The 15th Lok Sabha is close to the end of its tenure. A key legislation that proposes major reforms in food security was listed for discussion in Parliament. The National Food Security Bill, 2011 has been scrutinised by a Standing Committee. In January, we compared the Standing Committee's recommendations with the provisions of the Bill. Since then, amendments to the Bill have been introduced in Parliament. Debates on the Bill have revolved around the method of delivering food security, the identification of beneficiaries and the financial implications of the Bill. Method of delivery The Bill aims to make the right to food a statutory right. It proposes to use the existing Public Distribution System (PDS) to deliver foodgrain to 75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population. However, the Bill also allows for cash transfers and food coupons in lieu of grains as mechanisms to deliver food security. While the PDS is known to suffer from leakages as high as 40%, cash transfers and food coupons are known to expose recipients to volatility and price inflation. Each method of delivery would have its own implications, financial and otherwise. The table below compares these methods of delivery.[i] [table id=7 /]
Identification The Bill does not universalise food entitlements. It classifies the population into two categories of beneficiaries, who shall be identified by the centre and states. Mechanisms that aim to target benefits to certain sections of the population have been prone to large inclusion and exclusion errors. A 2009 expert group study headed by N.C. Saxena that evaluated PDS, estimated that about 61% of the eligible population was excluded from the BPL list while 25% of APL households were included in the BPL list. Beneficiaries under the Food Security Bill will be identified through a similar process. It is unclear how these errors in identification of beneficiaries under the PDS will be addressed by the Bill. Financial implications - cost sharing between the centre and states A Bill that aims to deliver food security to a large section of the country would have significant financial implications. Costs shall be shared between the centre and states. Costs imposed on states (partial or full) include: nutritional support to pregnant women and lactating mothers, mid-day meals, anganwadi infrastructure, meals for children suffering from malnutrition, transport and delivery of foodgrains, creating and maintaining storage facilities, and costs associated with District Grievance Redressal Officers and State Food Commissions. Although the centre shall provide some assistance, states will have to bear a significant financial burden on account of implementation. It is unclear whether Parliament can require states to allocate funds without encroaching on the powers of state legislative assemblies. If a state chooses not to allocate the necessary funds or does not possess the funds to do so, implementation of the Bill could be seriously affected. The Standing Committee examining the Bill had recommended that an independent body, such as the Finance Commission, should be consulted regarding additional funds to be borne by states. The Right to Education Act with similar centre-state sharing of funds provides for such a consultation with the Finance Commission. Cost of implementation of the Bill Another contentious issue is the cost of implementing the Bill. The Bill estimates the cost at Rs 95,000 crore. However, experts have made varying estimates on the costs ranging from Rs 2 lakh crore to Rs 3.5 lakh crore. Ashok Gulati, Chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, estimated the cost at 2 lakh crore per year whereas the Minister of Food, K.V. Thomas was reported to have estimated the cost at Rs 3.5 lakh crore. The passage of the food security Bill in Parliament will depend on the ability of the government to build consensus on these issues. It remains to be seen how the Bill is debated next Parliament session.
[i] Kapur D., Mukhopadhyay P., and A. Subramanian. “The Case for Direct Cash Transfers to the Poor.” Economic and Political Weekly. Vol 43, No 15 (Apr 12-18, 2008). Khera, R. “Revival of the Public Distribution System: Evidence and Explanations.” Economic and Political Weekly. Vol XLVI, Nos 44 & 45 (Nov 5, 2011). Shah, M. “Direct Cash Transfers: No Magic Bullet.” Economic and Political Weekly. Vol 43, No 34, pp. 77-79 (Aug 23-29, 2008).
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.