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March 28, 2014

This Parliament’s legacy to the next

The next government will have to address issues across a number of areas and will have the prerogative to decide the priority list, and the approach to address these issues. 

The Fifteenth Lok Sabha has been criticised for being one of the least productive ones.  However, it did pass a few important Bills. Also, during the last five years, the government has introduced several bills across sectors that have significant implications. Some of these will lapse when the new Parliament is formed, while some – those introduced in Rajya Sabha and still pending in that House – will be carried forward into the next Parliament. The ground work has been done on these, including drafting by the administrative ministry and consultation with other ministries (and in some cases, external experts).  In many cases, all party Parliamentary Standing Committees have examined and approved the Bills, occasionally with some modifications.  It would be relatively easy for the next government to move forward on these, if it chooses to do so.

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First, it may be useful to review what has already been done in the last five years.  The term of the UPA-II started in 2009 with the Right to Education Bill being passed in its very first session.  Within the next year, two important Bills were passed:  the National Green Tribunal Bill and the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill.  Then there was a lull, with only one major Bill, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill being passed in the two years of 2011 and 2012, which saw limited work as issues related to the Commonwealth games, Adarsh housing, 2G Spectrum and coal allocations rocked Parliament.  The last year 2013 saw a flurry of activity; Bills passed included the Criminal Laws Amendment Bill (related to sexual violence), Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Bill, the Food Security Bill, the Land Acquisition Bill, the Companies Bill, the Pension Bill and the Lok Pal Bill.  In the short session of 2014, Parliament passed the Whistleblower Bill and the Telangana Bill.

Now, let us take a look at the collection of lapsed and pending Bills.

The UPA-II government had planned a complete overhaul of the taxation system.  The Direct Taxes Bill seeks to rationalise the system by reducing income tax exemptions and deductions, and passing on the revenue gain by reducing tax rates.  The plan to lower personal income tax rates has been implemented through successive budget proposals.  Another proposal was the replacement of the current indirect tax system by a common goods and services tax.  Despite extensive discussions with state governments, the Constitution Amendment that enables this process has not been passed.

A set of Bills relate to higher education reform. These include the proposals stemming out of the recommendations of the National Knowledge Commission and the Yashpal Committee.  The broad proposals cover the following objectives.  Integrate the regulatory architecture, so that there is a single education regulator across all streams. (Today, different bodies such as the UGC, AICTE, Bar Council, Medical Council, Dental Council etc. regulate different streams, and students cannot take courses that intersect across subject areas.) Increase transparency by enabling quality ratings, minimum standards for prospectuses.  Ban practices such as capitation fees and hidden costs. Open up the sector to foreign universities.  Permit new innovation universities. Create dispute settlement mechanisms. None of the Bills were passed.

There are some Bills for persons with disabilities and serious health issues. Two Bills relate to the rights of persons with disabilities and of those with mental illness. Another Bill addresses issues related to prevention and control of HIV/AIDS.

Another set of Bills relate to improving the delivery of service by government bodies (and reduce corruption through improved systems).  One Bill created a grievance redressal mechanism and required all government departments to disclose service delivery standards.  The Electronic Delivery of Services Bill mandated that all services (to the extent possible) should also be available through electronic means, with the idea that this improves efficiency and reduces corruption by lowering discretion by officials; the experience of computerised railways reservation indicates the benefits.  Perhaps, the most ambitious proposal was the Aadhaar one which provides a biometics linked identity number to every resident.  Though the proposal is being implemented through executive order, it does not have legislative backing.

The government had also introduced some Bills related to financial markets.  Whereas the Pension Bill was passed, the Insurance Bill (which allows higher FDI) was not passed. The Forward Contracts Amendment Bill sought to create an independent statutory regulator for the commodity markets, and issue that has assumed urgency after the defaults in that market in the last few months. Then, there is a Bill to regulate the microfinance industry. Finally, Ordinances that were issued to amend the SEBI Act to permit search and seizure have lapsed.

Some important Bills relate to the agriculture sector.  The Seeds Bill, pending since 2004, seeks to ensure that there are minimum quality standards for seeds sold to farmers.  The Pesticides Bill has similar objectives for pesticides.  A recent Bill creates a biotechnology regulator, who will regulate the use of genetically modified organisms, including such seeds.

Several ministries have piloted Bills that set up sector regulators.  These include regulators for civil aviation, coal, biotechnology, real estate development and nuclear safety.

There are three constitutional amendment bills related to women’s participation in elected bodies. One of these seeks to reserve for women a third of seats in Lok Sabha and state Legislative Assemblies.  The other two propose to increase the reservation in panchayats and municipalities 33 percent to 50 percent of seats.

There have been concerns on the accountability of the higher judiciary and the need to balance this with ensuring its independence from the executive branch.  Three bills that address appointments, transfers and removal of judges of the supreme court and high courts were introduced but not passed.

The next government will have to address issues across a number of areas.  It will have the prerogative to decide the priority list, and more importantly, the approach to address these issues.  It may find it useful to review the work done in the last few years, and determine whether it would like to carry forward any of these Bills.

Photo: sj liew


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