The ongoing Monsoon Session of Parliament is being widely viewed as the 'make or break' session for passing legislation before the end of the 15th Lok Sabha in 2014. Hanging in balance are numerous important Bills, which will lapse if not passed before the upcoming 2014 national elections. Data indicates that the current Lok Sabha has passed the least number of Bills in comparison to other comparable Lok Sabhas. The allocated time to be spent on legislation in the Monsoon Session is also below the time recommended for discussion and passing of Bills by the Business Advisory Committee of the Lok Sabha. Eight out of a total of 16 sittings of the Monsoon Session have finished with only 15 percent of the total time spent productively. Success rate of the 15th Lok Sabha in passing legislation India’s first Lok Sabha (1952-1957) passed a total of 333 Bills in its five year tenure. Since then, every Lok Sabha which has completed over three years of its full term has passed an average of 317 Bills. Where a Lok Sabha has lasted for less than 3 years, it has passed an average of 77 Bills. This includes the 6th, 9th, 11th and 12th Lok Sabhas. The ongoing 15th Lok Sabha, which is in the fifth year of its tenure, has passed only 151 Bills (This includes the two Bills passed in the Monsoon Session as of August 18, 2013). In terms of parliamentary sessions, Lok Sabhas that have lasted over three years have had an average of fifteen sessions. The 15th Lok Sabha has finished thirteen parliamentary sessions with the fourteenth (Monsoon Session) currently underway. Legislative business accomplished in the 15th Lok Sabha For the 15th Lok Sabha, a comparison of the government's legislative agenda at the beginning of a parliamentary session with the actual number of Bills introduced and passed at the end of the session shows that: (i) on average, government has a success rate of getting 39 percent of Bills passed; and (ii) on average, 60 percent success rate in getting Bills introduced. The Monsoon Session of Parliament was scheduled to have a total of 16 sitting days between August 5-30, 2013. Of the 43 Bills listed for consideration and passage, 32 are Bills pending from previous sessions. As of August 18, 2013, the Rajya Sabha had passed a total of five Bills while the Lok Sabha had passed none. Of the 25 Bills listed for introduction, ten have been introduced so far. The Budget Session of Parliament earlier this year saw the passage of only two Bills, apart from the appropriation Bills, of the 38 listed for passing. These were the Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill and the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill. Time allocated for legislation in the Monsoon Session The Lok Sabha is scheduled to meet for six hours and the Rajya Sabha for five hours every day. Both houses have a question hour and a zero hour at the beginning of the day, which leaves four hours for legislative business in the Lok Sabha and three hours in the Rajya Sabha. However, both Houses can decide to meet for a longer duration. For example, Rajya Sabha has decided to meet till 6:00 PM every day in the Monsoon Session as against the normal working hours of the House until 5:00 PM. The Business Advisory Committee (BAC) of both Houses recommends the time that should be allocated for discussion on each Bill. This session's legislative agenda includes a total of 43 Bills to be passed by Parliament. So far, 30 of the Bills have been allocated time by the BAC, adding up to a total of 78 hours of discussion before passing. If the Lok Sabha was to discuss and debate the 30 Bills for roughly the same time as was recommended by the BAC, it would need a minimum of 20 working days. In addition, extra working days would need to be allocated to discuss and debate the remaining 13 Bills. With eight sitting days left and not a single Bill being passed by the Lok Sabha, it is unclear how the Lok Sabha will be able to make up the time to pass Bills with thorough debate.
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.