This article was published in the Indian Express on April 8, 2011
Dodging the Drafts
By Kaushiki Sanyal and C.V. Madhukar
Social activist, Anna Hazare’s fast unto death for the enactment of a strong Lok Pal Bill has provided an impetus to examine not only the Bill proposed by civil society activists but suggestions made by various experts.
The idea of establishing an authority where the citizen can seek redress against administrative acts of the government was first mooted in 1963 during a debate on Demands for Grants for the Law Ministry. Under the existing system, a citizen can either move court or seek other remedies such as petitioning his Member of Parliament. However, these remedies are limited because they maybe too cumbersome or specific grievances may not be addressed. Also, the laws that penalise corrupt officials do not have provision to redress specific grievances of citizens. Currently, corrupt public officials can be penalised under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. Both these laws require the investigating agency to get prior sanction of the central or state government before it can initiate the prosecution process in a court.
The office of the Lok Pal or an Ombudsman seeks to provide a forum for citizens to complain against public officials. The Lok Pal would inquire into such complaints and provide some redressal to citizens. The basic idea of the institution of Lok Pal was borrowed from the concept of Ombudsman in countries such as Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, U.K. and New Zealand. Presently, about 140 countries have the office of the Ombudsman. In Sweden, Denmark and Finland, the office of the Ombudsman can redress citizens’ grievances by either directly receiving complaints from the public or suo moto. However, in the UK, the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner can receive complaints only through Members of Parliament (to whom the citizen can complain). Sweden and Finland also have the power to prosecute erring public servants.
The first Lok Pal Bill in India was introduced in 1968, which lapsed with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha. The Bill was introduced seven more times in Parliament, the last time in 2001. Each time it lapsed except in 1985 when it was withdrawn.
Several commissions have examined the need for a Lok Pal and suggested ways to make it effective, without violating Constitutional principles. They include: the First Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) of 1966, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution of 2002 and the Second Administrative Reforms Commission of 2007. The Lok Pal Bills that were introduced were referred to various Parliamentary committees (the last three Bills were referred to the Standing Committee on Home Affairs).
The First ARC report recommended that two independent authorities be created to redress grievances: first, a Lok Pal, to deal with complaints against the administrative acts of Ministers or secretaries of government at the centre and the state; and second, a Lokayukta in each state and at the centre, to deal with complaints against the administrative acts of other officials. Both these authorities should be independent of the executive, judiciary and legislature and shall be appointed by the President on advice of the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and the Chief Justice of India.
The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution urged that the Constitution should provide for the appointment of the Lok Pal and Lokayuktas in the states but suggested that the Prime Minister should be kept out of the purview of the authority.
The Second Administrative Commission, formed in 2005, also recommended that the office of the Lok Pal be established without delay. It was in favour of including Ministers, Chief Ministers and Members of Parliament. However, it wanted to keep the Prime Minister outside the Lok Pal’s ambit. The ARC also recommended that a reasonable time-limit for investigation of different types of cases should be fixed.
The 1996, 1998 and 2001 Bill covered Prime Minister and MPs. The Standing Committee examining the 1998 Bill recommended that the government examine two basic issues before going forward with the Bill: first, MPs are deemed to be public servants under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. If they are also brought under the purview of Lok Pal it may be “tantamount to double jeopardy”; and second, subjecting MPs to an outside disciplinary authority may affect supremacy of Parliament.
The 2001 Bill was also referred to the Standing Committee, which accepted that the Prime Minister and MPs should be included in the Bill. It further recommended that a separate legislation be enacted to ensure accountability of the judiciary. It however stated that the Bill did not address public grievances but focussed on corruption in high places.
The states have been more successful in establishing the Lokayuktas. So far 18 states have enacted legislation to set up the office of Lokayukta. While Karnataka Lokayukta is often hailed as a successful case, several other states have had limited success in combating corruption since all of them are recommendatory bodies with limited powers to enforce their findings.
A Group of Ministers is looking into ways to tackle corruption, including the establishment of a Lok Pal. A public debate on the issues raised by various committees would help iron out the weaknesses of any proposed legislation.
This article was published in the Indian Express on April 8, 2011
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.