NEW DELHI (AP) — India's Parliament on Wednesday took a major step toward reserving 33% of the seats in its powerful lower house and in state legislatures for women to ensure more equal representation, an issue that had languished for nearly three decades because of a lack of consensus among political parties.
Indian President Droupadi Murmu called the measure the most “transformative revolution in our times” for gender justice.
The Lok Sabha, Parliament's lower house, approved legislation introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government that is expected to boost its image ahead of national elections before next May. An overwhelming 454 members across the political spectrum supported it and only two voted against it.
However, the measure will not apply to next year's national elections, Home Minister Amit Shah said.
The legislation now requires approval from Parliament's upper house and half of the country’s 28 state legislatures, which is considered likely. Shah said it will be implemented in the 2029 national elections following a new census and an adjustment of voting districts after next year’s elections.
India’s once-a-decade census was to be held in 2021 but was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sonia Gandhi, an opposition Congress party leader, supported the bill but said the delay in its implementation "is an injustice to women.” She demanded its implementation in next year’s national elections.
Under the legislation, the reservation of seats for women would continue for 15 years and could be extended by Parliament. It covers the elected lower house of Parliament and state legislatures, in which only women will be allowed to contest 33% of the seats.
Shah said four attempts by three governments since 1996 failed to enact the legislation.
Women comprise over 48% of India’s more than 1.4 billion people but have 15.1% representation in Parliament, compared to the international average of 24%, Law and Justice Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal said.
In India's state legislatures, women hold about 10% of the seats.
Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday, Prime Minister Modi said the government wants more women to join the country's development process.
“For that work of giving power to women and for many such noble works, God has chosen me," Modi said. “Once again our government has taken a step in this direction.”
India introduced a 33% seat reservation for women in elections for local organizations in the 1990s.
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition Congress party have been trying to enact legislation in Parliament to bring about gender parity and inclusive governance since then. They faced opposition from regional parties which argued that seats reserved for women would be cornered by the educated elite from urban areas, leaving poor and less educated women unrepresented.
"Women in villages can’t compete with educated women living in cities,” said Ram Gopal Yadav of the socialist Samajwadi Party.
India is a patriarchal society in which the social status of work done by women is often considered inferior to that done by men. Men also often enjoy greater rights than women.
Dolly Verma, a village council leader in eastern Bihar state, said women in India need a support structure to participate in the political arena.