ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Deep Freeze Again?

Constituencies Delimitation

The 91st Constitution Amendment Bill paves the way for ending the freeze on the delimitation of constituencies of the parliament and state legislatures. It is to be hoped that in preparing and considering the new law on delimitation, the government and parliament will keep an open mind and afford opportunities for eliciting the views of a wide spectrum of people to correct the flaws in the bill as it now stands.

The freeze on the delimitation of constituencies of parliament and state legislatures, stipulated by the 42nd Constitutional Amendment in 1976, has lasted for almost three decades now. The subject itself has become, as a result, complex and mystifying. The impact of this freeze, the distortions it has introduced to our representational democracy and the political procrastination in coming to terms with it have been discussed in an earlier article by this author (see EPW, August 26, 2000). In all democracies based on elected legislatures, the underlying principle is that the value of any one citizen’s vote should be the same as that of another; no more no less. Because of population changes, the territorial constituencies have to be adjusted periodically so that parity in the number of voters between the different constituencies is maintained as far as practicable.

The 91st Constitution Amendment Bill passed in the August 2001 session of parliament is expected to end the freeze. The bill has been long in the making and is supposed to reflect an all-party consensus. This is not the first time that such an effort has been made. Similar exercises during the governments of V P Singh and I K Gujral mustered a similar kind of consensus but could not be translated into laws. Unfortunately, for all the time spent in gestation, the amendment bill as passed by the parliament suffers from a few serious flaws.

The first relates to the database for delimitation. According to the bill, it will be the 1991 Census. The 2001 Census has already been held and provisional results have been published. The final results, including the SC/ST population break-up, will be published by December 2002. In the intercensal period between 1991 and 2001, there have been some significant changes in population variations in the states, such as migration and formation of new states. For example, in some states, the 2001 population is about the same as projected by the registrar general’s expert group; in some it is more. Maharashtra, according to projections, was expected to have 92 million people by 2001 based on fertility and mortality characteristics. The census figure is 96.75 million. Migration can be a possible explanation. The 2001 Census data will, therefore, be an important fresh input for the delimitation process. The rationale for relying on the 1991 Census appears to be that if the 2001 Census data is used the delimitation exercise can be completed only by 2005 and in case general elections are held before, then the results of the fresh delimitation will not be available. This argument misses the following points:

(1) The amendment bill becomes effective only after ratification by at least half the states, which can take up to December 2001. It is only thereafter that a new law for delimitation can be introduced and a new delimitation commission set up. By the most optimistic assessment such a commission can expect to start functioning only by mid-2002. Going by past experience and considering that this time the delimitation will have to be done countrywide and cover assembly constituencies as well, the work will take at least two to three years, if not more. The quickest delimitation exercise in the country was done by the 1972 commission, which took two years and nine months. So there is no chance of the delimitation exercise being completed before the end of 2004 or early 2005, whereas the next Lok Sabha elections are due in October 2004.

(2) Since the imposition of the freeze in 1976, as many as eight Lok Sabha elections have been held in the country, all on the basis of the constituencies delimited according to the 1971 Census. Having one more election on that basis is not going to worsen the geographical representative quality of the Lok Sabha. On the other hand, if we use the 1991 Census even now when the 2001 Census has already been completed, it will only set the database backward by 10 years.

The second negative aspect of the bill is that it will further delay a return to the regimen of periodical delimitation as envisaged by the Constitution. If the interstate allocation of LS seats as also the number of assembly seats are to be frozen until 2026 as envisaged in the bill, the next opportunity for taking into account updated census figures will be only in 2031. The present freeze has lasted for 30 years, from the 1971 Census. If the next census-based delimitation is going to be 2031, it will only mean that the present 30-year freeze will be replaced by a 40-year ‘deep’ freeze. Is that what our political leaders really want? Is the 91st Constitutional Amendment only a brief thaw?

The third flaw in the bill is about freezing the total number of assembly seats. The connection between reproductive behaviour and seats in a legislature is a rather contrived argument, repeated mainly for political purposes. Assuming there was a case not to disturb the interstate allocation of Lok Sabha seats because of possible shifts in political balance, there was no logic in freezing the number of assembly seats. There was little debate when the 42nd Constitutional Amendment, which imposed this freeze, was considered by parliament. A possible explanation could be that the number of seats in a state assembly determined the value of an MLA’s vote in the election of the president and an increase in the number of members would reduce that value and therefore the total value of the votes in that state. This was stretching the point too far. Since the total electoral value of a state in a presidential election is related to the population of that state and as the value for each member is only a product of that, changes in population in a given state will have to be very large in order to have any noticeable effect on this value. An analysis of the effects of the 1971, 1981, 1991 and 2001 Census on the value of an MLA’s vote in the presidential election confirms this. The freeze on the number of assembly seats is thus an unwarranted measure.

When the standing committee of parliament was considering the 91st Amendment Bill, its attention was drawn to some of these points. The proceedings of the committee indicate that the discussion about them was rather cursory and the bill was endorsed as introduced. Besides, the committee did not also invite any experts or organisations which have been engaged for some time in a study of this aspect.

At a workshop on the subject organised by the Centre for Policy Research, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Lok Satta and the India International Centre, in July 2001, attention was drawn to these problem areas in the 91st Bill. Though many participants, including some MPs, the law minister and representatives of the law ministry appreciated these points, the bill was passed by parliament without any amendments. There was a fear that any close scrutiny of the bill may open new issues and the so-called consensus reached earlier might break. This fear has prevailed and so the 91st Amendment Bill is on its way to becoming law.

Despite the flaws, the bill serves the limited purpose of ending the long freeze and reviving the provision on delimitation before it is forgotten altogether by the polity and society. The bill is now to be ratified by at least half the states and then submitted to the president for assent. Thereafter the amendment comes into effect and parliament can then consider setting up of a new Delimitation Commission through a new law. Here again, there is a danger of the country falling prey to inertia and precedent.

There have been three delimitation commissions in the past comprising two judges and the Election Commissioner as an ex officio member. While the composition is important, there have been major changes in the country since 1976, when the last delimitation orders issued. New states have come into existence. The regional and sub-regional variations in population have been significant and there is a large number of democratically elected rural and urban local bodies. The number of elected representatives in the country is no longer limited to the MPs and MLAs, whose total is less than 6,000. There are now more than three million elected representatives from the panchayats and the nagarpalikas. The composition of the Delimitation Commission should, therefore, enable a proper understanding of these new realities, the enormity of the task and the supreme importance of fair and transparent procedures to sustain public and political support to the delimitation process. The work is much more of an expert nature rather than judicial.

In the past, the work of the Delimitation Commission has been handled mainly by the Election Commission. Apart from this, the Election Commission has also been entrusted with delimitation work when new states were created, such as Goa, the National Capital Territory of Delhi or Uttaranchal. Nevertheless, political parties have been reluctant to designate it as the delimitation authority, presumably because the EC is considered a little too independent and aloof from the political process. It can be expected that this reluctance will continue and the Election Commission will only be a member of the Delimitation Commission. Since we now have state election commissions in almost every state as constitutional bodies patterned after the Election Commission, it is important that they participate as well. One alternative is to have a larger commission than three members as in the past, with the state election commissioners (SEC) and the state director of census as ex officio members for the state concerned. The Election Commission and the SEC in the relevant states may serve as the secretariat of the Delimitation Commission. Other countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada have similar arrangements to include state local authorities res-ponsible for organising elections and expert agencies.

Delimitation, however, is too important and the process should not be overly influenced by sitting MPs or MLAs. The reluctance of sitting legislators to accept any modification of their constituency boundaries is well known and universal. While the importance of political participation in the delimitation process is recognised, MPs and MLAs cannot consider their membership an ‘ipso facto’ right. In addition to MPs and MLAs as associate members, the Delimitation Commission should be free and able to receive the inputs and suggestions of a broader political spectrum not limited to MPs and MLAs. Similarly, procedures should provide for wide dissemination of the draft delimitation proposals which are not limited to official gazettes as in the past, but which will make extensive use of modern communication technologies.

Internationally, most democracies specify size and geographical criteria for delimitation. Size criteria also includes permissible deviations from the norm. It is 5 per cent in New Zealand, 10 per cent in Australia, 20 per cent in Canada and negligible in some others. Geographical criteria refer to size, shape, compactness, relationship to administrative and natural boundaries, among others. Some countries including India also have social criteria, such as representation for specified classes of people. So far as size is concerned, in the past the delimitation laws have only reiterated the constitutional requirement of parity in the population-seats ratio and that it should be the same within the state and across the states as far as practicable. It is desirable that the Delimitation Law reinforces the criteria by a stipulation that the population-seat ratio should not exceed a 10 per cent variation, but where it does the reasons for the same should be specified in the Delimitation Order.

As regards geographical and other criteria, the Delimitation Law should consider the following:

(1) The countrywide formation of rural and urban local bodies as constitutionally mandated and democratically elected entities must be recognised. Elections to the local bodies, assemblies and parliament should be regarded as a continuum. After all, the voter is the same and whichever are the authorities and whatever the laws dealing with these different elections, the objective should be to move towards an integrated system.

(2) As far as practicable, the panchayat ward or the municipal ward should be taken as the basic unit of the building block of any electoral system. These should fall wholly within an assembly constituency and should not be broken up.

(3) The district should be regarded as an inviolate territorial entity and assembly constituencies should not cross district boundaries. The district election machinery is a fundamental and critical component of the electoral system. The frequent creation or alteration of districts interferes considerably with delimitation. It is already accepted in the case of the census that once the process is commenced, formation of new districts or change of district boundaries is frozen. The same stipulation should apply in the case of delimitation as well.

(4) The Election Commission of India and the state election commissions should be regarded as part of a common system. In recent years, the Election Commission, SECs and other authorities concerned have taken a number of steps together in moving towards an integrated system. A simulation exercise covering a good sample of Lok Sabha constituencies across the country should be carried out as soon as possible so that the results can be helpful to the proposed Delimitation Commission.

(5) The determination of reserved constituencies and their rotation have been vexed issues for a long time. While the problem is not serious for the ST constituencies because of their concentration in certain pockets, in the case of SC constituencies, the process has to take into account two principles – concentration of SCs and dispersion of reserved seats. Models could be evolved reserving seats with the highest SC proportion in each cluster of constituencies – thus upholding both dispersion and concentration.

(6) Rotation should not be for every general election. It should be once in 10 years. Seats with a very low SC population percentage could be left out of the reservation cycle. Whatever the process, the delimitation law should be explicit and provide for a fair and transparent system.

An opportunity is now available after a gap of several years to recommence the process of delimitation. In these years a whole new generation of people have come up unaware of the basic tenets of our electoral system and the critical importance of parity and fairness in the value of a citizen’s vote. An exercise for drafting a new delimitation law should commence now. Inertia and the convenience of past practice have characterised much of the law-making in this country. There is also our well known penchant for deferring decisions on inconvenient subjects. The long-lasting freeze on delimitation is one more evidence of our procrastination. We should, however, understand that other democracies in the world including more recent ones like South Africa and others such as New Zealand, Australia and Canada have moved forward on evolving a fair and open system of delimitation. The technology of geographical information system has been extensively used. Models are available to help determine the delimitation processes. Within the country, MPs and MLAs are also becoming increasingly aware of the impracticality of large constituencies and the political repercussions of serious disparities. The public themselves are more conscious than before of the strengths and weaknesses of the electoral system.

It is to be hoped that in preparing and considering the new law on delimitation, the government and parliament will keep an open mind and afford ample opportunities for eliciting the views of a wide spectrum of people.

 

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