The following piece by C V Madhukar appeared in the September,2011 issue of Governance Now magazine. The debate in Parliament in response to the recent Anna Hazare led agitation demanding a strong Lok Pal Bill was a fine hour for the institution of Parliament. What was even more important about the debate is that it was watched by thousands of people across the country many of whom have lost faith in the ability of our MPs to coherently articulate their point of view on substantive issues. Of course, in many cases some of these impressions about our MPs are largely formed by what the media channels tend to project, and without a full appreciation of what actually happens in Parliament. There is now a greater awareness about an important institutional mechanism called the standing committee, and other nuances about the law making process. The Lok Pal agitation brought out another important aspect of our democracy. There are still many in India who believe that peaceful protest is a powerful way to communicate the expectations of people to the government. Our elected representatives are prepared to respond collectively when such protests are held. There is a negotiated settlement possible between the agitating citizens and our political establishment within the broad construct of our Constitution. All of this means that the safety valves in our democracy are still somewhat functional, despite its many shortcomings. But the way the whole Lok Pal episode has played out so far raises a number of important questions about the functioning of our political parties and our Parliamentary system. A fundamental question is the extent to which our elected MPs are able to ‘represent’ the concerns of the people in Parliament. It has been obvious for some time now, that corruption at various levels has been a concern for many. For months before the showdown in August, there have been public expressions of the disenchantment of the people about this problem. Even though several MPs would say privately that it is time for them to do something about it as elected representatives, they were unable to come together in a way to show the people that they were serious about the issue, or that they could collectively do something significant about the problem. The government was trying in its own way to grapple with the problem, and was unable to seize the initiative, expect for a last minute effort to find a graceful way out of the immediate problem on hand. In our governance system as outlined in our Constitution, the primary and most important institution to hold the government accountable is the Parliament. To perform this role, the Parliament has a number of institutional mechanisms that have evolved over the years. The creation of the CAG as a Constitutional body that provides inputs to Parliament, the Public Accounts Committee in Parliament, the question hour in Parliament are some of the ways in which the government is held to account. Clearly all of these mechanisms together are unable to adequately do the work of overseeing the government that our MPs have been tasked with. But it is one thing for our MPs to be effective in their role holding the government to account, and a very different thing to come across collectively as being responsive to the concerns of the people. For our MPs to play their representation role more convincingly and meaningfully there are certain issues that need to be addressed. A major concern is about how our political parties are structured, where MPs are bound by tight party discipline. In a system where the party leadership decides who gets the party ticket to contest the next election, there is a natural incentive for MPs to toe the party line, even within their party forums. This is often at the cost of their personal conviction about certain issues, and may sometimes be against what the citizens could want their representatives to do. Add to this the party whip system, under which each MP has to vote along the party line or face the risk of losing his seat in Parliament. And then of course, if some MP decides to take a stand on some issue, he needs to do all the research work on his own because our elected representatives have no staff with this capability. This deadly cocktail of negative incentives, just makes it very easy for the MP to mostly just follow the party line. If the representation function were to be taken somewhat seriously, these issues need to be addressed. The 2004 World Development Report of the World Bank was focussed on accountability. An important idea in the report was that it was too costly and inefficient for people to vote a government in and wait till the next election to hold the government accountable by voting it out for the poor governance it provides. That is the reason it is essential for governments and citizens to develop ways in which processes can be developed by which the government can be held accountable even during its tenure. The myriad efforts by government such as social audits, monitoring and evaluation efforts within government departments, efforts by Parliament to hold the government accountable, efforts of civil society groups, are all ways of holding the government to account. But over and above accountability, in an age of growing aspirations and increasing transparency, our MPs must find new ways of asserting their views and those people that they seek to represent in our Parliament. This is an age which expects our politicians to be responsive, but in a responsible way. Even as the Lok Pal Bill is being deliberated upon in the standing committee, civil society groups continue to watch how MPs will come out on this Bill. There are plenty of other opportunities where MPs and Parliament can take the initiative, including electoral reforms, funding of elections, black money, etc. It remains to be seen whether our MPs will lead on these issues from the front, or will choose to be led by others. This will determine whether in the perception of the public the collective stock of our MPs will rise or continue to deplete in the months ahead.
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.