J&K delimitation: Go by the population rule
Almost a year after being constituted on March 6, 2020, the Delimitation Commission has started the exercise to redraw the electoral boundaries of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), along with four other states. While the Commission, headed by Justice Ranjana Desai, is the fifth since Independence, it is unique insofar as it has been formed when there is a constitutional freeze on the increase or decrease of the parliamentary and legislative assembly seats till after the population census of 2026.
With regard to J&K, the Commission is sui generis. Even though set up under the Delimitation Act of 2002, it will redraw the constituencies of J&K in accordance with the provisions of the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019. This severely compromises the Commission’s mandate vis-a-vis J&K.
The J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019, decided that two of the three key elements in the delimitation of assembly constituencies. First, the number of electors has already been decided, by stipulating the population census of 2011 as the base. For all other states, including the four going in for delimitation along with J&K, the population figures of the 2001 census are being used.
Second, through the Act, the Union government has increased the number of representatives to the legislative assembly of J&K from 107 to 114. So far, changing the number of representatives has been the prerogative of the Delimitation Commission. It is mandated and empowered by clause 8(b) of the Delimitation Act of 2002 to decide on the “the total number of seats to be assigned to the Legislative Assembly of each State and determine on the basis of the census figures”.
Having already decided on the number of electors as well as the number of elected, the only part of delimitation that has been left to the Commission is the electoral cartography — the redrawing of boundaries and enclosing people within the constituency framework. Notwithstanding these debilitating infirmities in the context of J&K, the redrawing of the constituencies is an extraordinarily complex and highly contentious exercise. It can potentially alter the electoral demographic balance.
In all the legislative assemblies of the erstwhile state of J&K, there has been no imbalance, regional or otherwise, in the distribution of assembly seats. More specifically, contrary to perception, Jammu has not been discriminated against in representation. In the last legislative assembly, for instance, the Kashmir Valley, which had 55% of the population, had 53% of the seats. Jammu, with a share of 43% in the population, got 42.5% of the seats in the legislative assembly. Even on the “one person one vote” principle, it is as good as it can get, with 149,749 voters per constituency in Kashmir and 145,366 per constituency in Jammu.
Post the downgrade and dismemberment of J&K in August 2019, the Kashmir division has a 56% share in population, while Jammu has a 44% share. The area of the Jammu division is now 62%, while that of Kashmir is 38%. Hence the clamour from Jammu-centric political parties and civil society for using area as a criterion for delimitation.
However, the universally accepted and nationally followed rule for delimitation for constituencies is population. Approximately half of the countries in the world use population for delimiting, while another third use registered voters, a subset of the population. The remaining countries use citizen population, again a variant of population. Nowhere is it based on area and for good reasons.
Be that as it may, the Commission’s approach to redrawing of constituencies in J&K should not, and indeed cannot, be the seat distribution between the Jammu division and the Kashmir division. What should be the end result can’t be the starting point. Both are administrative divisions and not electoral constituencies. This binary of Jammu versus Kashmir, which has now become a bipolarity, may be relevant for developmental decisions but not for representational purposes.
Following the principle of “communities of interest” used universally in redrawing of constituencies, the Commission should follow a ground-up approach. Indeed, Section 60(2) (b) of the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019, specifies that “all constituencies shall, as far as practicable, be geographically compact areas, and in delimiting them, regard shall be had to physical features, existing boundaries of administrative units”. The operative part is “physical features”, which include natural boundaries created by dominant topographical features such as mountain ranges, or rivers.
On this stipulated basis of topography, today’s J&K comprises four distinct regions — Jhelum Valley (South Kashmir, Central Kashmir and North Kashmir), Chenab Valley (Kisthwar, Doda, Ramban and Reasi), Pir Panchal (Rajouri and Poonch), and the Tawi basin or the plains (Jammu, Kathua and Udhampur).
The assembly constituencies in and across these four regions need to be distributed on the basis of the share of population. With population as the base, the allocation can be tempered by giving some weightage to the density of population. If the inverse of population density is used, it will work as a relevant surrogate for area, since low-population density will get a higher weightage.
Haseeb Drabu is a former finance minister of Jammu and Kashmir and an economistThe views expressed are personal