An August job

Parliament meets from August 1 for the six-week long monsoon session. The previous two sessions saw limited legislative work: the demand for the JPC hijacked the winter session, and the budget session was shortened ahead of elections to five state legislative assemblies. Currently, 81 bills are awaiting parliamentary approval.
There has been a lot of public discourse since the last session on steps to tackle corruption. Two versions of the Lokpal bill have been drafted by a joint committee of some activists and some ministers. An all-party meeting to discuss the issue resolved that the government should introduce a “strong and effective Lokpal bill following the established procedures”. It is likely that the government will introduce a bill and refer it to the standing committee within the first couple of weeks of the session.

Three pending bills address various aspects of tackling corruption. The whistleblower bill seeks to protect persons who disclose corrupt practices, and designates the Central and state vigilance commissions as the authorities to receive and investigate complaints. The standing committee has recommended certain measures to strengthen the protection to whistleblowers. The judicial accountability bill sets certain standards of conduct for judges of the high courts and the Supreme Court, and provides a process for complaints, inquiry and removal of judges. The bill is being examined by the standing committee on law. A third bill that prohibits bribing of foreign officials was introduced last session, and has been referred to the standing committee.
There are four bills that regulate higher education. These include one to set up education tribunals that will try cases related to disputes in the sector; a second bill that bans capitation fees and prescribes disclosure standards in prospectuses; a third that mandates quality ratings for all university and college courses; and one that permits and regulates foreign universities. Unless these bills are passed this session, it is unlikely that the authorities established by them will be functional in time for the academic year starting in 2012.

The financial sector has been waiting for Parliament to pass several bills. These include the insurance laws bill that raises the limits on foreign investment; the banking laws amendment which provides voting rights in proportion to shareholding; the pension fund bill which provides statutory backing to the regulator; the forward markets amendment that permits commodity derivatives and provides for an independent regulator; and the factor bill which provides for regulation of assignment of receivables. Some of these bills have been pending for a number of years.

The taxation structure is also being reformed. The direct tax code bill seeks to replace the Income Tax Act and the Wealth Tax Act. It reduces exemptions and widens the tax slabs. The Constitution amendment (115th) bill enables the introduction of a goods and services tax (GST) system. This bill permits both Central and state legislatures to impose GST, and creates a process for harmonising the tax rate. Both these bills are being considered by the standing committee on finance.

The National Identification Authority bill creates a statutory authority for implementing the unique identity number (UID) system; the bill is currently being examined by the standing committee. The government is also considering the introduction of the food security bill. The National Advisory Council has drafted a bill that strengthens the public distribution system and guarantees a certain amount of foodgrains to households. There is an alternative proposal to target food subsidy using the UID. It would be interesting to see which of these versions is piloted by the government.

The government had introduced two bills in 2007 to revamp the law on land acquisition, and to rehabilitate and resettle displaced persons. Those bills lapsed in 2009 and were not re-introduced as there was no consensus within the ruling coalition. The government has indicated its intent to introduce the relevant bills this session.

The speaker of the Lok Sabha had convened meetings with political parties to break the logjam on the Women’s Reservation Bill; press reports suggest that there was no breakthrough in these meetings. Two other bills to increase reservation for women in municipalities and panchayats to 50 per cent (from 33 per cent) are also pending in Parliament.

The president, in her address to Parliament in June 2009, had mentioned eight bills in the 100-day agenda, and a further five bills to be introduced. Of these 13 bills, just one — the right to education — has been passed till now. Many other important bills are awaiting parliamentary consideration. The last two sessions of Parliament saw a total of five bills being passed. We hope Parliament is more effective this session, and utilises the time productively to deliberate on the pending bills and pass them with suitable amendments.