April 1, 2010

In Parliament

The Budget Session of Parliament has started on a slow note. The first part of the session (February 22 – March 16) saw several interruptions as MPs raised the issues of inflation, hike in fuel prices, the women’s reservation bill, and the cash garland for Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati. Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha worked for 57% and 73% of the scheduled time respectively.

The Government has planned to introduce 63 bills and pass 27 bills this session (other than those related to the budget).  At the mid-session recess, six bills were introduced and one was passed. We discuss some of the bills on the agenda.

The women’s reservation bill has been passed by Rajya Sabha. The schedule as well as support for the bill in Lok Sabha is not clear. Though leaders from the Congress, BJP and Left parties have indicated that their parties will vote for the bill, press reports indicate that several MPs from these parties have dissenting views. This episode once again brings up the issue of the whip and the no-confidence motion, discussed in In Parliament last month:  should MPs whose views diverge from the official party line have the freedom to vote their conscience?

In the Lok Sabha, the government circulated a bill that limits civil liability in case of an incident in a nuclear power facility. The Leader of the Opposition indicated to the Speaker that she would like to oppose the introduction of the bill; the Speaker then informed the House that the government has deferred the introduction. The bill has three main features.  First, it identifies the operator of a facility as the sole person liable for any damage due to a nuclear incident. Any other entity—including the supplier of the equipment or fuel—would not be directly liable; the operator would have recourse to such entity if it has a written agreement to that effect. Second, the limit on operator’s liability would be Rs 500 crore ($110 million). The maximum liability out of any nuclear incident would be SDR 300 million (which is about Rs 2100 crore/$460 million at current exchange rates), with the Union government being liable for any amount above Rs 500 crore up to this limit. Two exception conditions—grave natural disaster, and armed conflict, civil war, insurrection or terrorism—place the entire liability on the government. Third, the bill sets up a structure and process for determining claims.

The objections to the bill centre on two key features: one that it absolves suppliers, and the other that it limits liability. Interestingly, all the three main international conventions—Paris 1960, Vienna 1963 and Convention on Supplementary Compensation 1997—have similar features. Most national laws have similar provisions making the operator solely liable—the intent is that there is one person for claiming compensation. Liability limits vary.  For example, the United States has a pool funded by the nuclear power industry, which is currently about USD 10 billion. Total liability is unlimited but the liability of any operator is up to this limit; the federal government carries the residual liability.

Several bills, pending for a long time, have been listed for consideration and passing. The seeds bill regulates the manufacture, distribution and sale of seeds but has a controversial provision that requires inter-farmer sale of seeds to adhere to certain minimum quality norms. The Representation of People Act is sought to be amended to permit voting rights for non-resident Indian citizens. The Life Insurance Corporation Act and Insurance Act are to be amended to raise minimum capital and to increase the limit for foreign investment in insurance companies to 49 percent of capital. Two constitutional amendment bills seek to raise the minimum representation of women in panchayats and municipalities to 50 percent from 33 percent. The companies bill that replaces the current 1956 Act is also listed.

Some of the bills listed for introduction have seen much public debate. In the financial sector, the pension bill (setting up a regulator), banking bill (acquisitions of banks) and State Bank of India bill (reducing minimum government holding from 55 percent to 51 percent) had lapsed at the time of dissolution of the last Lok Sabha, and are to be re-introduced. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act is to be amended “in order to make it more humane”.  A biotechnology regulatory authority is being established: given the controversy surrounding the Bt Brinjal issue, this bill will likely see some interesting debate. The land acquisition and the rehabilitation and resettlement bills are to be re-introduced. Also listed is the judicial standards and accountability bill which seeks to make public the assets of judges, and amends the process of taking disciplinary action and removing judges found guilty of misconduct. Another bill seeks to protect whistleblowers.

Three bills relate to the print and electronic media. The copyright amendment bill addresses copyright issues in digital form and concerns of physically disabled persons (audio books etc). The Prasar Bharati Act and the Press and Registration of Books and Publications Act are also being amended—the details have not been released.

The education ministry plans to amend the right to education bill to address the issue of disabled children. On the higher education front, the ministry has a long list of bills. The foreign university bill seeks to permit and regulate foreign universities. An earlier version was circulated in mid-2007 but that was not introduced on opposition from the Left parties.  It would be interesting to see whether the regulatory requirements on autonomy of functioning and quotas in admission differ from that for Indian universities, both public and private. It would also be interesting to compare the provisions with that of the innovation universities bill that seeks to set up world standard universities. Other bills include one to establish eight new IITs, one to recognise IISER in the NIT Act, one to prohibit unfair practices in technical and medical educational institutions (details are not known but this is likely to be on banning capitation fees), one to amend the reservations in central universities, and one to establish tribunals to settle disputes arising in higher education.  A new engineers bill is proposed “to regulate the practice of the engineering profession”.

The second part of the session (19 sittings from April 12-May 7) has a packed agenda.  The finance bill and the demand for grants of carious ministries have to be discussed and passed. If the original list of business is followed, 26 bills have to be passed, and 57 new bills to be introduced. It is hoped that Parliament will find the time to examine all the financial and legislative proposals of the government in an effective manner before granting its approval.

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