The Tamil Nadu State Cabinet convened on May 2, just days before the government completed two years in office and amidst two serious policy missteps in the past fortnight. DMK president M.K. Stalin had chaired his first informal meeting of officials on the COVID-19 pandemic on the evening of May 2, 2021, after the results of the May 2021 Legislative Assembly election made it clear that the DMK would form the government. Without waiting for the formal swearing-in, Stalin reviewed the COVID response with officials.
Unfortunately, two new Bills introduced in the Assembly without Cabinet consultation have become the biggest drawbacks of Stalin’s first term as Chief Minister. The first Bill aimed to extend working hours from eight to 12 hours by relaxing existing labour laws. The second proposed allowing serving of liquor in marriage halls, conventions, and other venues. Both are highly contentious issues in Tamil Nadu.
The DMK trade union, LPF, stood by workers even in cases of conflict between the party and government workers when the party was in power. However, the Tamil Nadu government did not consult the Economic Advisory Council before pushing through the Factories Act amendment. Similarly, opposition parties, including the Pattali Makkal Katchi and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, opposed the amendment to the Tamil Nadu Liquor (Licence and Permit) Rules, 1981.
Stalin withdrew the Bill amending the working hours in the Factories Act, 1948, on May 1, after widespread opposition. The Assembly had adopted the Bill on April 21 with little discussion, and DMK’s allies in the Assembly, the CPI(M), the CPI, and the VCK, staged a walkout in protest. After discussions with union representatives, Stalin announced that the Bill was being put on hold. He described this as an act of courage because the government was unafraid to reconsider the measure when it was shown to be in the wrong.
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Earlier, on April 24, the government announced the revocation of the decision to grant special licences allowing the possession and selling of liquor in marriage halls, banquet halls, and non-commercial premises hosting celebrations. However, the Madras High Court stayed the operation of this amendment, allowing sales in sports arenas and international conferences. K. Balu, the president of the Advocates Forum for Social Justice, filed a PIL seeking to declare the amendment made to the Rules as “illegal and unconstitutional.” The government had contended that the practice of issuing special licences existed in many States, including neighbouring Karnataka.
How did the Bills reach the Assembly?
In the normal course of events, any contentious issue would be sent to the Cabinet for its concurrence before being presented in the Assembly. However, one incident earlier in this government altered this established convention. A particularly vociferous Minister presented an amendment to a law in the Cabinet, and his colleagues convinced the Chief Minister that the amendment was unnecessary. After seeing this reaction, a few Secretaries to the government and the Chief Minister’s office decided that there was no need to present amendments to a law to the Cabinet. The reasoning was that only if a new Bill was being introduced did the Cabinet have to clear it.
Two political sources confirmed that in this case, neither amendment was put forth in the Cabinet. The amendment to the Factories Act was piloted by the Industries Secretary, and found its way to the Chief Minister’s Office, where it received the required clearance to be placed before the Assembly. In the case of the Liquor Rules amendment, the point-person was the Home Secretary, who also found an ally within the Chief Minister’s office.
Evidently, the oversight, in this case, rests with the Chief Secretary and the Chief Minister’s Office, said an official. Given the fact that officials go by their brief and not the political fallout the brief creates, it was necessary to have political oversight of such contentious Bills, he added. There was an attempt to apprise the Chief Minister of the issue when a few Ministers became aware of the Factories Act amendment, but it was unsuccessful.
A few senior leader in the DMK and former officials believe that the culture of discussion on policy issues needs to be restored within the party to effectively address such issues.