The protests against the nuclear power plant at Kudankulam have intensified over the recent weeks. The Kudankulam plant is expected to provide 2 GW of electricity annually. However, activists concerned about the risks of nuclear energy are demanding that the plant be shut down. The safety of nuclear power plants is a technical matter. In this blog post we discuss the present mechanism to regulate nuclear energy and the legislative proposals to amend this mechanism. Atomic materials and atomic energy are governed by the Atomic Energy Act, 1962. The Act empowers the central government to produce, develop and use atomic energy. At present, nuclear safety is regulated by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). Some of the drawbacks of the present mechanism are discussed below. Key issues under the present nuclear safety regulatory mechanism The AERB is not empowered to operate as an independent operator. The AERB was established by the government through a notification and not through an Act of Parliament. Its powers and functions are therefore amendable by the Department of Atomic Energy through executive orders. The parliamentary oversight exercised upon such executive action is lower than the parliamentary oversight over statutes. [1. The executive action or the Rules are in force from the date of their notification. They are to be tabled before Parliament mandatorily. However, an executive action is discussed and put to vote in Parliament only if an objection is raised by a Member of Parliament. The executive orders may be reviewed by the committee on sub-ordinate legislation. However, this committee has to oversee a large volume of rules and regulations. For instance, there were 1264 statutory notifications that were tabled before the Rajya Sabha in 2011-12.] Furthermore, the Atomic Energy Commission that sets out the atomic energy policy, and oversees the functioning of the AERB, is headed by the Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy. This raises a conflict of interest, as the Department exercises administrative control over NPCIL that operates nuclear power plants. It is pertinent to note that various committee reports, including a CAG Report in 2011, had highlighted the drawbacks in the present regulatory mechanisms and recommended the establishment of a statutory regulator. A summary of the Report may be accessed here. Proposed mechanism Following the Fukushima nuclear incident in 2011, the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill, 2011 was introduced in Parliament to replace the AERB. The Bill establishes the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) to regulate nuclear safety, and a Nuclear Safety Council to oversee nuclear safety policies that the NSRA issues. Under the Bill, all activities related to nuclear power and nuclear materials may only be carried out under a licence issued by the NSRA. Extent of powers and independence of the NSRA The Bill establishes the NSRA as a statutory authority that is empowered to issue nuclear safety policies and regulations. The Nuclear Safety Council established under the Bill to oversee these policies includes the Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy. The conflict of interest that exists under the present mechanism may thus continue under the proposed regulatory system. The Bill provides that members of the NSRA can be removed by an order of the central government without a judicial inquiry. This may affect the independence of the members of the NSRA. This process is at variance with enactments that establish other regulatory authorities such as TRAI and the Competition Commission of India. These enactments require a judicial inquiry prior to the removal of a member if it is alleged that he has acquired interest that is prejudicial to the functions of the authority. The proposed legislation also empowers the government to exclude strategic facilities from the ambit of the NSRA. The government can decide whether these facilities should be brought under the jurisdiction of another regulatory authority. These and other issues arising from the Bill are discussed here.
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.