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.
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.