Recently, the President repromulgated the Securities Laws (Amendment) Ordinance, 2014, which expands the Securities and Exchange Board Act’s (SEBI) powers related to search and seizure and permits SEBI to enter into consent settlements. The President also promulgated the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Ordinance, 2014, which establishes special courts for the trial of offences against members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. With the promulgation of these two Ordinances, a total of 25 Ordinances have been promulgated during the term of the 15th Lok Sabha so far. Ordinances are temporary laws which can be issued by the President when Parliament is not in session. Ordinances are issued by the President based on the advice of the Union Cabinet. The purpose of Ordinances is to allow governments to take immediate legislative action if circumstances make it necessary to do so at a time when Parliament is not in session. Often though Ordinances are used by governments to pass legislation which is currently pending in Parliament, as was the case with the Food Security Ordinance last year. Governments also take the Ordinance route to address matters of public concern as was the case with the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013, which was issued in response to the protests surrounding the Delhi gang rape incident. Since the beginning of the first Lok Sabha in 1952, 637 Ordinances have been promulgated. The graph below gives a breakdown of the number of Bills passed by each Lok Sabha since 1952, as well as the number of Ordinances promulgated during each Lok Sabha. Ordinance Making Power of the President The President has been empowered to promulgate Ordinances based on the advice of the central government under Article 123 of the Constitution. This legislative power is available to the President only when either of the two Houses of Parliament is not in session to enact laws. Additionally, the President cannot promulgate an Ordinance unless he ‘is satisfied’ that there are circumstances that require taking ‘immediate action’. Ordinances must be approved by Parliament within six weeks of reassembling or they shall cease to operate. They also cease to operate in case resolutions disapproving the Ordinance are passed by both Houses. History of Ordinances Ordinances were incorporated into the Constitution from Section 42 and 43 of the Government of India Act, 1935, which authorised the then Governor General to promulgate Ordinances ‘if circumstances exist which render it necessary for him to take immediate action’. Interestingly, most democracies including Britain, the United States of America, Australia and Canada do not have provisions similar to that of Ordinances in the Indian Constitution. The reason for an absence of such a provision is because legislatures in these countries meet year long. Ordinances became part of the Indian Constitution after much debate and discussion. Some Members of the Constituent Assembly emphasised that the Ordinance making power of the President was extraordinary and issuing of Ordinances could be interpreted as against constitutional morality. Some Members felt that Ordinances were a hindrance to personal freedom and a relic of foreign rule. Others argued that Ordinances should be left as a provision to be used only in the case of emergencies, for example, in the breakdown of State machinery. As a safeguard, Members argued that the provision that a session of Parliament must be held within 6 months of passing an Ordinance be added. Repromulgation of Ordinances Ordinances are only temporary laws as they must be approved by Parliament within six weeks of reassembling or they shall cease to operate. However, governments have promulgated some ordinances multiple times. For example, The Securities Laws (Amendment) Ordinance, 2014 was recently repromulgated for the third time during the term of the 15th Lok Sabha. Repromulgation of Ordinances raises questions about the legislative authority of the Parliament as the highest law making body. In the 1986 Supreme Court judgment of D.C. Wadhwa vs. State of Bihar, where the court was examining a case where a state government (under the authority of the Governor) continued to re-promulgate Ordinances, the Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice P.N. Bhagwati observed: “The power to promulgate an Ordinance is essentially a power to be used to meet an extraordinary situation and it cannot be allowed to be "perverted to serve political ends". It is contrary to all democratic norms that the Executive should have the power to make a law, but in order to meet an emergent situation, this power is conferred on the Governor and an Ordinance issued by the Governor in exercise of this power must, therefore, of necessity be limited in point of time.”Thanks to Vinayak Rajesekhar for helping with research on this blog post.
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.