By Dr S. Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
A fresh controversy over legislative procedure has erupted spoiling the joy over a very productive parliamentary session, but raising an important issue. Seventeen Opposition parties wrote to Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu accusing the government of “hurriedly passing” legislations without any parliamentary scrutiny by either standing or select committee. They complained that the voice of the Opposition was being “smothered”, and pointed out that in the first session of the present Lok Sabha, 14 Bills were passed in about 50 days without any of these being referred to House committees.
The RS Chairman rejected the allegation as far as it pertained to that House. During the last five sessions of his tenure, eight out of 10 Bills first introduced in the Upper house were referred to respective departmental committees.
The grievance is that the Opposition parties are not given sufficient time to study the Bills to be able to suggest amendments and get clarifications for their questions. It seems to them that any attempt by the government “to undermine the privileges of members, and the rules and established conventions will diminish the role of the Council of States as envisaged by our founding fathers”.
They particularly demand that seven key Bills presently under the consideration of Parliament should be referred to its select committee for further scrutiny. The letter has been signed by leaders of the Congress, TRC, SP, DMK, NCP, CPI (M), CPI, RJD, BSP, TDP, AAP, JD(S), MDMK, IUML, PDP, and Kerala Congress.
At the background of this demand is the passing of some crucial Bills introduced by the government. Among them is the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill 2019, which seeks to bring in changes in the salaries and tenures of the Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners and placing them on a status equal to similar officials of the Election Commission. The Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha and in the Rajya Sabha defeating the motion moved by the Opposition to send it to a Select Committee. Protest by Opposition parties in the well of the House, and the remark of a Congress leader that the government had “acted in blatant disregard of the traditions” are mainly against the legislative procedure in the Parliament.
The Bill to replace the Companies (Amendment) Ordinance 2019 in the Lok Sabha was opposed by several parties for introducing the Bill without prior notice or inclusion in the list of business for the day showing haste in enacting the law.
The Unlawful Activities Prevention (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which allows the government to declare an individual as a terrorist was passed in the Lok Sabha with 284 members voting for and eight against. The Opposition walked out calling the law “draconian”. A global survey may show that such a legal provision already exists in many countries. Opposition parties, fearing misuse of the law against them, want its reference to a standing committee.
Lok Sabha passed the Triple Talaq Bill to replace the ordinance passed earlier. Suspecting the motive of the government in introducing the “criminality” clause and pushing the legislation, the Opposition parties demand reference to a select parliamentary committee. They perceive it as a hasty legislation though it is being discussed for years throughout the country.
Departmentally related statutory committees were constituted in 1993. Their number has grown over years to reach 24 at present. Composed with 21 Lok Sabha and 10 Rajya Sabha members, and organised on the lines of ministries and departments like Home Affairs, Finance, Defence, etc., they examine draft bills referred to them. They are supposed to scrutinise the details of the contents and effects of the Bills word by word and line by line to save Parliament’s time. But their recommendations are not binding.
Statutory committees are indispensable aid for law-making in all democracies. Being small in size with flexible functional arrangement and assigned a specific purpose, they are able to examine Bills more minutely than a large assembly. They serve the twin purpose of saving Parliament’s time and providing thorough scrutiny of issues. The importance of stakeholder consultation to address all related issues was recently stressed by the parliamentary committee examining the Land Acquisition Bill. But, laws are part of politics and very often, reference to committees is a strategy to delay, postpone and kill legislations.
All Bills undergo three readings in Parliament as in Britain. In the second reading, a Bill may be referred to a Select committee of the Rajya Sabha or Joint committee of the two Houses or circulated to elicit opinion. Clause by clause scrutiny of the Bill follows after the report of the Committee. It may be passed only on the third reading.
Despite all precautions, our legislative enactments sometimes betray clear marks of hasty drafting and absence of parliamentary scrutiny to the annoyance of both implementers and affected persons. There are several examples of hasty legislations requiring amendments in quick succession.
In this first session of Modi II government, 15 Bills have been cleared so far without reference to a standing or select committee. Whether it is a sign of “enhanced” productivity of Parliament or “hasty legislation” is not difficult to find out and will openly show when the laws come into force.
Fast-tracking legislative procedure has become necessary due to obstructive tactics often played by parties in stalling legislations at various stages and disrupting the proceedings of the Houses for days at a stretch upsetting the legislative programme of the elected government.
Fast-tracking does not mean inadequate consideration and should not be confused with hasty legislation which implies insufficient scrutiny and indifference to details. It denotes speed, but not haste.
Fast-track legislations are common in other countries also. The British Parliament passed The Surrogacy Arrangement Act in 1985 in a rush to meet public uproar over commercial surrogacy and made it a criminal act. The Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974, The Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Security) Act 1998, Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, and Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 may be cited as fast-track legislations in Britain necessitated to counter serious national security problems.
However, such legislations are criticised for various reasons like constrained parliamentary scrutiny and possibility of enacting bad and unwanted legislation. They cause undue pressure on the process of legislation and on campaigners to convince the stakeholders. Executive dominance is seen in fast-track legislations, which is wanted in dealing with emergencies and long pending problems and when parliamentary Opposition is non-cooperative.
“Parliament should never legislate at the speed at which I am proposing unless it is convinced that there are overwhelming reasons for doing so”, said a former Secretary of State for Justice in Britain questioning the need for speed in a case. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) noted some years ago that a good number of countries often were making hasty legislations against the media in the interest of security.
India presently needs fast-track legislation to make up for the loss of parliamentary time, but not hasty and half-baked laws.—INFA