According to news reports, the Supreme Court stayed a Calcutta High Court judgement on the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011 [Singur Act] on August 24, 2012. The apex court also issued a notice to Tata Motors seeking its response within four weeks, on the West Bengal government's petition challenging the High Court order. In 2008, the Left Front government acquired land in Singur under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, for Tata Motors to build a Nano car factory. In its first year of coming to power in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) led government notified the Singur Act through which it sought to reclaim this land to return a portion of it to farmers. On June 22, 2012, a Division bench of the Calcutta High Court struck down the Singur Act terming it unconstitutional and void. In its judgment, the Court found some sections of the Singur Act to be in conflict with the central Land Acquisition Act, 1894. As land acquisition is a Concurrent List subject under the Constitution, both Parliament and state legislatures have the power to make laws on it. However, if provisions in the state law conflict with provisions in the central law, then the state law cannot prevail unless it receives Presidential assent. The Calcutta High Court held the Singur Act to be unconstitutional because: (a) it was in conflict with the central Land Acquisition Act, 1894, and (b) Presidential assent was not obtained for the Act to prevail in West Bengal. The central Act mentions that for the government to acquire land, it has to demonstrate: (1) that land is being acquired for a public purpose,[i] and (2) that the government will provide compensation to persons from whom land is being acquired. Provisions in the Singur Act that relate to public purpose and compensation were found to be in conflict with the corresponding provisions in the central Act. The Court was of the opinion that transfer of land to the farmers does not constitute ‘public purpose’ as defined in the central Act. As argued by the Tata Motors’ counsel, return of land to unwilling owners is a ‘private purpose’ or in ‘particular interest of individuals’ rather than in the ‘general interest of the community’. Second, clauses pertaining to compensation to Tata Motors for their investment in the Nano project were found to be vague. The Singur Act only provides for the refund of the amount paid by Tata Motors and the vendors to the state government for leasing the land. It does not provide for the payment of any other amount of money for acquiring the Tata Motors’ land nor the principles for the determination of such an amount. The High Court ordered that these provisions tantamount to ‘no compensation’ and struck down the related provisions. The matter will come up for consideration in the Supreme Court next on October 15, 2012.
[i] According to Section 3 of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, acquisition of land for ‘public purpose’ includes, among others: provision or planned development of village sites; provision of land for town or rural planning; the provision of land for planned development of land from public funds in pursuance of a scheme or policy of the Government; and the provision of land for a corporation owned or controlled by the State.
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.