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November 23, 2012

The Winter session of Parliament

A Curtain Raiser

The agenda for the winter session of the Parliament, scheduled between 22 November and 20 December, includes 25 Bills for passing.  However, the performance of the Parliament in the last few sessions does not provide much hope for reasoned debate.  The monsoon session saw the Lok Sabha meeting for only 20 percent, and the Rajya Sabha for 27 percent of the scheduled time. In that session, 30 Bills were listed for consideration and passing, but only four were passed by both Houses. Indeed, through the three years of the Fifteenth Lok Sabha, the Parliament has passed, at an average, only 9 bills per session. Even these have seen limited debate – one in five Bills passed by the Lok Sabha has seen no debate at all. The Fifteenth Lok Sabha also holds the record as the one which has lost the maximum proportion of time to disruptions – it has met for just two-thirds of the scheduled time.

This session too, there are a number of issues which may witness expressions of concern from MPs. The coal blocks allocation issue that led to a washout of the latter half of last session has not been settled. Further, there is considerable political opposition to the government’s move to permit FDI in multi-brand retail. Inflation remains stubbornly above comfort levels. The revenue collection from the recent 2G spectrum auction was well below the targeted amount. There is agitation in some states related to sugarcane pricing, and there could be demands for an increase in Minimum Support Price of wheat (the price has been kept constant). Several parties have also protested against the cap on subsidised LPG cylinders and the hike in diesel prices. These issues provide a backdrop to the long list of legislative bills that are pending in Parliament.

Perhaps, the maximum attention yet again would be on the Lokpal Bill. After the Lok Sabha passed the Bill, the Rajya Sabha referred it to a select committee. News reports suggest that the committee has given a unanimous report (unlike the earlier bill which had several dissent notes). Given that this committee has several senior members, including the leader of the opposition, there is greater likelihood of it getting passed.  The details of the committee’s recommendation will be known only after the report is tabled. Other bills related to corruption listed for the session include the Whistleblower Bill, and the Prevention of Bribery of Foreign Public Officials Bill.  Interestingly, the Judicial Accountability Bill that was passed by Lok Sabha this March has not been listed for consideration by Rajya Sabha.

There are a number of pending bills related to higher education. Three key blls that seek to revamp the regulatory architecture of the sector have been listed for the session. The Unfair Practices Bill focuses on transparency – it requires all educational institutions to publish prospectuses with details of facilities, fee structure et al, and bans capitation fees. The National Accreditation Regulatory Authority Bill envisages rating agencies that will evaluate the quality of programmes offered by higher education institutions so that prospective students can make an informed choice of courses. The Educational Tribunals Bill creates a judicial forum for quick disposal of cases in this area. A number of important bills have not been listed for the session.  These include the Higher Education Bill which creates a new overarching regulator for the sector, and replaces the Universities Grants Commission and the All India Council for Technical Education, and takes over the role in regulating higher education from bodies such as the Bar Council. Also missing are the Foreign Universities Bill (that enables establishment and operations of such institutions) and the National Academic Depository Bill (which envisages an electronic repository of all university degrees). The list does not include the National Council for Human Resources in Health Bill which separates the regulation of health education and that of conduct of health professionals; the Standing Committee has recommended that the Bill be redrafted.

The agenda list has several bills related to financial markets including the Pension Bill, the Insurance Bill and the Forward Contracts Regulation Bill. The Pension Bill sets up the statutory regulator for the sector (which has been opened up for the private sector). This Bill was first introduced in the Parliament in 2005 and has faced opposition from the Left parties. The BJP has expressed its broad support and also its reservations regarding a few provisions. The Union Cabinet has approved some amendments: subscribers may opt for minimum assured returns schemes; FDI would be capped at 26 percent (or the level for insurance companies, if that is higher); subscribers may withdraw up to 25 percent of their contributions. The cabinet has also approved the Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill which raised the FDI cap to 49 percent from the current 26 percent, and permits foreign reinsurance companies to open branches in India. The forward contracts regulation bill converts the regulator – the Forward Markets Commission – from a government department to an independent statutory body. It also permits trading in commodity derivatives including options.  This Bill too has been pending for a few years. The Companies Bill has also been listed. Given that this Bill incorporates most recommendations of the Standing Committee, it may not see much opposition.

The Women’s Reservation Bill, which reserves 33 percent of the seats in Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies for women, has been listed yet again. Recall that this Bill was passed by Rajya Sabha in March 2010, and has not been taken up for discussion by Lok Sabha.

Several important Bills do not find place in the agenda list. These include the Direct Taxes Code Bill, the Goods and Services Tax Bill, the UID Bill, the Food Security Bill, the Land Acquisition Bill, and the Mining Bill.

In the President’s first address to parliament after the formation of the Fifteenth Lok Sabha, the government had listed 13 Bills. After three-and-a-half years, it has passed only one of them – the Right to Education Bill. The challenge for the government in the year ahead would be to get the key legislative agenda through in the remaining part of its term.

Photo: Pablo Ffoto


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