One of the main tasks of the Parliament is to frame laws through debate and discussion on the floor of the House. However, there have been repeated instances where Bills introduced by the government have been passed without substantive discussion (For news reports, click here and here). Even where Bills are debated extensively, occasions where the government introduces changes in the Bill directly as a response to Parliamentary debate are hard to find.
One recent exception is the list of amendments introduced to the National Green Tribunal Bill, 2010 by the Minister for Environment and Forests directly in response to issues raised on the floor of the House.
The National Green Tribunal Bill, 2009 aims to set up specialised environmental courts in the country. It will hear initial complaints as well as appeals from decisions of authorities under various environmental laws. The Tribunal shall consist of both judicial and expert members. Expert members have to possess technical qualifications and expertise, and also practical experience.
The Tribunal shall hear only ‘substantial question relating to the environment’. Substantial questions are those which (a) affect the community at large, and not just individuals or groups of individuals, or (b) cause significant damage to the environment and property, or (c) cause harm to public health which is broadly measurable.
PRS in its analysis of the original (unamended) Bill, had raised the following issues (for detailed analysis, clickhere) :
In the debate on the Bill in the Lok Sabha on April 21, 2010 a number of MPs raised substantive issues with respect to the Bill. Some of the issues raised were (From the news article quoted above):
1. The Bill fell short on parameters of “scope, efficiency, and access to justice”.
2. Setting up five benches while barring the jurisdiction of courts will “create huge distance for the poor community members and tribals to seek justice”.
3. Offenses under the Wildlife Protection Act and the Wildlife Protection Act will not be heard by the Tribunal.
4. “Section 15 puts an embargo against [persons] other than retired Judge of Supreme Court or Chief Justices of High Court. The other clause puts 15 years of administrative experience, which would open the path for packing the Tribunal with bureaucrats of the kind who did not enforce the environment related laws in their time in service.”
The Minister acknowledged the contribution of the members by stating that: “The members have made important suggestions. Even though their exact demands may not be part of the official amendments moved by the government… but I am open to their suggestions…I will remove all objectionable clauses or sections in the proposed law and keep the window of discussion open.”
The Minister’s response
In response to these issues, the Minister Mr. Jairam Ramesh introduced 10 amendments to the Bill on April 30, 2010. Though not all the issues raised were addressed, a number of changes were made. In addition, the Minister also assured the House that issues regarding access would be addressed by the government by following a “circuit” approach for the benches of the Tribunal i.e. the benches would travel around the area within their jurisdiction to hear complaints. (To read the response, click here, page 15250)
Some of the main amendments are:
1. Now any aggrieved person can can approach the Tribunal. Earlier limited access was provided.
2. The whole Act will be operational by notification at the same time. Different provisions will not be enforced separately at different points of time.
3. There is a procedure for direct appeal to the Supreme Court from the judgement of the Tribunal.
4. The number of expert and judicial members is clearly specified.
In addition, the Minister also assured that the Selection Committee for picking the members of the Tribunal will be transparent and will ensure that members are not “a parking place for retired civil servants”.
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.