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June 1, 2010

In Parliament

Interruptions, disruptions, adjournments. These words characterise the Budget session of Parliament which ran from the last week of February to the first week of May. Sample some statistics: Parliament was scheduled to meet for 35 sittings; it met on 32 days. The Lok Sabha met for 66 percent of the scheduled time, while the Rajya Sabha met for 74 percent. The Question Hour was disproportionately affected as any time lost during this hour is not made up by sitting late; both Houses worked for just 48 percent of the scheduled time. On 13 days, not even one question was answered in Rajya Sabha; in Lok Sabha on eight days.

The government had listed 27 bills (other than those related to the budget) for consideration and passing during the session. Parliament passed just six. The ancient monuments and archaeological sites bill replaced an ordinance; it prohibits any construction within 100 metres of a protected monument and regulates construction for a further 200 metres. The national green tribunal bill establishes a tribunal to settle environment-related civil cases. The payment of gratuity act was amended to enhance the maximum gratuity payable to Rs 1 million (from Rs 350,000). The employee state insurance act was amended to permit hospitals under ESIC to treat patients not covered by the act. The plantation labour act was amended to increase some safety provisions and prohibit employment of children under 14 years of age. Finally, a legislative council was approved for the state of Tamil Nadu.

In addition, the government had also listed 63 bills to be introduced; it managed to introduce only 27. These included the civil nuclear liability bill, the copyright amendment, and four bills regulating higher education. The nuclear the total liability (the residual to be borne by the central government) at SDR 300 million, which is about Rs 20 billion (see the May 2010 issue of Pragati for an analysis of this bill).

The copyright bill addresses technological developments and provides for exemptions for material adapted for use
by disabled persons. Some important bills that were not introduced include the judicial accountability bill, the land
acquisition and rehabilitation bills, the pension bill and the biotechnology regulatory bill.

The government introduced four bills related to regulation of higher education. One bill permits and regulates foreign educational institutions; they need to meet all the requirements of domestic universities, bring in corpus funds of Rs 500 million, and are not allowed to repatriate any surplus. However, most conditions (other than the repatriation clause) may be exempted for some universities on a case-by-case basis. A second bill prohibits unfair trade practices; it requires institutions to detail all fees in their prospectus, regulates admission procedures and bans capitation fee. A third bill sets up education tribunals. A fourth bill sets up a regulator for accreditation agencies; all universities and programmes need to obtain quality ratings from these accreditation agencies.

Some bills were passed by just one house. The women’s reservation bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha after disruptions that led to the suspension of seven MPs; the bill was not taken up for discussion in the Lok Sabha.

The lower house passed the prevention of torture bill; this bill prescribes punishment of 10 years for any public official who causes grievous hurt or danger to life, limb or hurt to any person in order to extract any information or confession. However, prosecution requires two conditions: a complaint must be filed within six months of the act of torture, and the appropriate government must give sanction for prosecution. This bill was not referred to the standing committee and will next be discussed in the Rajya Sabha.

The budget session also highlighted some issues related to standing committees. The prevention of torture bill and the energy conservation amendment bill were not referred to the committee. Indeed the latter bill was passed by the Lok Sabha without any discussion, thus there was no parliamentary scrutiny. Hopefully, the Rajya Sabha will deliberate on this bill carefully. The session had a four-week recess for standing committees to examine the budgetary demand for grants. After scrutinising the government’s financial requests, the committees report their findings to Parliament.

However, the effectiveness of this process can be questioned. Of the 54 demands, the Lok Sabha discussed only three, amounting to 16 percent of the total budget; the rest were sanctioned without any discussion. One of the demands discussed pertained to the ministry of external affairs; the standing committee tabled its report at noon and the demands were discussed and voted upon the same day between 2pm and 7pm.

Parliamentarians do not need to look beyond their own work to witness how they can contribute to policy making in a constructive manner. The discussion on the green tribunal bill is a good example. Several MPs from across the political spectrum pointed out issues such as reduced access to the tribunal and lack of clarity in its composition. In his reply to the debate, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh acknowledged some of these issues and brought in relevant amendments. He also gave reasons why he did not agree with   some other suggestions. The bill that was passed incorporated the amendments.

Yet another example of effective parliamentary intervention was seen during the debate relating to census. As many as 42 Lok Sabha MPs spoke on the issue, with many demanding that the census should collect caste data. In his reply, the Home Minister P Chidambaram did not promise to do so—he said “the Government will give due weight to all aspects of the issue that were discussed in the House”. However, the government subsequently decided to include caste data in the census collections.

These two incidents highlight the power of Parliament to influence the decisions of the executive. [The author does
not either endorse or disapprove of the outcomes in these two instances; merely points out that MPs could effect a
change in government policies through their parliamentary interventions.] Parliament has various processes for MPs
to hold the government to account, and to raise important issues. During Question Hour, ministers have to answer questions pertaining to their departments. The zero hour can be used to highlight urgent issues. Other debates (such as halfhour debate and debates under rule 193 in the Lok Sabha) can be used to express opinions on national policies.

And all legislative bills need parliamentary sanction—the debate in parliament can be used to underscore any deficiencies. We hope that in future sessions, MPs refrain from disrupting proceedings and rather use these mechanisms effectively to press their case.


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