The Monsoon Session of Parliament begins tomorrow and will continue till August 10, 2018. It is scheduled to have 18 sittings during this period. This post outlines what is in store in the upcoming session.
The session has a packed legislative agenda. Presently, there are 68 Bills pending in Parliament. Of these, 25 have been listed for consideration and passage. In addition, 18 new Bills have been listed for introduction, consideration, and passage. This implies that Parliament has the task of discussing and deliberating 43 Bills listed for passage in an 18-day sitting period. Key among them include the Bills that are going to replace the six Ordinances currently in force. The government is going to prioritize the passage of these six Bills to ensure that the Ordinances do not lapse.
Besides the heavy legislative agenda, the session will also witness the election of a new Deputy Chairman for the Upper House. Former Deputy Chairman, P.J. Kurien’s term ended on July 1, 2018. The upcoming election has generated keen interest, and will be closely watched. The role of the Deputy Chairman is significant, as he quite frequently oversees the proceedings of the House. The Deputy Chairman is responsible for maintaining order in the house and ensuring its smooth functioning. The preceding Budget Session was the least productive since 2000 due to disruptions. Rajya Sabha spent only 2 hours and 31 minutes discussing legislative business, of which 3 minutes were spent on government Bills. In this context, the role of the Deputy Chairman is important in ensuring productivity of the house.
Another key player in ensuring productivity of Parliament is the Speaker of the Lower House. In Budget Session 2018, the Speaker was unable to admit a no confidence motion. This failure was based on her inability to bring the house in order. Repeated disruptions led to the passage of only two Bills in Lok Sabha. The same session also saw disruptions by certain MPs demanding special category status for Andhra Pradesh. Between the last session and the upcoming session, a key development includes the resignation of five YRSC members, reducing the strength of MPs from Andhra Pradesh to 20. In light of this, one has to wait to see whether the demand for special category status for Andhra Pradesh will be raised again.
Coming to the legislative agenda, of the six Bills that aim to replace Ordinances, key include: (i) the Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill, 2018, (ii) the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2018, (iii) the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Bill, 2018, and (iv) the Commercial Courts (Amendment) Bill, 2018. The Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill aims to confiscate the properties of people who have absconded the country in order to avoid facing prosecution for economic offences. The Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill, 2018 was introduced in Lok Sabha in March 2018. Subsequently, an Ordinance was promulgated on April 21, 2018. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill increases the punishment for rape of women, and introduces death penalty for rape of minor girls below the age of 12. The Insolvency and Bankruptcy (Amendment) Bill aims to address existing challenges in the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code. It amends the Code to include homebuyers as financial creditors in the insolvency resolution process.
There are some Bills that have been passed by one house but are pending in the other, and some that are pending in both the houses. These cut across various sectors, including social reform, education, health, consumer affairs, and transport. Some key reformative legislation currently pending include the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016, and the Triple Talaq Bill. The Triple Talaq Bill, passed on the day of introduction in Lok Sabha, is pending in Rajya Sabha. When introduced in Rajya Sabha, the opposition introduced a motion to refer the Bill to a Select Committee. In the forthcoming session, it remains to be seen whether the Bill will be sent to a Select Committee for detailed scrutiny or will be passed without reference to a Committee. Other pending legislation include the the National Medical Commission Bill, 2017, the RTE (Second Amendment) Bill, 2017, the Consumer Protection Bill, 2018 and the Specific Relief (Amendment) Bill, 2017.
Of the 18 new Bills listed for introduction, all have been listed for consideration and passage as well. These include the Trafficking of Persons Bill, 2018, the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, and amendments to the RTI Act. Since they have been listed for passage, it remains to be seen whether these Bills are scheduled to be scrutinized by a Parliamentary Committee. In the 16th Lok Sabha, only 28% of the Bills introduced in Lok Sabha have been referred to Committees. This number is low in comparison to 60% and 71% of the introduced Bills being referred to Committees in the 14th and 15th Lok Sabha, respectively. Committees ensure that Bills are closely examined. This facilitates informed deliberation on the Bill, and strengthens the legislative process.
Besides taking up the legislative agenda, an important function of Parliament is to discuss issues of national importance and hold the government accountable. In the previous session, the issue of irregularities in the banking sector was repeatedly listed for discussion. However, due to disruptions, it was not taken up. Budget Session 2018 saw the lowest number of non- legislative debates since the beginning of the 16th Lok Sabha. In the upcoming session, it is likely that members will raise various issues for discussion. It remains to be seen whether Parliament will function smoothly in order to power through its agenda, and fulfil its obligation to hold the government accountable.
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.