No census, ergo no delimitation: how long can India wait?

Recent events have returned delimitation to prominence, and women’s reservations in Parliament and assemblies ‘shall come into effect after an exercise of delimitation is undertaken’

An enumerator collects data from Jawaharlal Nehru, then prime minister of India, during the census exercise, 1961
An enumerator collects data from Jawaharlal Nehru, then prime minister of India, during the census exercise, 1961

Aakar Patel

For 50 years, India has not changed the composition of the Lok Sabha (through what is called delimitation). Enormous power is in the hand of the individual who is chosen to increase or decrease a region’s share of seats. The orders ‘have the force of law and cannot be called in question before any court’ and cannot be modified.

Recent events have returned delimitation to prominence, and women’s reservations in Parliament and assemblies ‘shall come into effect after an exercise of delimitation is undertaken’.

It is unclear who this person is at the moment. The last chairperson of the Delimitation Commission of India, retired judge Ranjana Desai, left the job in 2022 and was given another sinecure (at the Press Council), but her name continues to be on the Election Commission website.

Let us examine the key issue related to delimitation, which is the difference in population sizes in our states. Andhra Pradesh’s total fertility rate, the average number of children born to a woman, is 1.7 while Bihar’s is 3. India is now at a replacement rate of around 2, and in a few decades, our population will begin to contract. However, 29 states and Union territories are already below 2. It is the other seven that raise the national average.

Fifty years ago, the 85 MPs from UP (plus Uttarakhand) represented 10 lakh citizens each, and so did Kerala’s 20 MPs and Tamil Nadu’s 40 MPs and Karnataka’s 28 MPs and Rajasthan’s 25 MPs.

In the 50 years since the last time Lok Sabha seats were increased, Kerala’s population increased by 56 per cent, but Rajasthan’s by 166 per cent. Tamil Nadu’s by 75 per cent but Haryana’s by 157 per cent. That the southern populations should not be punished for their effective implementation of family planning by allocating more power to the north is a meaningful argument.

But it is also a fact that the northern MP represents many more Indians than the southern one and that also seems unfair. Bihar’s 40 and UP’s 80 MPs each represent on an average 30 lakh Indians, the average Kerala MP represents 17 lakh, the average Tamil MP 19 lakh.

The difference in Lok Sabha seats between states had existed because of a difference in population size, but each MP represented about the same number of Indians. Today, this is no longer the case.

There are meaningful and legitimate arguments on both sides and when the delimitation commission sits, it will be under pressure because whatever action or inaction is chosen, someone will remain dissatisfied and disgruntled.

Perhaps the exercise will be delayed indefinitely, especially because the census needs to be conducted first, and it has inexplicably been put off. And also because the Women’s Reservations Act, giving women a third of all Lok Sabha seats, is now law, meaning that delimitation will have wider impact than merely geographical. That should not, however, deceive us and the problem will remain. What is to be done?

Not acting would seem in violation of the Constitution. Article 82 (‘Readjustment after each census’) reads: "Upon the completion of each census, the allocation of seats in the House of the People 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."

Note the words ‘each census’ and the absence of movement on this for 50 years, a festering problem. Until 1972, the process was adhered to. The 494 Lok Sabha seats of the 1950s went up to 522 in the 1960s and then 543 in the 1970s. At this time, as our numbers above show, while the representation across states was even, there was a recognition that the South was doing much better and that there was a need for the state to promote family planning especially for the North.

Readers will be familiar with the infamous actions taken by the Indira Gandhi government during the Emergency, and many will also be familiar with the widespread family planning advertisements that continued on Doordarshan and in print until the end of the 1980s.

One of the outcomes that long campaign sought to achieve was parity between the states, with an eye on delimitation. The link between the census and delimitation was severed or, more accurately, suspended after that. In the 1980s and 1990s, while we conducted the census and the numbers showed the growing disparity in population sizes, there was no delimitation exercise.

The Vajpayee government in 2002 kicked the can down the road for a quarter century, to the census of 2031 (actually the ‘first census after 2026’).

When will that be? We do not know. For the first time since 1880, no census was conducted as should have been the case in 2021. The reason given was the pandemic, but that is over and there is no sign of a census yet (or for that matter the CAA law, which was also to be implemented ‘after the pandemic’).

Assuming the census is held soon, the government will have to do some deft management of perceptions. And it is not easy to see how, given the reality of the disparity and the enormous shift over the last 50 years, this can be done without an open and frank conversation with the people, something that has not begun and, knowing the style of our leader, is not expected to begin.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines