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Political Reservation for Women: India

India’s constitutional amendments provides mandate for women’s political participation

June 3, 2023
Author: Ritwick Dutta

The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments to the Constitution, passed in 1992, mandated local self-governance in India. It also provided for the reservation of at least 30 percent of seats for women in newly-created rural and urban local governing bodies. These Amendments promote gender equality and enable the participation of women in local governance, by increasing women’s representation and ensuring a greater voice in legislative decision-making processes.1

Historically, women in India have often been excluded from the decision making process within governance systems and have faced significant barriers to political participation.2 Thus, after years of debate on women’s reservation, the historic 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution mandated that all state governments reserve one-third of seats for women in local rural bodies (i.e., within Panchayati Raj institutions) and one-third of the offices of the chairperson at all levels of the newly created Panchayati Raj institutions, as well as in urban local bodies. Additionally, one-third of these seats would be reserved for women who identify as part of the historically marginalized Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe population.

The gender mandate was intended to increase grassroots representation of women in politics and increase the distribution of decision-making.3

It was adopted at different times across the states due to differing levels of political will.4 While several states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu implemented the mandate immediately because of strong political support, other states such as Bihar delayed local elections because of litigation and concerns about reserving top leadership roles in local government for women.5 Even then, many states, including Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Kerala, and Maharashtra, have made legal provisions to ensure 50 percent reservation for women in local bodies.6


The reservation process is implemented through a system of electoral quotas, where not less than 33 percent of the total number of seats to be filled in rural and urban local bodies are filled by women. Women are directly nominated from political parties or stand as independent candidates in the local elections.

The reservation is rotated across constituencies every five years, so that women from different regions have the opportunity to contest elections, with this process continuing in each election cycle.7 This ensures that the effect of reservation is evenly spread across geographical areas of villages and cities.8

In addition to enabling women to take on leadership roles through reservations for the positions of president and vice president of local bodies, at least 33 percent of the chairperson’s offices (Cabinet) in these local bodies are also reserved for women on a rotational basis, ensuring their representation in final decision-making bodies.9

Numerous skill development programs and leadership training sessions conducted by government and non-governmental organizations have contributed to enhancing the performance of women who hold elected political positions.10


Determining the cost of implementing women’s reservation policy in India is complex due to multiple factors, including administrative expenses for establishing local bodies, organizing elections, and providing training to elected representatives.


The provision of formal opportunities for women to partake in local governance has resulted in increased political participation of women in their communities.11 Currently, India has 260,512 local bodies with 3.1 million elected representatives, of which a record 1.3 million are women.12 Moreover: political contestation by women at the local level is high: more than five million women contested for the over one million seats reserved for women in all local bodies, meaning on average, five women candidates contested each available seat. More women have also begun winning unreserved or general seats.13

Since the policy’s implementation, 20 out of the 28 states in India have increased the reservation for women in rural and urban local bodies from 33 percent to 50 percent.14 49 percent of elected local representatives are women–this figure has crossed into 50 percent in certain states, like Odisha–and 86,000 women chair their respective local bodies.15

This policy was seen as essential for promoting gender equality and empowering women, as well as for ensuring that the needs and perspectives of women were taken into account in local development planning.16 Some have argued that it has also played a significant role in mitigating gender biases and societal norms that have historically restricted women’s access to political power.17 Additionally, the policy has resulted in improvements in the provision of basic services and infrastructure in rural areas, which has had positive impacts on the overall well-being of women and their families.18 Reservations have enhanced women’s participation in the public sphere, and women in local government tend to prioritize the needs and interests of women, which includes investing more in essential services such as water, nutrition, and children’s education.19

This however, has not translated into greater participation at the national level, where there is no gender mandate. Only about 14 percent of members of the lower House of Parliament are women, which may be the highest to date in the country, but is far below the global average of 26 percent.20 Although proposals to legislate the reservation of seats for women in Parliament and State Assemblies surfaced in 1996, they have faced significant opposition from various political parties, and no such law has been passed to date.21

Some studies have also found that electoral quotas for women in India may have also had the unintended effect of reducing the representation of lower caste groups. 22 There are also some concerns that women are proxy candidates and controlled by their male relatives to serve their own political interests in local bodies. However an influential study found that this is not the norm. 23 Finally, another study also found that quotas can generate backlash against women who gain economic rights with the help of female leaders, due to the effects of patriarchy. 24