As the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid pot bubbled last week, nominated Member of Rajya Sabha Rakesh Sinha said he would bring a private member’s Bill “on the Ram Temple”. How are private member’s Bills introduced and discussed? What chance does such a Bill have of becoming law?
Private members, their Bills
Any MP who is not a Minister is referred to as a private member. Parliament’s key role is to debate and make laws. Both Ministers and private members contribute to the lawmaking process. Bills introduced by Ministers are referred to as government bills. They are backed by the government, and reflect its legislative agenda. Private member’s bills are piloted by non-Minister MPs. Their purpose is to draw the government’s attention to what individual MPs see as issues and gaps in the existing legal framework, which require legislative intervention.
Introduction in the House
The admissibility of a private member’s Bill (like the one Rakesh Sinha intends to bring) is decided by the Rajya Sabha Chairman. (In the case of Lok Sabha, it is the Speaker; the procedure is roughly the same for both Houses.) The Member must give at least a month’s notice before the Bill can be listed for introduction; the House secretariat examines it for compliance with constitutional provisions and rules on legislation before listing.
Up to 1997, private members could introduce up to three Bills in a week. This led to a piling up of Bills that were introduced but never discussed; Chairman K R Narayanan, therefore, capped the number of private member’s Bills to three per session.
While government Bills can be introduced and discussed on any day, private member’s Bills can be introduced and discussed only on Fridays. Private member’s Bills have been introduced and discussed in Rajya Sabha on 20 days in the last three years.
Procedure for introduction
On the scheduled Friday, the private member moves a motion for introduction of the Bill, which is usually not opposed. Two recent exceptions to this convention were in 2004, when nominated MP Vidya Nivas Misra’s Bill seeking to amend the Preamble of the Constitution was opposed; and in 2015, when Shashi Tharoor’s Bill to decriminalise homosexuality was not introduced in Lok Sabha after the BJP’s Nishikant Dubey forced a division, which led to the motion being defeated. (The Supreme Court struck down IPC Section 377 this September.)
Only a fraction of private member’s bills that are introduced, are taken up for discussion. Rajya Sabha draws a ballot to decide the sequence of discussion of Bills. If a Bill is successful in the ballot, it has to wait for the discussion to conclude on a Bill currently being debated by the House. For example, a Bill related to sittings of Parliament introduced by Naresh Gujral in March 2017 was taken up for discussion only in August 2018. The discussion will resume when private member business is taken up in the upcoming Winter Session, and other private member’s bills will have to wait for the debate to conclude. Over the last three years, Rajya Sabha saw the introduction of 165 private member’s Bills; discussion was concluded on only 18. A private member’s Bill that is introduced but not discussed in Rajya Sabha, lapses when Member retires.
After discussion ends
Upon conclusion of the discussion, the Member piloting the Bill can either withdraw it on the request of the Minister concerned, or he may choose to press ahead with its passage. In the latter case, the Bill is put to vote and, if the private member gets the support of the House, it is passed. In 1977, Rajya Sabha passed a private member’s Bill to amend the Aligarh Muslim University Act. The Bill then went to the sixth Lok Sabha, where it lapsed with the dissolution of the House in 1979. In 2015, Rajya Sabha passed The Rights of Transgender Persons Bill, 2014, a private member’s Bill piloted by Tiruchi Siva of the DMK. The Bill is now pending before Lok Sabha.
The last time a private member’s Bill was passed by both Houses was in 1970. This was the Supreme Court (Enlargement of Criminal Appellate Jurisdiction) Bill, 1968. Fourteen private member’s Bills — five of which were introduced in Rajya Sabha — have become law so far.
Chakshu Roy heads legislative and civic engagement initiatives at PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi. Abhijit Banare is responsible for citizen engagement platforms and outreach to state legislators at PRS Legislative Research.