The overgrown list

Parliament must use budget session to discuss key pending bills

The budget session of Parliament begins today. The last few sessions have been characterised by disruptions and consequent loss of productive time. To see one indicator, the 15th Lok Sabha, half-way through its term, has lost 30 per cent of scheduled time — the worst ever. As a result, many important bills have been pending. It is to be seen whether this session witnesses a better level of activity.

The session will commence with the President’s Address, spelling out the government’s plans for the coming year. In June 2009, the address listed a number of priorities for UPA 2, including eight legislative bills to be taken up within the first 100 days. Till date, only one of these, the Right to Education Act, has been passed. Of the others, the food security bill and the public services bill (the citizen’s grievances bill) and two bills to establish national councils on health and higher education have been introduced in the last six months. The bill to provide 33 per cent reservation for women in Lok Sabha and legislative assembles was passed by Rajya Sabha in April 2010, but has not been discussed by Lok Sabha. Two others that increase the reservation for women in panchayats and municipal councils to 50 per cent are pending, while a bill to amend the Right to Information Act has not been introduced.

The first part of the session will likely focus on financial business. The railways budget will be presented on Wednesday and the Union budget on Friday. Given that the financial position of the railways as well as of the general fisc has weakened, it would be important for the government to take some tough steps. The slowdown in growth, persistent high inflation, increasing deficits, and an uncertain global economic climate would together test the government’s acumen in steering the overall economy as well as its fiscal management.

A significant part of the discussion in the last couple of sessions was centred around the Lokpal bill and other means of addressing the issue of corruption. Two of these bills — the Lokpal bill and the whistleblower bill have been passed by Lok Sabha and are pending in Rajya Sabha. The judicial accountability bill, which codifies standards for conduct of judges and lays down the procedure for their impeachment, was discussed in Rajya Sabha but the vote not taken. This bill will be then taken up for consideration by Lok Sabha. There are two other bills related to this issue pending in Parliament. The benami transactions bill provides for seizure of benami assets. This bill replaces a 1988 act which was never brought into effect. The prevention of bribery of foreign officials bill seeks to punish any Indian citizen or company that bribes a foreign official in order to gain an advantage.

Improving mechanisms for the delivery of public service can also lead to lower levels of corruption. Three bills in this regard are awaiting parliamentary scrutiny. The bill which provides statutory backing to the UID project saw some adverse comments from the standing committee; it remains to be seen whether the government addresses those concerns and brings up the bill for consideration. The citizen’s grievances bill creates a framework to address grievances against deficiency of service by all government agencies. The electronic delivery of services bill requires all government departments to provide access to its services through electronic means (such as web-based systems).

Two bills introduced in the last couple of sessions can have far reaching social and economic implications. The Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill seeks to provide a new mechanism for the acquisition of land for public purpose projects while providing adequate compensation as well as rehabilitation to people displaced by this process. This bill addresses some of the roadblocks in the process of industrialisation, infrastructure development and urbanisation. The National Food Security Bill seeks to provide a minimum amount of foodgrains (or equivalent in cash) to 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population. Various issues related to the bill include implementation and delivery systems as well as the overall subsidy costs.

Many commentators and committees have stressed the need to expand the higher education sector so that India can take advantage of the demographic dividend. There are several pending bills that change the regulatory framework of this sector. Two of these set up regulators for health education and general education. Four others provide for quality ratings of colleges, transparency in admission procedures, entry of foreign universities, and specialised adjudicatory mechanisms.

Several other bills have implications for the broader economy and financial markets. These include the new companies bill, the Direct Taxes Code, the Goods and Services Tax Bill as well as bills related to regulation of pension, insurance, banking and commodities markets.

Our quick survey indicates that there is a large amount of pending business in Parliament. It is important that Parliament find time in this session to deliberate on some of these key bills.