So far, both Houses of Parliament have been witnessing disruptions. At the beginning of the session, 23 Bills were listed for passage, and 20 were listed for introduction. Two weeks in, one Bill has been passed by both Houses, and three others by Lok Sabha. These include Bills dealing with the re-haul of consumer protection laws, regulation of surrogacy, and recognition of transgender persons. Six Bills have been introduced. These include three Bills which replace the Ordinances currently in force, and a Bill to regulate dam safety. In this blog, we discuss the key features of some of these Bills.
Enhancing rights of consumers
The Consumer Protection Bill, 2018 replaces the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. It was introduced in view of the significant changes in the consumer market landscape since the 1986 Act. It introduces several new provisions such as enabling consumers to make product liability claims for an injury or harm caused to them, nullifying unfair contracts which impact consumer interests (such as contracts which charge excessive security deposits), and imposing penalties for false and misleading advertisements on manufacturers, as well as on the endorsers of such advertisements.
The Bill also sets up Consumer Dispute Redressal Commissions (or courts) at the district, state, and national level, to hear complaints on matters related to deficiencies in services or defects in goods. While these Commissions are also present under the 1986 Act, the Bill increases their pecuniary jurisdiction: District Commissions will hear complaints with a value of up to one crore rupees; State Commissions between one and ten crore rupees; and National Commission above 10 crore rupees. The Bill also sets up a regulatory body known as the Central Consumer Protection Authority. This Authority can take certain actions to protect the rights of consumers as a class such as passing orders to recall defective goods from the market, and imposing penalties for false and misleading advertisements.
Recognising transgender persons and their rights
Last week, Lok Sabha also passed the Transgender Bill, 2018. This Bill seeks to recognise transgender persons, confers certain rights and entitlements on them related to education, employment, and health, and carves out welfare measures for their benefit. The Bill defines a transgender person as one whose gender does not match the gender assigned at birth. It includes trans-men and trans-women, persons with intersex variations, gender-queers, and includes persons having such socio-cultural identities as kinnar, hijra, aravani, and jogta. The Bill requires every establishment to designate one person as a complaint officer to act on complaints received under the Bill.
The Bill provides that a transgender person will have the right to self-perceived gender identity. Further, it also provides for a screening process to obtain a Certificate of Identity, certifying the person as ‘transgender’. This implies that a transgender person may be allowed to self-identify as transgender individual, but at the same time they must also undergo the screening process to get certified as a transgender. Therefore, it is unclear how these two provisions of self-identification and an external screening process will reconcile with each other.
Regulating surrogacy and overhauling the Medical Council of India
The Surrogacy Bill, 2017 which regulates altruistic surrogacy and prohibits commercial surrogacy was also passed in Lok Sabha. Surrogacy is a process where an intending couple commissions an eligible woman to carry their child. In an altruistic surrogacy, the surrogate mother is not given any monetary benefit or reward, and the arrangement only covers her medical expenses and health insurance. The Bill sets out certain conditions for both the intending couple and the surrogate mother to be eligible for surrogacy. The intending couple must be Indian citizens, be married for at least five years, and at least one of them must be infertile. The surrogate mother must be a close relative of the couple, must be married and must have had a child of her own. Further, a surrogate mother cannot provide her own gametes for surrogacy.
The surrogate mother has been given certain rights with regard to the procedure of surrogacy. These include requiring her written consent to abort the surrogate child, and allowing her to withdraw from the surrogacy at any time before the embryo is implanted in her womb.
Another key Bill which was listed for passage in Lok Sabha this session but could not be taken up is the National Medical Commission Bill, 2017 (NMC Bill). Several amendments to this Bill were introduced in Lok Sabha last week. The NMC Bill seeks to replace the Medical Council of India, with a National Medical Commission. It introduces a common final year undergraduate medical examination called the National Exit Test which will also grant the license to practice medicine. Only medical students graduating from a medical institute which is an institute of national importance will be exempted from qualifying this National Exit Test. The Bill also gives the NMC the power to frame guidelines to decide the fees of up to 50% of seats in private medical colleges and deemed universities. The NMC may also grant limited license to certain mid-level practitioners connected with the medical profession to practice medicine. The qualifying criteria for such mid-level practitioners will be determined through regulations, and they may prescribe specified medicines in primary and preventive healthcare.
Regulating dam safety
The Dam Safety Bill, 2018 was introduced in Lok Sabha and applies to all specified dams across the country. These are dams with: (i) height more than 15 metres, or (ii) height between 10 metres to 15 metres and subject to certain additional design and structural conditions. It seeks to provide for the surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of specified dams for prevention of dam failure related disasters. It creates authorities at the national and state level to formulate policies and regulations on dam safety and implement them. It also puts certain obligations on dam owners by requiring them to provide a dam safety unit in each dam, among other things.
When the Bill was being introduced, few opposition members raised objections on the grounds of Parliament’s legislative competence to make a law on dam safety which applies to all states. They gave the example of the previous Dam Safety Bill, 2010, which applied only to the states of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal who had adopted resolutions requiring Parliament to pass a law on dam safety.
So far the winter session has seen poor productivity with Lok Sabha working for 14% of its scheduled time, and Rajya Sabha for 5%. This is one of the least productive sessions of the 16th Lok Sabha. This is also the last major session before the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha. Both Houses will meet tomorrow after the Christmas break. With a packed legislative agenda, it is essential for Parliament to function in order to discuss and deliberate the Bills listed. However, with a limited number of sitting days available in the ongoing session and continued disruptions, it remains to be seen if Parliament will be able to achieve its legislative agenda.
- This post is a modified version of an article published by The Wire on December 26, 2018.
Tribunals function as a parallel mechanism to the traditional court system. Tribunals were established for two main reasons - allowing for specialised subject knowledge in disputes on technical matters and reducing the burden on the court system. In India, some tribunals are at the level of subordinate courts with appeals lying with the High Court, while some others are at the level of High Courts with appeals lying with the Supreme Court. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament may create an alternative to High Courts provided that they have the same efficacy as the High Courts. For an overview of the tribunal system in India, see our note here.
In April 2021, the central government promulgated an Ordinance, which specified provisions related to the composition of the search-cum-selection committees for the selection of members of 15 Tribunals, and the term of office for members. Further, it empowered the central government to notify qualifications and other terms and conditions of service (such as salaries) for the Chairperson and members of these tribunals. In July 2021, the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Ordinance (such as the provision specifying a four-year term for members) stating that these impinged on the independence of the judiciary from the government. In several earlier judgements, the Supreme Court has laid out guidelines for the composition of Tribunals and service conditions to ensure that these Tribunals have the same level of independence from the Executive as the High Courts they replace.
However, Parliament passed the Tribunals Reforms Bill, 2021 in August 2021, which is almost identical to the April Ordinance and includes the provisions which had been struck down. This Act has been challenged in the Supreme Court. For a PRS analysis of the Bill, please see here.
On 16th September 2021, the central government notified The Tribunal (Conditions of Service) Rules, 2021 under the Tribunals Reforms Act, 2021. A couple of the provisions under these Rules may contravene principles laid out by the Supreme Court:
Appointment of the Administrative Member of the Central Administrative Tribunal as the Chairman
In case of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), the Rules specify that a person with at least three years of experience as the Judicial Member or Administrative Member may be appointed as the Chairman. This may violate the principles laid down by the past Supreme Court judgements.
The CAT supplants High Courts. In 1986, the Supreme Court stated that if an administrative tribunal supplants the High Courts, the office of the Chairman of the tribunal should be equated with that of the Chief Justice of the High Court. Therefore, the Chairman of the tribunal must be a current or former High Court Judge. Further, in 2019, the Supreme Court stated – “the knowledge, training, and experience of members or presiding officers of a tribunal must mirror, as far as possible, that of the Court it seeks to substitute”.
The Administrative Member of the CAT may be a person who has been an Additional Secretary to the central government or a central government officer with pay at least that of the Additional Secretary. Hence, the Administrative Member may not have the required judicial experience for appointment as the Chairman of CAT.
Leave Sanctioning Authority
The Rules specify that the central government will be the leave sanctioning authority for the Chairperson of tribunals, and Members (in case of absence of the Chairperson). In 2014, the Supreme Court specified that the central government (Executive) should not have any administrative involvement with the members of the tribunal as it may influence the independence and fairness of the tribunal members. In addition, it had observed that the Executive may be a litigant party and its involvement in administrative matters of tribunals may influence the fairness of the adjudication process. In judgements in 1997 and 2014, the Supreme Court recommended that the administration of all Tribunals should be under a nodal ministry such as the Law Ministry, and not the respective administrative ministry. In 2020, it recommended setting up of a National Tribunals Commission to supervise appointments and administration of Tribunals. The Rules are not in consonance with these recommendations.