New Parliament off to a good start

The first full session of the new Parliament ended on Thursday, with Rajya Sabha passing the Constitution Amendment Bill and the National Judicial Appointments Bill on the last day. This session was a welcome change from parliamentary sessions over the last few years: Both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha put in about 5% more time than the planned schedule. Compare this with the last Lok Sabha, which worked for 30% less time than scheduled, as disruptions over a variety of issues prevented productive work. However, a word of caution is due here: the first session of the last Lok Sabha was also fairly smooth and it worked for the scheduled time; only in later sessions, a series of allegations related to Commonwealth Games and allocation of 2G spectrum and coal blocks led to blockage of proceedings.

The two Bills passed on the last day have far-reaching implications. They recast the process by which judges will be selected and appointed to the Supreme Court and high courts, and also regulate the transfer of judges across high courts. The Constitutional Amendment Bill will now be sent to states and can be sent to the President for his assent only after 15 state legislatures have ratified it.

Four other Bills were also passed. The Trai Act was amended to enable the appointment of the Chairperson or members to a position under the government. The Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, which created the state of Telangana, was amended to transfer a few mandals affected by the Polavaram Dam. The National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad was declared an institute of national importance. The Sebi Act was amended to allow consent settlements, widen the definition of collective investment schemes, and set up special courts. The government also tried to take up the Insurance Amendment Bill (which increases the cap on foreign investments in insurance company to 49% of equity share capital), but on the insistence of several opposition parties, agreed to refer the Bill to a Select Committee of Rajya Sabha for detailed examination.

A few important Bills have been introduced. One of these seeks to amend the Factories Act. It enables state governments to change the definition of factories to include only those with 20 or more workers (now 10) if it uses energy or 40 or more workers (now 20) if it does not use energy. It also removes the restriction on women to work on certain machines in motion, and allows state governments to permit them to work in the night shift if there are some safeguards. The Apprentices Act is being amended to permit employers to come together to provide apprenticeships, increase the minimum age to 18 years in case of hazardous industries, and remove imprisonment as a penalty for some offences. This Bill was passed by Lok Sabha and will now have to be considered by Rajya Sabha. The Juvenile Justice Act is being replaced by a new one. One of the contentious provisions is that this Bill lowers the age from 18 years to 16 years for a person who has committed certain heinous crimes to be treated as a juvenile.

This Parliamentary session had a few noteworthy points. Unlike recent sessions, Question Hour was rarely disrupted in the Lok Sabha; as a result, almost a quarter of the Starred Questions were answered orally. On the other hand, in Rajya Sabha, only 15% of the Starred Questions could be answered orally. Among the 304 non-minister first timers, 246 took part in at least one debate. Women MPs were also more active, speaking in 4.6 debates per MP on average compared to 4.4 by their male colleagues.

That said, there were some disappointing developments. The Union Budget exercise includes the process of approval of demand for grants of all central ministries and departments as Parliament has to give prior sanction for all expenditure. In recent years, the demands of only a few (typically, four or five) departments are discussed, and the remaining are clubbed together for a vote (called guillotining of demands). This process continued this year too, with only four departments amounting to 5% of the total budget being discussed. Given that Standing Committees (which also examine these demands) have not been formed after the general elections, 95% of demands have been sanctioned without any examination or discussion. The delay in the formation of the Standing Committee also means that Bills have not been referred to them; indeed, the Apprentices Bill was passed by Lok Sabha without being examined by a Committee. The two major Bills on judicial appointments were also introduced and passed by both Houses within a week. Though these Bills are a variation of those introduced last year, it is debatable whether the new members had sufficient time to examine and digest the implications before voting on them.

The new Parliament has started on a good note. Given the legislative logjam in the last few years, a number of important Bills are pending in Parliament, or lapsed when Lok Sabha was dissolved. These include Bills across sectors: reforming higher education regulation, anti-corruption and service delivery, financial markets, direct and indirect tax reform, agriculture etc. Much work has gone into many of these Bills, including examination by Standing Committees. If the new government can form its views on these Bills and decide which one it wishes to back (if necessary, with modifications), then it can bring these up for discussion in the next couple of sessions.

As the government has a majority in the Lok Sabha but not in the Rajya Sabha, it will need to build a consensus (or at least gather support from some opposition parties) on these Bills. The Standing Committee has given recommendations with all-party consensus on most Bills, and some reports have just a couple of dissent notes. The government may choose to use the broad support indicated in these reports to convince other parties. If it succeeds, we could see a busy legislative schedule in the year ahead.