The Bengalurean, a devalued voter

WITHOUT DELIMITATION

Over the next two months, 87 crore eligible electors will choose 543 representatives to the Lok Sabha from their respective constituencies.

A simple division suggests that the average Lok Sabha constituency will have about 16 lakh electors though the reality is that the number is as low as 50,000 in Lakshadweep and as high as 30 lakhs in Malkajgiri in Telangana (as per 2014 figures).

This is understandable. As a federal polity, the Indian Union cannot entirely deny representation to sparsely populated regions and communities in favour of the more densely populated ones.

However, there is a political element to this. The process of delimitation – the manner in which seats in legislatures are allocated to different states and districts – has been frozen since 2002 as a result of the 84th amendment to the Constitution.

The figures of the 2001 census will continue to be used until the 2031 census figures are released, and constituency boundaries will be redrawn after that.

A recent article by Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hinton pointed out how, given the demographic changes and falling birth rates, southern states such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh will continue to be over-represented (relative to their population) while north Indian states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar will be under-represented with the gap increasing in the years leading up to 2031.

By their calculation, Tamil Nadu will be over-represented by eight seats in the Lok Sabha and Uttar Pradesh under-represented by 11 seats if the demographic trends hold.

While the imbalances at the national level require correction due to demographic changes, a similar solution is required within states as well. Rapid urbanisation has meant that a greater percentage of Indians than ever live in cities and for the first time, between 2001 and 2011, the increase in the urban population was greater than the increase in the rural population.

Obviously, the constituency boundaries have not changed to reflect this reality and will not do so for next decade or so. This has meant that urban dwellers find themselves under-represented in legislatures.

Take for instance the city of Bengaluru. As of 2019, the four Lok Sabha constituencies which fall within Bangalore (North, Central, South and Rural) account for 19% of the electors in Karnataka, but amount to only 14.28% of the Lok Sabha seats in the state.

Between them, the four constituencies of Bengaluru have an average of 23.8 lakh electors whereas the remaining 24 constituencies of Karnataka have an average of 17.05 lakh electors each. Effectively, a vote in Bengaluru has only seven-tenths the value of a vote outside Bengaluru in the Lok Sabha elections.

The situation in the Assembly Constituencies (ACs) for Bengaluru is even more stark. As of 2019, Bengaluru has only 28 out of 224 assembly constituencies in the state or just 12.44% of the seats. If Bengaluru were to be represented proportionate to its current population, it  would have 43 seats in the assembly.

A Bengaluru AC has an average of 3.4 lakh voters whereas an AC in the rest of Karnataka has an average of 2.06 lakh voters. Effectively, a vote in the capital has only six-tenths the value of a vote outside the city in Assembly elections.

But that is not the only story that the numbers tell us.

Comparing the number of electors in ACs in Bengaluru between 2008 (the first time elections were held after the last delimitation) and 2019 shows us some more worrying trends.

The number of electors has increased by about 30% but the increase in the overall number of electors in the city is by no means uniform. Three ACs here have actually seen numbers drop in the last decade, while five ACs have seen more than 50% growth. Three other constituencies registered less than 10% growth while three more registered more than 45% growth.

As a result of the widely different growth rates, the absolute number of voters in these constituencies is dramatically different. The largest assembly constituency Bangalore South (not to be confused with the Lok Sabha constituency of the same name) has nearly six lakh voters while the smallest AC - Shivajinagar - has less than two lakh voters. A vote in Bangalore South therefore has only three-tenths of the value of a vote in Shivajinagar.

What explains these disparities? One answer seems obvious from the map below. Constituencies in the centre of the city see little or no population growth while those on the peripheries have exploded. This is the result of the skewed development priorities in Bengaluru that has seen the city become a “doughnut city” (or perhaps more appropriately, a “vada city” as a friend put it).

The lack of adequate representation in the peripheries has had other implications. A 2013 study by Janaagraha has shown that access to key public services provided by municipal authorities, water, sanitation, and roads seem to worsen the farther one gets from the city centre. 

Development deficits

This is notwithstanding the fact that the peripheries contribute much more by way of property tax. The demographic deficit in representation therefore seems to have been accompanied by additional development deficits as well.

With India’s urbanisation set to increase in the coming decades, and no delimitation possible till at least 2031, the issue of under-representation far and within urban areas is going to remain a festering one.

Urban issues will remain neglected as the electoral incentives are skewed towards focusing more on rural residents, and even within the urban areas, to those areas where citizens have a greater say in electoral outcomes.

While universal suffrage ostensibly guarantees all adult citizens one vote equally, the reality is that some votes are more equal than others.

(Kumar is senior resident fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Bengaluru; Chandni Prakash, currently interning in Vidhi, contributed to this article)

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The Bengalurean, a devalued voter

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