Legislative priorities

Print edition : June 13, 2014

Activists demand passing of the Women's Reservation Bill, outside Parliament on February 20. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Members of Disabled Rights Group, led by its convener, Javed Abidi, protesting that the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2013, was left pending, in New Delhi on December 19, 2013. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

How the Modi government prioritises the huge legislative agenda before it will reveal its character and commitment.

The Narendra Modi government, with a more than comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha, has stirred huge expectations on the legislative front. In terms of passage of Bills, the 15th Lok Sabha’s record was the worst in Parliament’s history: it passed 179 Bills of the 328 that were considered during its five-year term. This, according to the PRS Legislataive Research, is the lowest number of Bills passed by a Lok Sabha with a full five-year term. The 13th and 14th Lok Sabhas, which also had almost five-year terms each, had passed 297 and 248 Bills respectively. The 16th Lok Sabha will inherit 60 Bills which were pending before the previous one until its dissolution, whereas the 15th Lok Sabha inherited only 37 Bills from its predecessor.

A Bill that has been introduced in the Rajya Sabha but is yet to be taken up by the Lok Sabha does not lapse on the dissolution of the Lok Sabha and is deemed to be pending. On the other hand, a Bill that has been introduced in or passed by the Lok Sabha but has not yet been introduced in the Rajya Sabha lapses on the dissolution of the Lok Sabha. A lapsed Bill has to be reintroduced in both the Houses, whereas the new government has the option to either withdraw a pending Bill or seek its passage, with or without amendments in the Lok Sabha.

Being a minority in the Rajya Sabha (the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) strength in the 245-member House with five vacancies is just 60), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strategists are already talking in terms of convening joint sessions of Parliament to pass key pieces of legislation, exposing to ridicule the role of the second chamber as a federal watchdog. Joint sessions were envisaged as a mechanism to resolve genuine differences between the two Houses on a legislative measure, not as a means to use the government’s majority in the Lok Sabha against the hurdles of passage in the Rajya Sabha.

That apart, there is very little to learn about the Modi government’s legislative agenda from his campaign speeches or from the BJP’s manifesto, which is full of generalities and vacuous statements devoid of any specific legislative intent. There is a hint of legislative measure in the BJP’s promise to hold simultaneous Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections after due consultations with other political parties, in order to save costs. But Narendra Modi contesting and winning from two Lok Sabha seats does not inspire trust in the BJP’s stated reasons for simultaneous elections because he will have to vacate one of the seats, necessitating the holding of a byelection within six months of the general election, which means wastage of resources. The hidden purpose appears to be to play havoc with the federal nature of the polity in which different parties could be in power in the States and at the Centre if elections are held in different times for the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies, depending on the completion of their tenures or premature dissolution. It can be argued, however, that voters could opt to vote for different parties in the Lok Sabha and in the State Assembly elections on the basis of different issues even if they are held simultaneously, or within a gap of a few months. But the proponents of simultaneous elections seem to believe that voters, by and large, tend to vote the same party to power both at the Centre and in the States if the elections are synchronised.

There are other serious proposals aimed at stemming the money power of political parties, of which the Modi government has been the biggest beneficiary in the 2014 general elections. It is unlikely that the Modi government will initiate any discussion on possible legislative changes to make future elections freer and fairer than the just-concluded one.

Lokpal Act

Among the Bills that have been passed by the previous Lok Sabha, the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013, seeking to inquire into allegations of corruption against certain public functionaries, is significant. The Bill, passed by both the Houses of Parliament in December 2013, has also secured the President’s assent. The Act’s object is to set up a Lokpal at the Centre and Lokayuktas in States by laws enacted by respective State Legislatures within one year of the Act coming into force. But there has been no progress so far in setting up the Lokpal, owing to procedural flaws in the selection process.

The previous government told the Supreme Court on May 6 that the Lok Pal appointment process would commence only after the rules were reviewed and brought in line with the Act, to permit the search committee to look at candidates other than those suggested by the government. Eminent jurists have been reluctant to head the search committee to select a Lok Pal because of the valid apprehension that the Act and the rules have diluted the search committee’s powers to recommend a suitable Lok Pal independently of the list of nominees proposed by the government. The previous government was willing to amend the search committee rules in such a way as to enable the committee to consider any person other than the ones on the Central government’s list. But it opposed the plea to place the names of potential candidates in the public domain at least a fortnight before the names were finalised to permit the public to file their objections to their appointment. The new government will have to make its stand clear before the Supreme Court when the case comes up for hearing in July.

Frontline has identified from the PRS Legislative Research’s website 12 pending Bills and five lapsed Bills, which require the immediate attention of the new Government. These are as follows.

Pending Bills

1. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Prevention and Control) Bill, 2014. The Bill aims to prevent and control the spread of HIV and AIDS, and to protect HIV/AIDS-afflicted persons against discrimination and human rights violations. It provides for informed consent and confidentiality with regard to their treatment, places obligations on establishments to safeguard their rights, and creates mechanisms for redressing their complaints.

2. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014. The Bill replaces the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, which has been found unsatisfactory by all stakeholders. The new Bill has also attracted criticism from academics and activists. NALSAR University, which drafted the Bill, has dissociated itself from the approved Bill. The chief criticism is that the Bill has diluted the goal of giving full capacity to the disabled to make their own decisions on life, and widening the definition of persons with disability. The new government will hopefully take another look at this Bill, before seeking its passage.

3. The Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, 2013. The Bill establishes a Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) to make recommendations to the President on the appointment and transfer of judges to the higher judiciary. It empowers Parliament to pass a law providing for the composition, functions and procedures of the JAC. The Bill has met with serious criticism from the Bar. Although the BJP supported it in the House, it wanted it deferred until the submission of the report of the Standing Committee, to which the Rajya Sabha referred the Bill. The Standing Committee recommended the Bill’s passage with a few changes, in December 2013. The Rajya Sabha has already passed the accompanying Bill, the Constitution (120th Amendment) Bill, 2013, to amend Constitutional provisions relating to the appointment and transfer of judges to the higher judiciary. The BJP wanted the JAC Bill to include objective criteria for appointing judges. Because it is accompanied by a Constitution Amendment Bill, which requires the assent of half the State Assemblies, the BJP insisted that both the interconnected Bills be passed together by Parliament.

4. The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, 2013. The Bill makes the giving of a bribe an offence, enlarges the definition of what constitutes taking a bribe and covers commercial organisations. It makes request or acceptance of or attempt to obtain any advantage or reward in exchange for the improper performance of a public activity by a public servant or another as an offence, and enhances the minimum sentence from six months to three years, and the maximum sentence from five to seven years. The Standing Committee, in its report on the Bill, has recommended some key changes to improve it. The Bill requires a fresh look in the light of the committee’s recommendations.

5. The Mental Health Care Bill, 2013. It replaces the Mental Health Act, 1987, as the existing law neither adequately protects the rights of persons with mental illness nor promotes their access to mental health care. Clause 124 of the Bill says that a person who attempts suicide shall be presumed to be suffering from mental illness at that time and will not be punished under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. The government agreed to substitute the assumption of mental illness with an assumption of severe stress, and the Standing Committee has accepted this modification, apart from making other suggestions to improve the Bill. The Bill’s silence on the right of the affected person to leave the institution, if the treatment is unsatisfactory, and live independently has met with criticism from academics.

6. The Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill, 2013. It seeks to establish Real Estate Regulatory Authorities (RERA) at the State level for the regulation and development of the real estate sector. It aims at ensuring consumer protection and standardisation in business practices and transactions in the real estate sector. RERA’s functions include rendering advice to the appropriate government on the development of the real estate sector and maintaining and publishing records relating to real estate projects on its website. It might conduct any inquiry into the affairs of, issue directions to, and penalise any promoter, allottee, or real estate agent, if required. The Bill also outlines penalties for non-compliance.

7. The Registration (Amendment) Bill, 2013. This Bill seeks to amend the Registration Act, 1908, by making registration compulsory, irrespective of the term of the lease of the immovable property. The amendments mainly relate to ensuring transparency and digitisation that will help establish clear land ownership, so that it can ensure compensation to rightful owners of land when land is acquired.

8. The Wildlife Protection (Amendment) Bill, 2013. The Bill seeks to amend the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. The Bill prohibits the manufacture, sale, transport or use of animal traps except for educational and scientific purposes. The amendment allows certain activities such as grazing or movement of livestock, bona fide use of drinking and household water by local communities, and hunting under a permit. India is a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and amendments to the 1972 Act are necessary to fulfil India’s obligations under the convention.

9. Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Amendment Bill, 2012. The Bill’s ambit extends to the Internet and social media, apart from television and print media.

10. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012. In the light of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, the Bill seeks to prohibit employment of children below 14 years in all occupations except where the child helps his family after school hours. The Bill adds a new category of persons called “adolescent” (persons between the ages of 14 and 18) and prohibits their employment in hazardous occupations, such as mining and hazardous processes. The penalty for employing a child has been increased to imprisonment for a period between six months to two years (from three months to one year), or a fine of Rs.20,000 to Rs.50,000 (from Rs.10,000 to Rs.20,000) or both.

11. The Prevention of Torture Bill, 2010. It was passed by the Lok Sabha on May 6, 2010. The Rajya Sabha referred the Bill to a Select Committee, in view of the concerns expressed by activists over some of its provisions. The Select Committee submitted its report on December 6, 2010, making some key suggestions to improve the Bill. The Bill has been pending since then.

12. The Women’s Reservation Bill (The Constitution 108th Amendment) Bill, 2008. It was passed by the Rajya Sabha. It seeks to reserve one-third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assemblies. According to the Bill, the allocation of reserved seats shall be determined by such authority as prescribed by Parliament. One-third of the total number of seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes shall be reserved for women of those groups in the Lok Sabha and the Legislative Assemblies. Reserved seats may be allotted by rotation to different constituencies in the State or Union Territory. Reservation of seats for women shall cease to exist 15 years after the commencement of the Amendment Act. The Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, in its 36th Report submitted on December 17, 2009, wanted reconsideration of the 15-year limit so that women are able to achieve adequate political representation in Parliament and State Assemblies. The committee recommended reservation for women in the Rajya Sabha and the Legislative Councils, as well as reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

Lapsed Bills

1. The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2013. It was introduced in the Lok Sabha on December 12, 2013, by the then Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, Kumari Selja. The Bill seeks to amend the 1989 Act, by amending certain existing categories and adds new categories of actions to be treated as offences.

2. The Securities Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2013. It was introduced in the previous Lok Sabha and empowers the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) to regulate any money-pooling scheme worth Rs.100 crore or more, attach assets in cases of non-compliance and order search-and-seizure operations. Since the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government could not pass the legislation in the previous sessions, it had come out with an ordinance giving SEBI temporary powers to bolster its crackdown on fraudulent investment schemes. The ordinance, which was promulgated twice, lapsed on January 17 this year. When the ordinance was in force, SEBI initiated at least 311 attachment proceedings in nearly 65 cases for recovery of investor money amassed through illicit schemes and long-pending penalties for various market-related defaults.

3. The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2013. It was introduced in the Lok Sabha on August 12, 2013, and the Standing Committee submitted its report on the Bill on December 17, 2013. In June 2013, the Central Information Commission (CIC) held six political parties to be public authorities under the RTI Act and hence subject to the transparency and information requirements under the Act. The amendment Bill removes political parties from the ambit of the definition of public authorities and hence from the purview of the RTI Act. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill states that there are already provisions in the RPA, 1951, as well as in the Income Tax Act, 1961, which deal with transparency in the financial aspects of political parties and their candidates, and adds that declaring a political party as public authority under the RTI Act would hamper its internal functioning, and political rivals could misuse the provisions of the RTI Act. The then Attorney General, G.E. Vahanvati, told the Standing Committee that the Bill, if it becomes Act, may not withstand constitutional challenge as it creates a class within a class without having any consideration to the principle of intelligible differentia having reasonable nexus with the objective of the Act (promotion of transparency and accountability). Secondly, he said, safeguards to protect political parties from malicious and motivated application of the RTI Act already exist under Section 8 of the Act. Despite the Attorney General’s opinion, the Standing Committee recommended the passage of the Bill, to completely avoid the scope of ambiguity. The committee concurred with the Union Law Secretary’s view that Parliament has legislative competence to override the CIC decision. Anu Aga, a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, submitted her dissent to the Committee’s report. If political parties are to play a critical role in improving governance, they must submit themselves to higher standards of transparency and accountability, she observed in her dissent.

4. The Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill, 2011. It was introduced in the Lok Sabha on December 20, 2011. The Bill seeks to create a mechanism to ensure timely delivery of goods and services to citizens. Every public authority is required to publish a citizens’ charter within six months of the commencement of the Act. The charter will detail the goods and services to be provided and their timelines for delivery. The Bill requires all public authorities to appoint officers to redress grievances within 30 working days. Central and State Public Grievance Redressal Commissions are also envisaged under the Bill. Failure to render services may invite the levy of penalty of upto Rs.50,000 upon the responsible officer or the Grievance Redressal Officer. The Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice has made some key suggestions to improve the Bill in its report submitted on August 30, 2012. The new government should take the initiative to introduce this Bill afresh and ensure its early passage in both the Houses.

5. The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, 2010. It lays down enforceable standards of conduct for judges, and requires them to declare their and their family members’ assets and liabilities. It also creates mechanisms to allow any person to complain against judges on grounds of misbehaviour or incapacity. The Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha on March 29, 2012, but was not introduced in the Rajya Sabha. While these Bills apparently require the new government’s commitment to ensure their passage in Parliament, the BJP’s manifesto is silent on them, even while promising to create the necessary legal framework to protect and promote the cow and its progeny, to draft a Uniform Civil Code, “drawing upon the best traditions and harmonising them with the modern times”, to remain committed to the abrogation of Article 370 (guaranteeing special status to Jammu and Kashmir) and to explore all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution to facilitate the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. One can only hope that these divisive issues, which the BJP’s manifesto mentions because of electoral compulsions, do not find a place in the new government’s legislative agenda, which is supposed to maximise governance, to borrow an oft-repeated phrase from Narendra Modi’s campaign speeches.

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