Decoding the winter session so far | Opinion

Parliament is halfway through its 20-day winter session. This session comes in the backdrop of the record-breaking first session of the 17th Lok Sabha. In that session, Parliament passed 33 Bills, the highest number ever passed by it since 1952. Another highlight from that first session was the long working hours of the Lok Sabha. On multiple occasions, the Lok Sabha Members of Parliament (MPs) worked past 10pm, debating legislation and raising important issues. Therefore, it was not surprising when the government announced an ambitious legislative agenda for the winter session. During this session, the government intends to get Parliament’s approval on 39 bills.

These bills can be divided into two categories. The first are bills which have not yet started their legislative journey in this new Lok Sabha. There are 27 of these bills, which the government plans to introduce, deliberate and pass in the session. This number includes the two ordinances relating to lowering corporate tax rates and banning e-cigarettes. The second category has the 12 remaining bills. These are ones which are already pending in Parliament. As of now, the Lok Sabha has passed one bill from each of the two categories. The bill passed by it from the first category bans the sale and manufacture of e-cigarettes. The bill from the second category grants the National Institute of Design (NID) in four states the status of institutes of national importance. This status will allow these NIDs more functional autonomy and the power to grant degrees.

So far in the session, the Rajya Sabha has passed two bills from the second category. The first one was the politically contentious amendment to the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Act. This 1951 law created a trust to oversee the management of the memorial. It specified that one of the trustees shall be the president of the Congress. The amendment bill deletes this provision and makes other changes. The second bill passed by the upper house gives rights and prohibits discrimination against transgender individuals. The catalyst for this government bill was the passage of a similar private member bill, piloted by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam MP Tiruchi Siva in 2015.

The first session of this Lok Sabha had a legislative surprise. The government had brought in a constitutional amendment which changed the status of Jammu and Kashmir. So far in this session, the government has introduced and passed two bills, which were not part of the government’s legislative agenda.

The first one relates to an amendment to the Special Protection Group Act of 1988. Prime ministers, former PMs and their immediate families are guarded by the SPG. An amendment passed this week by the Lok Sabha restricts the SPG cover to the PM and immediate family members residing with the PM. The amendment bill also caps the SPG security cover for five years after a PM has demitted office. It also specifies that the immediate family of a former PM living with him in the officially allocated residence would have SPG cover for a similar period. The debate in the Lok Sabha on this bill saw sharp exchanges between the ruling party and Opposition benches.

The second bill passed by the Lok Sabha which was not part of the government’s legislative plan was one to merge the Union Territories of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, and Daman and Diu. Both these bills will now have to be passed by the Rajya Sabha. It is also currently unclear whether the government plans to introduce and pass other bills deviating from its legislative agenda.

The two houses of Parliament have spent approximately 50% of their time debating these bills. There are 10 days remaining in the scheduled close of session on December 13, and approximately 30 more bills for passing on the government’s list. Perhaps the most contentious bill on the government’s pending list is the Citizenship Amendment Bill. It had lapsed on the dissolution of the previous Lok Sabha and has been on the government’s legislative agenda since the last session. It is yet to be introduced in Parliament. Other important bills which are yet to be brought before the two Houses relate to personal data protection, pesticides management and termination of pregnancy. If the government decides to push for passing most of these 30-odd bills, then it would mean that rigorous scrutiny of these bills by Parliament will be compromised.

However, the session so far has witnessed positive signs when it comes to legislative scrutiny. Bills have been debated extensively and a bill which prohibits commercial surrogacy was referred to a select committee of the Rajya Sabha. In the Lok Sabha, the minister for labour, who is piloting the Industrial Relations Code, was open to the idea of referring the bill for detailed scrutiny by a parliamentary standing committee. Hopefully, these positive signs will continue through the session. The presiding officers of the two houses will play an important role in this aspect. They are the ones who, by allocating adequate time for debate and sending bills to committees, deepen the debate and secure the effective scrutiny of all bills by Parliament.

Chakshu Roy is the head of Legislative and Civic Engagement, PRS Legislative Research