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India government presents bill to reserve 3rd of parliament seats for women

FILE PHOTO: A member of media works outside the India's new parliament building before its inauguration in New Delhi

By Rupam Jain

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -The Indian government on Tuesday moved a bill to reserve a third of seats in the lower house of parliament and state assemblies for women, reviving an old proposal expected to boost the standing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party among women.

The contentious legislative proposal has been hanging for decades due to opposition from some heartland political parties and needs the approval of both houses of parliament and a majority of state legislatures to become law.

Its revival comes months before general elections are due by May 2024 when Modi seeks a third term. Analysts say the chances of the bill getting passed in parliament have brightened as opposition to it has shrunk over the years.

It is the latest in a series of moves by the government that the ruling nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has projected as "pro-women"

"We want more and more women to join the development process of the country," Modi told a special five-day parliamentary session.

Women make up almost half of India's 950 million registered voters but only 15% of parliament and about 10% of state legislatures, pushing the world's largest democracy to the bottom of global rankings on gender parity in legislatures.

The 33% reservation for women will not apply to the upper houses of parliament and state legislatures.

Opposition lawmakers welcomed the revival of the proposal but pointed out that implementing it could take years as it requires boundaries of constituencies to be redrawn, which in turn can only be done after a population census.

FIGHT FOR GENDER BALANCE

India's once in a decade census was due to be completed in 2021 but was delayed because of the pandemic. Technical and logistical hurdles have set the survey back further.

"That means till 2029 this reservation won't be implemented," Priyanka Chaturvedi, a lawmaker from the opposition Shiv Sena (UBT) party, told reporters, referring to when general elections become due after 2024.

"They (government) have opened the doors but still there is no entry for women," she said.

Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal said the 542-seat lower house has 82 women members at present and if the bill is approved the number will rise to at least 181.

Successive governments have sought to address this imbalance since the mid-1990s. But it has been repeatedly blocked by Hindi heartland parties, with some of their lawmakers aggressively disrupting proceedings and snatching and tearing copies of the bill before being physically escorted out of the chambers.

Opponents of the move say reservation for women will only benefit educated and urban women and deprive their disadvantaged rural counterparts from so-called backward castes. They want a quota for women from backward castes within the overall quota for women to ensure what they say will be a true gender balance.

(Reporting by Rupam Jain, Blassy Boben, Shivam Patel; Editing by YP Rajesh, Muralikumar Anantharaman, William Maclean)