Population in Indian Polity

Population has been an important aspect of governance. It impacts representation, resource allocation, economic development, social services, infrastructure and political influence. If you look at the Indian political system and federation, population has been the key determinant of the state policy in terms of political representation in Lok Sabha and distribution of resources among the states. As the population evolves, these dimensions change as well. And that is where the conflicts happen because the change is reflected in change in the number of seats and finances allocated to states.

So in this article, we are going to understand population in political representation and role of population in fiscal transfers. 

Population in political representation

Article 81 of the Indian Constitution stipulates that Lok Sabha constituencies in the country should be equal by the size of population. For the purpose of holding direct elections to the Lok Sabha, each state is divided into territorial constituencies. 

In this respect, the Constitution makes the following two provisions

  • Each state is allotted a number of seats in the Lok Sabha in such a manner that the ratio between that number and its population is the same for all states. This provision does not apply to a state having a population of less than six millions.
  • Each state is divided into territorial constituencies in such a manner that the ratio between the population of each constituency and the number of seats allotted to it is the same throughout the state.

In brief, the Constitution ensures that there is uniformity of representation in two respects

  • between the different states
  • between the different constituencies in the same state. 

The expression ‘population’ means the population as ascertained at the preceding census of which the relevant figures have been published. The 42nd Amendment Act of 1976 froze the allocation of seats in the Lok Sabha to the states and the division of each state into territorial constituencies till the year 2000 at the 1971 level. 87th Amendment Act of 2003 provided for the delimitation of constituencies on the basis of 2001 census. 

The problem however is that the population growth rates differ between the non-Hindi speaking southern States and the Hindi-speaking northern States. 

  • Between 1971 and 2011, the proportion of the population of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh increased from 44% to 48.2%
  • Whereas the proportion of population of the five southern States (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana) declined from 24.9% to 21.1%. 

If equal size of Lok Sabha constituencies by population is enforced today as in the population projections of 2023, the five southern States will lose 23 seats, while the northern States will gain 37

Why does this matter? Let’s understand it through an example

The attempt to equalise the size of constituencies by population is based on the principle of, “One Person, One Vote, one value”. To give a perspective, from the 2019 election numbers, a Member of Parliament from the northern States of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh represent around 18 lakh registered electors, while the five southern State Member of Parliament represents 16 lakh registered electors. The real meaning of ‘one person, one vote’ is lost in this system

How census-based delimitation for Lok Sabha seats could shake up politics &  disadvantage south

When India’s governments aim to control the population through family planning, states that successfully reduce their population should not face reduced political representation in the future. Population control isn’t just about family planning programs; it’s also driven by societal changes promoted by leaders. Southern states in India have achieved this.

So, decreasing the political representation of these states in the national Parliament isn’t fair. It might even discourage other states from taking population control and societal change seriously. To solve this, we should keep the distribution of seats among states frozen as it was in 1971 until all states stabilize their populations.

Role of population in fiscal transfers

Once in five years the Union government constitutes a Finance Commission to recommend, among other things, the share of each State in the assigned tax revenue of the Union government. Every Finance Commission recommends a formula for the horizontal distribution of the Union government’s tax revenue among the States. 

Let’s look at the criterion to determine the distribution:The 15th Finance Commission and Changes in the Devolution Formula: Which  States Stand to Lose? - Accountability Initiative: Responsive Governance
We can see that under 15th Finance Commission report, population appears at three places (Population 2011, Income distance and Demographic performance) as population of a State is a measure of demand for public expenditure. Therefore, it is an important variable in the distribution formula.

The per capita income of a State is considered as a proxy for its ability to raise its own revenue. The higher the per capita income of a State, the lower its share in the Union tax revenue. Lower per capita income of a State may be due to higher population for a given Gross State Domestic Product. Therefore, the higher the current population of a State, the higher its share in the Union tax revenue. It is important to note that usually the per capita income is assigned larger weight in the distribution formula favouring the northern States. 

The terms of reference of the Fifteenth Finance Commission openly declared taking the 2011 population in the distribution formula. With this, the southern States lost the advantage of getting some financial rewards for population control. Therefore, the southern States have already started facing reduced financial transfers from the Union government as a reward for controlling population growth.

In this complex landscape, the challenge lies in striking a balance between representation, demographic realities, and financial equity. Ensuring fairness in political representation and resource allocation while acknowledging the diverse population dynamics across states is crucial for effective governance and the well-being of all citizens.

Moreover, addressing these issues requires a nuanced and equitable approach that considers both the historical context and the evolving demographic trends within India.

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