The general discussion on the Railway Budget concluded in Parliament this week. During the discussion, several MPs made a reference to two important documents tabled by the Railway Minister in 2009 - the ‘White Paper' on Indian Railways and the 2020 Vision document. The documents provide good insight into the operational and financial performance of Railways over the previous five years. They also throw light on the challenges that confront the Railways today. It emerges that Railways has relied heavily on increasing utilization of existing assets to manage the increase in demand. The system is otherwise severely constrained by lack of adequate capacity. Scenario so far (2004-09) Growth in traffic and earnings Rail transport demand is linked to the growth in GDP. As a result, the two main businesses of Railways – Passenger and Freight – have both seen significant increases in traffic in recent years. Passenger traffic has grown at an average rate of 10% each year. Earnings have increased at a slightly higher pace, implying that most passengers have been spared increases in fare. Standalone, passenger operations have continued to be loss making. Freight traffic has grown too, but at a lower rate of about 7% and unlike the passenger segment, freight fares have increased significantly over these years. Freight forms the backbone of Railways' revenues. Even today, it continues to account for almost two-thirds of total earnings. However, Railways’ market share in freight has decreased steadily over the past few decades - it dropped from 90% in 1950-51 to less than 30% in 2007-08. The main reasons for this decline are high pricing (to subsidize passenger travel) and lack of sufficient infrastructure. Railways are unable to provide time-tabled freight services. In addition, there are no multi-modal logistics parks that could have provided door-to-door cargo services. Infrastructure constraints Since 1950-51, route-kms have increased by just 18% and track-kms by 41%, even though freight and passenger output has gone up almost 12 times. Specific issues include:
The above constraints require investment in network and capacity augmentation, including dedicated freight corridors. Hence, a substantial increase in funding is necessary. The Vision 2020 document planned to deploy Rs 14 lakh crore in the next 10 years towards development of rail infrastructure. Recent trends (as presented in the Budget 2011) This year's budget presented the actual financial performance in 2009-10, the provisional performance in 2010-11 and the targets for 2011-12 (Details can be accessed here). It also highlighted achievements on other metrics, including growth in traffic and augmentation of infrastructure (See 'Status of some key projects proposed in 2010-11'). On financials, 2009-10 was a bad year for Railways. Figures show a high Operating Ratio of 95.3%. Operating Ratio is a metric that compares operating expenses to revenues. A higher ratio indicates lower ability to generate surplus. The 2009-10 Operating Ratio is the highest since 2002. According to the Railways Minister, this can be partly attributed to higher payout in salaries and pension due to implementation of Sixth Pay Commission recommendations. Growth in passenger traffic remained high in 2010-11, at 11%. However, growth in freight traffic slowed down to 2%. Again, passenger fares remained untouched, but freight fares were increased. Railways, in 2011-12, targets an increase of 8% in both passenger and freight traffic. Financials are expected to improve. An amount of Rs. 57,630 crore has been budgeted as net plan outlay for investment in infrastructure. Last year, this figure was Rs 41,426 crore. In her opening remarks during the Budget speech in Parliament, the Minister commented that Railways forms an important backbone of any country. Lets hope it is headed in the right direction!
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.