Sakshi of PRS Legislative Research discusses the government's ordinance-making power in the context of the National Food Security Ordinance in an Indian Express opinion editorial. On Wednesday, the Union cabinet approved the food security ordinance. The government has already introduced a National Food Security Bill in Parliament in December 2011. Parliamentary consideration on the bill has been initiated with the standing committee submitting its recommendations and the government proposing amendments to the law. After being listed on several occasions for discussion, members of Parliament began debating the bill in the last few days of the 2013 budget session. In spite of all this, the government has chosen to promulgate an ordinance. In all likelihood, Parliament will reconvene in a few weeks for the monsoon session. In this context, it would be useful to understand the ordinance-making power of government and its usage in the recent past. Under the Constitution, the power to make laws rests with the legislature. The executive has been given the power to make laws when Parliament is not in session and "immediate action" is necessary. In such scenarios, the president can issue an ordinance on the advice of the executive, to have the same effect as an act of Parliament. In the 1980s, the Supreme Court was confronted with a case where a state government repeatedly re-promulgated ordinances that had lapsed in previous assembly sessions. This led the SC to examine the ordinance-making power of government. The SC reasserted the constitutional principle that the primary law-making power rests with the legislature and not the executive. The executive is only given the legislative power to issue an ordinance to meet an "emergent situation". Such a situation arose in 2011 when, given that students were awaiting their degrees on the completion of their course, the government issued an ordinance to grant IIIT-Kancheepuram the status of an institute of national importance so that students could be awarded their degrees. Data over the last 60 years indicates that the highest number of ordinances, 34, were passed in 1993. Over the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-2013), there have been 16 ordinances, indicating a decline in the number of ordinances being issued every year. Once an ordinance is framed, it is to be laid before Parliament within six weeks of its first sitting. Parliament is empowered to either choose to pass the ordinance as law or let it lapse. Once the ordinance is laid in Parliament, the government introduces a bill addressing the same issue. This is typically accompanied by a memorandum tabled by the government, explaining the emergent circumstances that required the issue of an ordinance. Thereafter, the bill follows the regular law-making process. If Parliament does not approve the ordinance, it ceases to exist. The drafters of the Constitution created this check on the law-making power of the executive to reinforce the notion that law-making will remain the prerogative of the legislature. Earlier this year, in the aftermath of the Delhi gangrape, public pressure led the government to appoint a three-member committee under the late Justice J.S. Verma to suggest changes to laws relating to crimes against women. An amendment bill had already been pending in Parliament. In spite of this, the government brought in the Criminal Law Ordinance, giving effect to some of the committee's recommendations. Once Parliament reconvened, the government introduced a fresh bill replacing the ordinance, seeking to create more stringent provisions on matters related to sexual offences. It passed muster in both Houses. While the Criminal Law Ordinance is an illustration of an ordinance successfully passing through Parliament, there are examples of ordinances that have lapsed because they were not approved by Parliament. In 2004, a week after the winter session ended, the government issued an ordinance to give the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority statutory powers as a regulator. Due to political opposition, the ordinance lapsed and, subsequently, the bill lapsed at the end of the 14th Lok Sabha. The government re-introduced it as a bill in 2011, which is currently pending in Parliament. Although the government has used its power to issue a food security ordinance, the law guaranteeing this right will have to stand scrutiny in Parliament. What remains to be seen is how Parliament debates the right to food in the upcoming monsoon session. That should give us some food for thought. For an analysis of the National Food Security Bill, refer to Sakshi's blog post here.
On June 13, 2022, the West Bengal government passed a Bill to replace the Governor with the Chief Minister, as the Chancellor of 31 state public universities (such as Calcutta University, Jadavpur University). As per the All India Survey on Higher Education (2019-20), state public universities provide higher education to almost 85% of all students enrolled in higher education in India. In this blog, we discuss the role of the Governor in state public universities.
What is the role of the Chancellor in public universities?
State public universities are established through laws passed by state legislatures. In most laws the Governor has been designated as the Chancellor of these universities. The Chancellor functions as the head of public universities, and appoints the Vice-Chancellor of the university. Further, the Chancellor can declare invalid, any university proceeding which is not as per existing laws. In some states (such as Bihar, Gujarat, and Jharkhand), the Chancellor has the power to conduct inspections in the university. The Chancellor also presides over the convocation of the university, and confirms proposals for conferring honorary degrees. This is different in Telangana, where the Chancellor is appointed by the state government.
The Chancellor presides over the meetings of various university bodies (such as the Court/Senate of the university). The Court/Senate decides on matters of general policy related to the development of the university, such as: (i) establishing new university departments, (ii) conferring and withdrawing degrees and titles, and (iii) instituting fellowships.
The West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022 designates the Chief Minister of West Bengal as the Chancellor of the 31 public universities in the state. Further, the Chief Minister (instead of the Governor) will be the head of these universities, and preside over the meetings of university bodies (such as Court/Senate).
Does the Governor have discretion in his capacity as Chancellor?
In 1997, the Supreme Court held that the Governor was not bound by the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers, while discharging duties of a separate statutory office (such as the Chancellor).
The Sarkaria and Puunchi Commission also dealt with the role of the Governor in educational institutions. Both Commissions concurred that while discharging statutory functions, the Governor is not legally bound by the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers. However, it may be advantageous for the Governor to consult the concerned Minister. The Sarkaria Commission recommended that state legislatures should avoid conferring statutory powers on the Governor, which were not envisaged by the Constitution. The Puunchi Commission observed that the role of Governor as the Chancellor may expose the office to controversies or public criticism. Hence, the role of the Governor should be restricted to constitutional provisions only. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022 also mentions this recommendation given by the Puunchi Commission.
Recently, some states have taken steps to reduce the oversight of the Governor in state public universities. In April 2022, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly passed two Bills, to transfer the power of appointing the Vice-Chancellor (in public universities) from the Governor, to the state government. As of June 8, 2022, these Bills have not received the Governor’s assent.
In 2021, Maharashtra amended the process to appoint the Vice Chancellor of state public universities. Prior to the amendment, a Search Committee forwarded a panel of at least five names to the Chancellor (who is the Governor). The Chancellor could then appoint one of the persons from the suggested panel as Vice-Chancellor, or ask for a fresh panel of names to be recommended. The 2021 amendment mandated the Search Committee to first forward the panel of names to the state government, which would recommend a panel of two names (from the original panel) to the Chancellor. The Chancellor must appoint one of the two names from the panel as Vice-Chancellor within thirty days. As per the amendment, the Chancellor has no option of asking for a fresh panel of names to be recommended.