengths of the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies were frozen by the Constitution (Forty-Second Amendment) Act, 1976, as part of an effort to boost the family planning campaign. This amendment added provisos to Articles 82 and 170 (3) of the Constitution stipulating that no fresh readjustment of Lok Sabha and Assembly constituencies should be undertaken until the figures of the first Census taken after the year 2000 were published. Article 82 states that upon the completion of each Census, the allocation of Lok Sabha seats to the States and the division of each State into territorial constituencies "shall be readjusted by such authority and in such manner as Parliament may by law determine". Read with Article 81 (2a), (2b) and (3), it means that each State has to be divided into territorial constituencies in such a manner that the ratio between the population of each constituency as ascertained during the preceding Census and the number of seats allotted to the State remains the same throughout the State as far as practicable. Besides, the ratio between the number of Lok Sabha seats from a State and its population should be the same for all the States as far as practicable. It was feared that the number of seats allotted to States with a good record in family planning may come down and States with a poor record in containing population growth may claim a larger share of Lok Sabha seats by virtue of the constitutional provisions.

It is obvious that the freezing of the number of Lok Sabha and Assembly seats as per the 1971 Census figures has not helped in checking population growth. The more populous States continue to lag behind in family planning efforts. It is irrational to suggest that governments of the States would show reluctance to pursue the family planning goals with a view to having their share of Lok Sabha seats increased or the strengths of their Assemblies increased. It is equally far-fetched to infer a link between the reproductive behaviour of the people of a State and the number of Lok Sabha seats allotted to that State or the strength of its Assembly.

Although there is considerable disagreement over whether the number of Lok Sabha seats allotted to a State is a significant factor in population control, political parties have generally backed the National Population Policy (NPP) strategy of extending the freeze on readjusting the number of Lok Sabha seats until 2026 and thus motivating State governments to stabilise population growth. The year 2026 was chosen because, according to the NPP, the country will be close to achieving by that year the replacement rate of population growth. (That is, population growth is expected to stabilise by 2026, with identical rates of birth and death if the present population policy succeeds.)

Freezing of the number of Lok Sabha seats from each State may be an important step in ensuring a semblance of balance in the federal polity. A study has revealed that if the number of Lok Sabha seats is revised as per the latest Census figures, the total number of seats in the Hindi belt (which includes Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh and Delhi) would go up to 270 from 239 by 2016. The total number of seats for the southern States of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh will come down from 129 to 108. The northern States will thus gain seats at the expense of the southern States. Therefore there cannot be any serious objection to freezing the number of Lok Sabha seats, even though it will inevitably lead to the problems of under- and over-representation.

THE Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, Lok Satta, Hyderabad, and the India International Centre, New Delhi, jointly organised a workshop in July and identified important problems relating to the Bill.

First, the Bill seeks to delimit the Lok Sabha and Assembly constituencies in each State on the basis of the 1991 Census, and not the 2001 Census. The apparent reason for this is that if the 2001 Census data are used, the delimitation exercise can be completed only by 2005 and that elections cannot be held with newly delimited constituencies. However, the workshop pointed out that even if the 1991 Census data were relied on, the delimitation exercise would be completed only in 2005. The workshop warned that the use of 1991 data would only push the database support back by 10 years. Moreover, if the inter-State allocation of Lok Sabha seats and the number of Assembly seats in each State were to remain frozen until 2026 as envisaged in the Bill, updated Census figures could be used only in 2031. It would be unfortunate if the present 30-year freeze was replaced by a 40-year deep freeze, the workshop lamented.

Interestingly, the Election Commission has been delimiting constituencies in Uttaranchal on the basis of 1971 Census figures because of the constitutional embargo. In Delhi, however, delimitation was done in 1993 as per 1991 Census figures. Owing to its status as a Union Territory, Delhi did not come under the constitutional embargo. Such legal anomalies apart, there appears to be no serious objection to using the 2001 Census figures for the proposed delimitation.

The second problem is with regard to delinking Lok Sabha and Assembly seats. The Bill seeks to freeze the number of Assembly seats in all the States as per 1971 Census figures. The participants at the workshop felt that there was no justification for that. The demographic characteristics of the States vary considerably. States like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have either reached or are close to the replacement rates of growth. Many States are urbanising at a fast rate. The percentage of population living in the urban areas in several States has crossed the national average of 30 per cent; in some cases, the figure has exceeded 40 per cent. Many of the Lok Sabha and Assembly constituencies that exceed the respective State averages of population by more than 10 per cent happen to be urban constituencies with a high concentration of poor people. The continued under-representation of these constituencies amounts to denying the urban poor the opportunity to express their grievances in the Assemblies. Maharashtra is a case in point. Although the State has an urban population of 40 per cent, only 25 per cent of the Members of the Legislative Assembly are from urban areas.

Article 170 of the Constitution allows State Assemblies to have a maximum of 500 members and a minimum of 60. The workshop suggested that an increase in the Assembly's strength within these limits was unlikely to influence the population policy of a State. Prof. K.C. Sivaramakrishnan of the Centre for Policy Research said that any increase in the number of seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes might lead to friction, which would continue unless a marginal increase in the total number of Assembly seats was permitted.

The Standing Committee of Parliament rejected the suggestions of Members of Parliament such as Kuldip Nayar that the freeze on the number of Assembly seats be lifted on the grounds that the prospect of more Assembly seats would give States less incentive for population control. Some political parties feel that a removal of the freeze on the number of Assembly seats will lead to a demand for more Lok Sabha seats.

The third problem is that the Bill not only seeks to freeze the strengths of the Lok Sabha and the Assemblies until 2026 but also postpones the delimitation exercise that is to follow the one proposed now to that year. The workshop suggested that even if the number of Lok Sabha constituencies in each State remained frozen at current levels, fresh delimitation should be allowed within the State every 10 years so that boundaries are readjusted after the Censuses of 2011 and 2021. Parity between constituencies within the limits of practicability is a common thread that runs through the constitutional prescriptions on delimitation. Hence the need to readjust constituency boundaries after each Census. The underlying principle of the periodic exercise of delimitation is that the value of one citizen's vote should be the same as that of another. The Bill overlooks this principle.

POLITICAL reaction to this crucial Bill, which is likely to affect the destiny of Indian democracy in the next 25 years, is yet to crystallise. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I) appear to endorse the Bill, although sections within these parties have reservations about some of its provisions. For instance, some Congress(I) and BJP members of the Standing Committee have questioned the need to lift the freeze on the number of Lok Sabha and Assembly seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. The Constitution lays down that the number of reserved seats should be in proportion to the S.C. and S.T. populations in the State concerned. The number of reserved seats in the present Parliament was fixed as per 1971 Census figures and the Bill seeks to lift this freeze. The Standing Committee, however, left it to Parliament to debate the issue. Those who criticise this provision fear that any increase in the number of reserved seats will cut into the number of general seats and that this could lead to resentment.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has no objection to the use of 2001 Census figures if their publication can be expedited. S. Ramachandran Pillai, a Rajya Sabha member of the CPI(M), said that the boundaries of constituencies could be readjusted after every Census.

The Union Law Ministry, which drafted the Bill, appears to have agreed with the suggestions made at the workshop but the government has not indicated any move to amend the Bill accordingly.

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