Family planning programmes in India began when the five-year plans came into force in India. When the five-year plan was enforced in 1952, India became the first country in the developing world to start a government-funded family planning program. The reason for implementing such a state-sponsored plan was to slow down the population growth to drive economic growth prospects for the country.
India’s population has been rapidly growing despite such a unique initiative. Policymakers are fraught with a twofold problem: First, there has been a fall in death rates, but there was no commensurate decrease in birth rates. Second, the increase in population has negatively impacted the economy.
Death rates in India started declining from 1921 onwards, as reflected in the Census of India, but the fact that there was no corresponding decrease in the birth rates added to India’s poor performance on many indicators, like human development, health, poverty, unemployment to name a few.
Unfortunately, even a century later, India continues to grapple with the problem of population explosion. The recently released United Nations World Population Prospect report stands testimony to India’s precarious problem. Even when the report notes that the global population is growing at its slowest rate since 1950, it states that India is one of the eight countries globally where more than half of the projected increase in the global population up to 2050 will be concentrated. The report also mentions that India is expected to surpass China as the world’s most populous country.
As per the UN report, India’s current population stands at 1.412 billion (2022) compared to China’s 1.426 billion. To control its population, China has implemented many tough and restrictive measures, including a one-child policy between 1980 and 2016 to make most Chinese families have a single child. After the census data showed that the prohibitive measures had yielded results and there was a steep decline in birth rates, once again, the country announced that it would allow couples to have up to three children.
India so far has not been able to manage its population crisis. Strange as it would seem, India’s steadily booming population is also affecting the politics and governance of the country. This is how: In 1951, when the first elections were held, there were 489 seats in Lok Sabha. MPs were elected by universal suffrage, which meant that all adult citizens had the right to vote regardless of wealth, income, gender, societal status, religion, caste, creed, ethnicity and the like.
Over the years, the population of the country increased, and this led to an increase in the number of Lok Sabha seats. In 1971, as a result of this, there were 520 seats in Lok Sabha. In those days, the number of Lok Sabha seats and that of state assemblies would go up after every census. This should not have caused a problem, but there was disaffection among south Indian MPs. Murasoli Maran of the DMK (later to be an important minister in a subsequent government) represented through a private member’s bill in Lok Sabha that states which had practised family planning effectively were getting a lesser increase in MPs than states which had not effectively planned their population. Thus Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were getting a greater representation in Lok Sabha than states like Madras (Tamil Nadu) and Andhra Pradesh (AP). In AP, the number of Lok Sabha seats had fallen from 43 to 42. Therefore, he argued that in order to prevent the change in the balance of power in favour of some states that had not effectively implemented family planning, the number of seats in Lok Sabha should be frozen at the existing levels.
Maran’s arguments touched a raw chord, and the Delimitation Commission (appointed after the Census) recommended that the number of seats in Lok Sabha should be fixed at the 1971 level, and the freeze could be continued for thirty years till 2001. After that, the Government of India could decide on de-freezing the number of seats and increasing them.
As years passed by, there was considerable disquiet at political levels. Many analysts thought that if the increase in population in 30 years was taken into account, and subsequently the number of MPs increased, this would result in the distortion of the Lok Sabha.
In 1996, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) organised a high-profile conference with the then Lok Sabha speaker PA Sangma presiding over it to discuss the defreezing of Lok Sabha seats. Other participants included Pranab Mukherjee from Congress, Jaswant Singh from BJP and the then home minister Indrajit Gupta. The consensus among the netas was that there should be no defreezing, and in fact, they decided to further extend the Lok Sabha freezing. There was no need to be worried, they opined. That’s exactly what happened in 2001 when Parliament extended the freeze by another 25 years. Of course, this was a move to procrastinate from taking a democratic decision on the matter. Interestingly, the Tamil Nadu assembly in 2001 passed a resolution that the freeze in the number of Lok Sabha seats be continued for another 50 years. The Tamil fear of getting swamped by north Indians articulated by Maran had remained.
With 2026 now approaching fast, the freeze on the number of Lok Sabha seats will have to be lifted. Although the government (or the collective of Lok Sabha members) has done nothing as yet to pass legislation to increase the total number of Lok Sabha seats, in one way, this will be enabled by the augmented infrastructure.
The new Parliament House that is being readied has room to seat many more MPs. According to information available, the new Parliament will have space to seat 888 Lok Sabha MPs compared to 545 now. In Rajya Sabha, 384 MPs can be accommodated, which is higher than the present strength of 240 MPs. It will be ready by October this year, and the new Parliament building will be away from the old Parliament. The current Parliament is strapped for space, although in 1975, a Sansad Soudha, Parliament annexe, came up next to the Parliament House.
A new Parliament with more MPs will not solve the problems, according to a large section of people who have been dismayed at the present conduct of our parliamentarians. Many experts believe that more MPs would mean that more funds would have to be infused into the constituencies. There is no point in increasing the MPs without giving them adequate financial resources to run the constituency. And where does this money come from? Would this mean an additional burden on the taxpayer? There are several layers to this issue.
“In my childhood, I used to stay in the New Delhi constituency. The number of voters used to be one lakh or so around 1971. Today, the constituency has around 10 lakh voters. Even to win an election, one needs more funds. Where will the money come from?” asks Palash Kumar, a journalist.
He adds: “There are several other constituencies where the electorate is much higher.” Malkajgiri constituency in Telangana, with 31.5 lakh voters, is the largest constituency in the country. The Delimitation Commission, set up in 2002 under retired Supreme Court judge Kuldip Singh worked towards equalisation of Lok Sabha seats. Thus roughly the same size seats were created, which with the passage of time has tended to create inequalities in the number of voters in the constituencies once again.
Since 1991, when industries – which were hitherto the domain of the public sector – were opened up and delicensed, the nature of politics in India also changed. The industry now has more money because of the liberalisation process that revved growth. With the increasing demand for money for politics and elections due to the number of voters in each constituency, the infusion of funds through business was welcomed. Many people in business who had previously only funded political parties and candidates have begun to aver that they too could contest elections. In fact, the number of businessmen in Parliament in recent years has increased because of this reason though there are no formal statistics. For example, Andhra Pradesh state has now been bifurcated, but before it was broken, it had so many Lok Sabha MPs who were contractors and businessmen. Even now, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the state that resulted from the bifurcation, have many MPs who have significant businesses.
Needless to add, the process of having more MPs will not be without any problems, with demand and counter demands from various interest groups. It is not inconceivable that interest groups could demand a higher representation for members belonging to the Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) that have come up as an entity after the Mandal Commission post-1990.
In fact, there might also be a demand to change the electoral system in India. Presently India has a First Past The Post (FPTP) system of elections whereby a candidate who gets the highest number of votes is elected. But there could be a clamour for the system of elections to be changed to that of Proportional Representation (PR). As an example, in this system, a party that gets (say) 20 per cent of the votes will be entitled to win 20 per cent of the total seats. Thus not a single vote is wasted under the PR system, unlike the FPTP, which is a “winner- takes it all” system. For instance, if in a dual contest, the winner gets 51 per cent of the votes, he is elected. But what about the loser who gets 49 per cent of the votes but is not elected? This means that the will of the people who voted for the losing candidate is not represented at all. Under the list system in vogue in Germany, 50 per cent of the MPs are elected by direct election and another 50 per cent by the PR system. This is based on a list of preferences of candidates announced in advance by political parties. In the past, many political parties had announced their preference for this way of election.
However, a change in the pattern of elections is unlikely to be considered when the number of Lok Sabha seats will be defrozen and increased. This is because most people do not understand the complex system. In fact, not a single vote is wasted under the system of the Single Transferrable Vote (STV). This system is followed in Australia and even the Presidential polls in India. By this, if there are (say) three candidates, the voters have to give their preferences for the candidates. First, the first preference votes have to be counted, and after that, the second and third preference votes (which have less weight than the first preference votes) are also tallied. The accumulation of all votes (as per their preferences) determines each candidate’s score and the winner. But this system is not followed in India for Parliamentary or assembly elections because it is considered too complex.
It is quite possible that when the issue of delimitation comes up for discussion, someone may contend that the Lok Sabha strength at 545 is enough and that increasing the number of MPs will make Parliament unwieldy. To figure out the ramifications of this, it will be useful to get an idea of the number of MPs in other countries. Great Britain - the mother of all democracies and the nation from where India got its institutions - has a large number of seats in its House of Commons. Though Great Britain (6.72 crores) has a far lesser population than India (138 crores), it has got 650 seats in the House of Commons (equivalent to the Lok Sabha). This means that each MP in India represents the will of far more number of people than in the UK. To become an MP in Great Britain is far easier than in India.
Similarly, other democracies like France (6.74 crores) and Australia (2.57 crore) have far fewer people than India. The US has a population of 32.95 crores but has 435 members in the House of Representatives and 100 Senators, and together they make up 535 members who can vote in Parliament. Thus, virtually all countries (that matter and are democracies) have a better representation than India. Though India is the most populous country in the world, its representation in Parliament through MPs is very low.
Many experts feel that increasing the number of MPs by considering the increased population may make it theoretically more effective. But in reality, it will result in a huge-sized Lok Sabha that may not be very functionally useful. There is a line of thinking that instead of empowering Parliament by increasing the number of MPs, a better way may be to delegate work to Parliamentary committees. Frequent absences from the house and low attendances plague Lok Sabha and its working. With more work and responsibilities given to Parliamentary Committees, one might be able to curb the problem of absenteeism to some extent.
Last year Congress leader Manish Tewari created a huge furore when he claimed that the Modi government was strategically planning to increase the number of Lok Sabha seats to 1000 ahead of the 2024 general elections. In July 2022, he tweeted: “I am reliably informed by my Parliamentary colleagues in BJP that there is a proposal to increase the strength of Lok Sabha to 1000 or more before 2024. New Parliament Chamber being constructed is a 1000 seater. Before this is done, there should be a serious public consultation.”
Since unveiling the Prime Minister’s ambitious Central Vista project, speculation has been rife within inner political circles that the reasons for a new parliament building were to necessitate the increase in the number of Lok Sabha seats. The opposition believes that an increase in the number of Lok Sabha seats will be advantageous for the BJP.
While the debate on its politics will continue, Article 81 of the constitution that deals with the composition of the House of People states that each state must be allotted number of seats in the House of the People in such manner that the ratio between that number and the population of the state is, so far as practicable, be the same for all states. It further goes on to add: “Each state shall be divided into territorial constituencies in such manner that the ratio between the population of each constituency and the number of seats allotted to it is, so far as practicable, be the same throughout the state...”
So, population plays a significant role when the constituencies and Lok Sabha seats are determined. As per Article 81, the composition of the Lok Sabha should represent the changes in the population. Article 82 of the Constitution provides for the readjustment of the Lok Sabha seats to the states and state legislative assemblies after the completion of each census.
Increasing the number of seats comes with its own set of complexities, but the government can’t be a sitting duck. It has to do something before it’s too late. Either control the population explosion or offer the rising number of citizens a better representation by increasing the number of MPs so that their grievances, views and aspirations are adequately addressed in the temple of democracy.
Kingshuk Nag is a senior journalist who spent about 25 years reporting for The Times of India across various locations. He is also the author of around ten best-selling works on politics and business. In a career spanning over four decades, Nag has reported on politics and the economy. He is a recipient of the Prem Bhatia award.