Acts of probability

Another session, another opportunity to pass important bills. Will the government take the initiative this time? The Budget Session of Parliament commences on Monday with the President’s Address and ends in the first week of May. Other than the financial business of the general and railway budgets, a number of bills are also likely to be introduced and discussed.
 
At the beginning of the last session, the government had listed 19 pending bills that it intended to take up for consideration and passing. Parliament passed only four of these bills. Several of the remaining 15 bills have been pending for a significant amount of time, and only a few of them will likely be passed this session. The list includes two bills related to agriculture; these regulate the seed and pesticide sectors. There has been significant opposition (including from the standing committee) to one provision of the seeds bill that requires inter-farmer sales of seeds to conform to the same quality norms as that of seeds sold by companies. The Communal Violence Bill was mentioned by the government as the response to the Liberhan Commission report. This bill, pending since 2005, lacks political consensus, and is unlikely to be taken up in the present form. Other bills in the list include one that relaxes norms on maintaining labour registers by small firms; one that permits NRIs to vote; an amendment of the Industrial Disputes Act to widen the coverage; an amendment of the Employees’ State Insurance

Act to include the Rashtriya Bima Suraksha Yojana. There is no significant opposition to these bills.

The list also included the Women’s Reservation Bill. The standing committee has given its recommendation that the bill be passed, but the report includes two dissent notes (both by Samajwadi Party MPs).

Most political parties including the BJP and the Left have expressed their support for the bill, and it will be interesting to see whether this bill is taken up this session.

Several bills listed for introduction last session were not introduced. The Civil Nuclear Liability Bill has been opposed on the grounds that it caps the liability of nuclear power suppliers and operators at a very low level, and provides a free sovereign guarantee above that level. The Equal Opportunities Commission was recommended by the Sachar Committee, and will likely have a wide impact if it covers the private sector. Two important bills on land acquisition and rehabilitation of displaced persons lapsed in the last Lok Sabha; these bills figured in the President’s Address in July but there appears to be opposition within UPA-II.

A number of bills related to the financial sector have either lapsed or are pending for a long time. These include bills related to pension, banking, insurance and microfinance sectors. Many of these bills were piloted by the then Finance Minister P. Chidambaram (and some were originally drafted by the NDA government). It will be interesting to see whether Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee champions these issues. News reports indicate that the finance ministry is unlikely to introduce the new Direct Tax Code Bill to replace the income and wealth tax acts; the draft bill is likely to be reworked to include some of the public feedback, and will probably be introduced only in the Monsoon Session.

The law minister and the HRD minister have made headlines with their reform agenda. The law minister has issued a vision statement and will likely introduce the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill. This bill is expected to address two issues: the disclosure of assets of judges and the process of impeachment. The HRD minister has indicated his intent to reform the higher education sector. A draft bill to set up a new regulator has been posted for public feedback.

The government has talked of the need to press for inclusive growth. The strategy involves growth oriented reforms in financial and infrastructure sectors, building human resource capability through education, and creating safety nets such as the proposed right to food act. The political conditions are conducive to take tough steps — the BJP has indicated broad support to many bills, there is enough time till the next general elections to get the benefits of these measures and, unlike UPA-I, the government does not depend on support from Left parties. The government will have no excuses if it misses the opportunity to take India to a higher growth platform in an inclusive manner.