The joint committee for drafting the Lokpal bill has, among other things, brought much attention to lawmaking itself. What indeed is the process of enacting a law? And what therein are the points of engagement with citizens and civil society?
A government bill may be introduced by a minister, and a private member bill by any member of Parliament. We focus here on government bills, as private member bills have rarely been passed. Only 14 private member bills have been passed by the Indian Parliament, the last one in 1970.
Government bills are drafted by the administrative ministry and vetted by the law ministry. During this process, the ministry may hold public consultations and also obtain views from other relevant government departments. The bills are discussed by the cabinet, which then agrees that these may be introduced in Parliament. Even the Lokpal bill needs to go through these steps, including cabinet approval.
A bill is introduced in either the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha through a motion (first reading). At this stage, any member may object to the introduction on limited grounds; for example, that the bill violates constitutional provisions, or that the subject is in the state list. Parliament may also vote to stop the introduction of a bill. For example, in 2009, several Rajya Sabha MPs objected to the introduction of a bill that required judges of the Supreme Court and high courts to declare their assets. The law minister decided not to press for introduction, and later brought a bill that addressed the concerns.
Most bills are referred to the relevant standing committee of Parliament. These committees have members from both the Houses and are required to examine the provisions of a bill and report back to Parliament. Usually, standing committees ask for public feedback, and also invite some stakeholders and experts for oral deposition. This process provides a good opportunity for civil society to express and explain its perspectives on a bill. There have been several instances when a committee has recommended significant changes to a bill. For example, after examining the civil nuclear liability bill, the standing committee on science and technology recommended amendments. Though these recommendations are not binding, the government often takes them into account and makes suitable changes.
The bill is then brought back to the House for consideration (second reading). At this stage, MPs discuss the bill in detail, including the consequences of various provisions. Following the discussion, each clause of the bill is voted upon, and any MP may move amendments to the clauses.
This is followed by the third reading, when the bill is taken up for passing. At this stage, the bill (as amended in the second reading) is voted upon. After the bill is passed, it is taken up by the other House for the second and third reading. Then the bill has to obtain the assent of the president, following which it becomes an Act.
It is important to note that all bills are not referred to a standing committee. In some cases, a bill incorporates recommendations of a committee on an earlier bill. However, there are several instances when the standing committee system is bypassed. In the current Lok Sabha, about 30 per cent of the bills were not referred to standing committees. These include a bill to amend the competition act and another to revise the salaries of MPs. There are also instances when one of the Houses decides to form a select committee to examine a bill. A recent example relates to the Prevention of Torture Bill. The bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha and passed by the House without referring it to a standing committee. The Rajya Sabha, however, decided that the bill needed detailed examination and formed a select committee, which recommended several amendments.
Once an act is passed, the government makes rules that determine some of the details. For example, the Rules under the Information Technology Act were notified recently, which lay out standards for cyber cafes and content on the Internet. These rules may also be examined by a parliamentary committee or discussed (and amended) by Parliament.
This process of enacting a law provides several opportunities for citizens to engage with the system. These include making representations to parliamentary committees as well as to individual MPs and political parties.
It is important for citizens and civil society to understand and engage with the process, so that their views and concerns are heard and examined by Parliament. There is a further need to examine and voice any issues that arise from the rules and regulations notified by the government. Only an engaged and vigilant citizenry that uses constitutional mechanisms can strengthen the freedoms and promote welfare expected of a liberal democracy.