The Delimitation Exercise in India

Authored by: Karun Gupta

Updated by Shubhangi Priya

‘Delimitation’ is defined by the Election Commission of India as, “the act or process of fixing limits or boundaries of territorial constituencies in a country or a province having a legislative body” [1]. The foundation of delimitation is grounded in the tenets of the democratic process, of which the essence lies in the representation of all the nation’s people. Keeping in mind the unevenness of demographic patterns and population growth across India, the delimitation process must be routinely revisited, to ensure accuracy in representation in democracy. This means that the boundaries of the constituencies, in terms of the population within that constituency as well as representation within the Parliament, should be equal; thereby espousing the principle of ‘one man, one vote, one value’.

The political significance of delimitation is immense, as it reveals its comparative nature: it determines the representation of units or areas and varying demographics in the government. In doing so, it shapes an ideological wave in governance, which in turn affects the governed. Keeping this in mind, the process of delimitation has been detailed in the Delimitation Act, which has been enacted by the Parliament, and has also established the Delimitation Commission of India under Section 3 of the Act. This process of delimitation is to be done after every census, as per Article 82 of The Constitution [2].

As such, Delimitation Commissions were previously constituted in 1952, 1963, 1973 and 2002. However, the process was frozen in 1976 during the Indian Emergency, until the 2001 census, in order to avoid discrepancies emerging out of family planning programs, to coincide with political representation in the Lok Sabha. Extending this freeze, the Constitution (Eighty-Fourth) Amendment Act, 2001 made an amendment to Article 82 under which change in the reservation status of constituencies was allowed [3]. However, no change could take place in terms of the number of seats in Parliament until 2026, thereby highlighting a gap in the delimitation process. Even so, a Commission was formed in 2002 under Kuldeep Singh, a retired Supreme Court judge, and was assigned a term of two years. Bureaucratic hurdles stifled the progress of the Commission, leading to an extension in its term.

The advent of the fourth delimitation arrived with an inquiry into its methods and practicality. An array of methodological issues were associated with the process of delimitation, keeping the Indian context in mind. Firstly, consideration had to be given to the selection of the method to allocate seats among all the states. In this regard, a comprehensive and satisfactory method had to be chosen, which accounted for the variability along India’s demography.

Secondly, the process of redrawing of electoral boundaries had to be carried out in such a way that avoids ‘gerrymandering’, which refers to the deliberate attempt by political parties to favour them in specific constituencies. This interference by political actors, especially ruling parties, is an effort to maintain their power over the government and ensure a continued office. Such a manipulation, thus, is used to coax constituencies into affiliation. The gerrymandering process makes use of ‘packing’ and ‘cracking’; while the former refers to an intended concentration of opposition votes in only a few electoral districts, the latter connotes the diffusion of opposition votes across many districts.

Finally, the act of balancing the population of the constituencies with its broader representation in the government remains an arduous task, and as such the legality and social significance of delimitation has to be considered, in order to contain disparities in the size of the electorate [4].

In addition to highlighting methodological issues, The Delimitation Act of 2002 has to be carefully assessed, taking into account its provisions and their ramifications. All constituencies must be geographically compact areas, associated with physical features, existing boundaries of administration, facilities of communication, and public convenience.  An entire population, thus, has to fall completely within one parliamentary constituency, making a link between electoral constituency and parliamentary constituency a prerequisite for a successful delimitation. Further, the reservation of seats in the constituency remains dependent upon the distribution of Schedule Caste (ST) and Schedule Tribe (SC) communities, in relation to their population to the total. This presents a challenge, as inconsistencies are likely to emerge [5].

Further exploring the phenomenon of the north-south divide, the fourth delimitation exercise must account for the rate of population increase across India. With undercurrents of population control sweeping most of South India, its states propagated improved family planning methods and contraception, significantly lowering the birth date. On the other hand, North India continued to have a higher birth rate, resulting in a population lag. As such, population, and by extension population density, increased in North India, potentially creating a gap in the Parliament emerging out of an incomplete and partial delimitation exercise. Consequently, representation would have been vividly unequal: the North would be represented more than the South, leading to the prevalence of ideologies that favour the development of the North over the South.

Solidifying this gap, there emerges an imbalance in governance, as the policymaking for the South would suffer a considerable blow. For instance, a Member of Parliament from Rajasthan could potentially be representing more population than a Member of Parliament from Kerala, thus resulting in a potential Parliamentary crisis.

It can be argued that a reason why delimitation has not taken place after 1976 may be ambiguities related to the process of readjustment which further reinforce the North-South divide. The implications of the 1976 freeze may be conceptualised in the following way: if the next delimitation exercise is to be done post 2026, that is, on the basis of the 2031 census, the elections during the period leading up to 2031 would be widely inaccurate in their representation of constituencies, as population rate continues to witness an increment [6].

Other aspects to be accounted for are the equivalence of representation of a population in the state legislative assembly vis-a-vis its Lok Sabha representation. This invites a restructuring of electoral rolls in the states, making delimitation not only a political endeavour, but an administrative one as well. The nuanced position resulting out of the reservation of seats for SCs and STs enforces the process of delimitation to be operationalised in a manner that ensures the numerical quality of the electorate. As such, the delimitation exercise spans political, social, legal, and economic dimensions, warranting a critical look by social and political scientists, as well as demographers. In addition, administrators at the grassroots level must be conscious of non-demographic variables in enacting delimitation [7].

A potential solution, according to Alistair McMillan, could be to increase the number of seats in the lower house of the Parliament [8]. However, it has been noted that if the number of members was to increase, it could potentially impact the day-to-day functioning of the Parliament. For instance, maintaining discipline in the house would be problematic for the Speaker. Similarly, the Zero Hour window, where members raise urgent matters prior to the Question Hour, would face increasing pressure due to a larger number of parliamentarians [9]. 

The exercise of delimitation aims to bring parity to the inadequate representation of people across various constituencies, lending credibility to the principle of ‘one man, one vote, one value’ in the Indian political landscape. It is to be evaluated, however, whether the Delimitation Commission, when it is constituted in 2026, will address the demographic changes that have occurred since the exercise was frozen in 1976.