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.
Tribunals function as a parallel mechanism to the traditional court system. Tribunals were established for two main reasons - allowing for specialised subject knowledge in disputes on technical matters and reducing the burden on the court system. In India, some tribunals are at the level of subordinate courts with appeals lying with the High Court, while some others are at the level of High Courts with appeals lying with the Supreme Court. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament may create an alternative to High Courts provided that they have the same efficacy as the High Courts. For an overview of the tribunal system in India, see our note here.
In April 2021, the central government promulgated an Ordinance, which specified provisions related to the composition of the search-cum-selection committees for the selection of members of 15 Tribunals, and the term of office for members. Further, it empowered the central government to notify qualifications and other terms and conditions of service (such as salaries) for the Chairperson and members of these tribunals. In July 2021, the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Ordinance (such as the provision specifying a four-year term for members) stating that these impinged on the independence of the judiciary from the government. In several earlier judgements, the Supreme Court has laid out guidelines for the composition of Tribunals and service conditions to ensure that these Tribunals have the same level of independence from the Executive as the High Courts they replace.
However, Parliament passed the Tribunals Reforms Bill, 2021 in August 2021, which is almost identical to the April Ordinance and includes the provisions which had been struck down. This Act has been challenged in the Supreme Court. For a PRS analysis of the Bill, please see here.
On 16th September 2021, the central government notified The Tribunal (Conditions of Service) Rules, 2021 under the Tribunals Reforms Act, 2021. A couple of the provisions under these Rules may contravene principles laid out by the Supreme Court:
Appointment of the Administrative Member of the Central Administrative Tribunal as the Chairman
In case of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), the Rules specify that a person with at least three years of experience as the Judicial Member or Administrative Member may be appointed as the Chairman. This may violate the principles laid down by the past Supreme Court judgements.
The CAT supplants High Courts. In 1986, the Supreme Court stated that if an administrative tribunal supplants the High Courts, the office of the Chairman of the tribunal should be equated with that of the Chief Justice of the High Court. Therefore, the Chairman of the tribunal must be a current or former High Court Judge. Further, in 2019, the Supreme Court stated – “the knowledge, training, and experience of members or presiding officers of a tribunal must mirror, as far as possible, that of the Court it seeks to substitute”.
The Administrative Member of the CAT may be a person who has been an Additional Secretary to the central government or a central government officer with pay at least that of the Additional Secretary. Hence, the Administrative Member may not have the required judicial experience for appointment as the Chairman of CAT.
Leave Sanctioning Authority
The Rules specify that the central government will be the leave sanctioning authority for the Chairperson of tribunals, and Members (in case of absence of the Chairperson). In 2014, the Supreme Court specified that the central government (Executive) should not have any administrative involvement with the members of the tribunal as it may influence the independence and fairness of the tribunal members. In addition, it had observed that the Executive may be a litigant party and its involvement in administrative matters of tribunals may influence the fairness of the adjudication process. In judgements in 1997 and 2014, the Supreme Court recommended that the administration of all Tribunals should be under a nodal ministry such as the Law Ministry, and not the respective administrative ministry. In 2020, it recommended setting up of a National Tribunals Commission to supervise appointments and administration of Tribunals. The Rules are not in consonance with these recommendations.