Speaker Meira Kumar has urged political parties to arrive at a consensus on the women’s reservation bill.  The 2008 Bill has the following main features.  1. It reserves one-third of all seats in Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies within each state for women.  2. There is quota-within-quota for SCs, STs and Anglo-Indians.  3. The reserved seats will be rotated after each general elections – thus after a cycle of three elections, all constituencies would have been reserved once.  This reservation will be operational for 15 years.  This Bill has had a chequered history.  A similar Bill was introduced in 1996, 1998 and 1999 – all of which lapsed after the dissolution of the respective Lok Sabhas.  A Joint Parliamentary Committee chaired by Geeta Mukherjee examined the 1996 Bill and made seven recommendations.  Five of these have been included in the latest 2008 Bill.  These are (i) reservation for a period of 15 years; (ii) including sub-reservation for Anglo Indians; (iii) including reservation in cases where the state has less than three seats in Lok Sabha (or less than three seats for SCs/STs); (iv) including reservation for the Delhi assembly; and (v) changing “not less than one-third” to “as nearly as may be, one-third”.  Two of the recommendations are not incorporated in the 2008 Bill.  The first is for reserving seats in Rajya Sabha and Legislative Councils.  The second is for sub-reservation for OBC women after the Constitution extends reservation to OBCs. The 2008 Bill was referred to the Standing Committee on Law and Justice.  This Committee failed to reach a consensus in its final report.  The Committee has recommendedthat the Bill “be passed in Parliament and put in action without further delay.  Two members of the Committee, Virender Bhatia and Shailendra Kumar (both belonging to the Samajwadi Party) dissented stating that they were not against providing reservation to women but disagreed with the way this Bill was drafted.  They had three recommendations:  (i) every political party must distribute 20% of its tickets to women; (ii) even in the current form, reservation should not exceed 20% of seats; and (iii) there should be a quota for women belonging to OBCs and minorities. The Standing committee considered two other methods of increasing representation.  One suggestion (part of election commission recommendations) was to requite political parties to nominate women for a minimum percentage of seats.  The committee felt that parties could bypass the spirit of the law by nominating women to losing seats.  The second recommendation was to create dual member constituencies, with women filling one of the two seats from those constituencies.  The Committee believed that this move could “result in women being reduced to a subservient status, which will defeat the very purpose of the Bill”. It is interesting to note that the Committee did not reject the two recommendations of the Geeta Mukherjee Committee that are not reflected in the Bill.  The Committee concluded that the issue of reservations to Rajya Sabha and Legislative Councils needs to be examined thoroughly as the upper Houses play an equally important role under the Constitution.  Incidentally, it is not possible to reserve seats in Rajya Sabha given the current system of elections to that house (see Appendix below). On the issue of  reservations to OBC women, the Committee said that “all other issues may be considered at an appropriate time by Government without any further delay at the present time in the passage of the Bill”. Though the Bill does not have a consensus – it has been opposed by SP, RJD and JD(U) – most parties have publicly expressed their support for it.  The government will likely not find it difficult to muster two-third support in each House of Parliament were the Bill be taken up for consideration and passing.  It would be interesting to see whether the Bill is brought before Parliament in the upcoming Budget Session. Appendix: Impossibility of Reservation in Rajya Sabha Article 80of the Constitution specifies that members of state assemblies will elect Rajya Sabha MPs through single transferable vote.  This implies that the votes are first allocated to the most preferred candidate, and then to the next preferred candidate, and so on.  This system cannot accommodate the principle of reserving a certain number of seats for a particular group.  Currently, Rajya Sabha does not have reservation for SCs and STs. Therefore, any system that provides reservation in Rajya Sabha implies that the Constitution must be amended to jettison the Single Transferable Vote system.

With the spread of COVID-19, along with the central government, state governments have also announced several policy decisions to contain and prevent the spread of the virus.  In this blog post, we summarise some of the key measures taken by the government of West Bengal in this regard as of April 18, 2020. 

As of April 18, 2020, there have been 287 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in West Bengal. Of these, 55 have been discharged and 10 have died.  To manage patients, there are 66 COVID hospitals, eight testing laboratories, and 582 institutional quarantine centres in the state. 


Early response: Leading up to lockdown

Between January and February, the state government's efforts were aimed at raising awareness among citizens on COVID-19.  These include advisories on observing precautionary measures, and informing citizens on travel restrictions, home isolation, and screening protocols for foreign returnees.

On March 2, the state government responded to the growing number of suspected cases by issuing guidelines for preparedness by government medical colleges and hospitals.   These covered admission, isolation and management of suspected COVID-19 cases.  These instructions were extended to private medical colleges and hospitals on March 7.  A week later, the government issued protocols for monitoring travellers at various state checkposts by joint teams of state police and paramedical staff, and for reference of symptomatic patients to isolation facilities in the district.  All cases had to be reported on a daily basis to district surveillance teams.  The government also announced the closure of all educational institutions in the state (government and private) till March 31.  

On March 16, the government notified the West Bengal Epidemic Disease COVID-19 Regulations, 2020.  These regulations specify screening and treatment protocol for COVID-19 patients, and empower the district administration to take containment measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.   

The next day, the state reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19.  The government proceeded to issue orders: (i) for segregating isolation wards for suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases, (ii) specifying treatment protocols for confirmed cases, (iii) establishing medical boards in all COVID-19 hospitals with representation from different medical disciplines, and (iv) establishing fever clinics for suspected patients.  Anganwadi centres and creches were also closed, with provisions to ensure supply of two kilograms of rice and potatoes to each beneficiary.  

On March 21, the government ordered the closure of certain establishments to restrict non-essential social gatherings till March 31, 2020.  This included closure of restaurants, clubs, amusement parks, and museums.  Further, all trains entering the state and inter-state buses were banned till March 31, 2020.

Subsequently, the government announced a lockdown.  In addition to steps for physical containment, the government also undertook various health and welfare measures.  These are detailed below.

Measures taken post-lockdown

On March 22, a lockdown was announced in 23 areas of the state until March 27.  Restrictions during the lockdown included: (i) prohibition on public gatherings of over seven people, (ii) suspension of public transport, and (iii) closure of shops, commercial establishments, offices and factories.  Establishments providing essential goods and services such as health services, print media, banks, groceries, and e-commerce delivery of food and groceries, were excluded from the restrictions.  Over the next few weeks, steps were taken to expand these exemptions, and to regulate the movement of goods and services.

  • List of essential goods and services:  On March 24, the lockdown was extended till March 31 in the entire state, and the exemptions were expanded to include industries producing coal, power, steel, or fertilisers.   After the centre notified a 21-day lockdown, the list of exemptions in the state was gradually expanded to include agricultural operations, fish production, tea garden operations, and operations in krishak bazars for marketing agricultural produce.  At the same time, restrictions were placed on hoarding of masks and hand sanitisers.  

  • Last week, after the central government extended the lockdown till May 3,  orders were passed for resumption of government offices from April 20 onwards at a strength of 25% of workforce.  Similar permission was also granted for restricted operations in jute mills, and IT/IT enabled services.  

  • Regulating movement of goods and services:  A pass system was introduced on March 25 to regulate the movement of persons supplying essential goods and services.  Transportation of non-essential cargo was prohibited till March 31, 2020.  However, as a one-time measure, permission was granted on March 26 to such vehicles to reach their destination.  Two days later, the government ordered for the seamless movement of commodities in all district borders and interstate areas. 

Health Measures

On March 26, a Committee of Experts was constituted to advise on strategies for isolation, quarantine, testing, health infrastructure, and disease prevention.  The Committee has been issuing protocols on clinical management of COVID-19 cases.  The government also established various monitoring committees on setting up isolation hospitals, managing critical care, and to audit the cause of deaths related to COVID-19 patients.  

To respond to the increasing number of patients, the government acquired private healthcare facilities in April.  Further, to expand its testing capacity, the government recommended sample pooling for COVID-19 testing yesterday.

In addition to these measures, the government also issued several guidelines, advisories and orders on containment of the virus, patient handling and protecting healthcare workers.  Some of these are detailed below: 

  • For healthcare facilities:  Advisory for setting up of isolation facilities, orders for establishment of fever clinics to segregate patients with severe symptoms, separation zones for suspected cases to protect healthcare personnel, and use of hydroxychloroquine for asymptomatic healthcare workers.

  • For government:  Guidelines for cluster containment and treatment strategies to contain COVID-19 in hi-risk spots, directions for awareness generation among rural population for containment, and arranging for counselling sessions for quarantined patients.

Welfare/Austerity Measures

  • Creation of relief fund:  The “West Bengal State Emergency Relief Fund” was created on March 23 to mobilise additional resources to cope with the emergency.  On April 2, austerity measures were announced by the government.   These include prohibition on announcement of new schemes, unless required in urgent public interest.

  • Distribution of food:  Free entitlement of wheat and rice was announced on March 26 to beneficiaries under some food subsidy schemes (including the Antyodaya Anna Yojana) until September, 2020.

  • Measures for workers:   Directions were notified in March for provisions on shelter, food, quarantine, wage payment, and continued tenancy for workers.   

  • Free insurance cover was announced on April 1 for treatment of certain categories of persons, including heathcare workers, and police.

For more information on the spread of COVID-19 and the central and state government response to the pandemic, please see here.