Unfinished business

The 15th Lok Sabha has passed some big-ticket laws. But not enough laws.

The 15th Lok Sabha is two months away from the end of its term, the highlight of which has been the regular disruption of parliamentary proceedings. And while the passing of marquee legislation (food security, lokpal etc) provides a silver lining, Parliament's ability to make laws has been the biggest casualty of the disruptions. There are currently 123 bills pending in Parliament. Seventy-two of these bills will lapse at the end of the Lok Sabha's term, making it the worst performing Lok Sabha, in terms of legislative business, in the last 60 years.

Parliamentary procedure specifies that a bill introduced in the Lok Sabha will lapse at end of its term if it is pending passage in either house of Parliament. A bill introduced in the Rajya Sabha and passed by it will also lapse if it remains pending in the Lok Sabha at the end of its term. If, after the general elections, the new government plans to take up the lapsed bills, they will have to be introduced again in Parliament and the legislative process would start afresh. Moreover, political consensus and the momentum of public opinion around different pieces of legislation would have to be built again. As a result, the lapsing of bills will push the country back a number of years with respect to addressing the gaps in law and policy.

Take for example the government's multipronged approach to tackling corruption. Out of the nine bills introduced in Parliament to address corruption, only two — the Lokpal Bill and the bill to amend the provisions related to money laundering — have been passed. Of the remaining seven, five cover issues related to citizen charters, electronic service delivery, benami transactions, government procurement and preventing bribery of foreign officials, and are pending in both Houses and may lapse. The remaining two, which deal with protection for whistleblowers and judicial standards, have been passed by the Lok Sabha and will also lapse if they are not passed by the Upper House before the Lok Sabha is dissolved.

In 2010, the government had introduced four bills in the Lok Sabha to reform the higher education sector. These bills provide for establishing an authority for accrediting colleges, preventing unfair practices in medical and technical colleges, making regulations for the entry of foreign universities and creating a tribunal to adjudicate disputes. These bills have not been passed by either House and may also lapse in the next two months. A similar fate awaits some bills relating to the financial and economic sectors. The constitutional amendment with respect to the goods and services tax, the direct tax code bill, the bill to regulate microfinance institutions, the recently introduced bills to establish coal and civil aviation regulators and the bill to overhaul the mines and minerals sector are all set to lapse at the end of the 15th Lok Sabha.

A politically contentious bill that has lapsed on different occasions since 1996 is the bill which provides for the reservation of seats for women in legislatures. Introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 2008, during the tenure of the 14th Lok Sabha, it was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2010. Political differences have ensured that the bill has not come up for consideration and passing in the Lok Sabha. This is another bill which, if not passed by the Lok Sabha, will lapse yet again. While its lapsing may be disappointing, not many will complain if the bill that proposes to keep political parties out of the ambit of the Right to Information Act lapses.

However, there still exists a window of opportunity. Media reports suggest that the government may be considering extending the winter session of Parliament. This has happened in the past. In 2003, the winter session was adjourned sine die in December, but was not prorogued by the president. The session was extended and the second part of the winter session was held in January 2004. If Parliament meets again next month there is the possibility that some of these bills can be passed.

For most of the bills mentioned here, the parliamentary standing committees have already submitted their reports. So there are no procedural impediments to passing these bills. A debate in the two Houses is all that is needed. However, that requires the Houses to run smoothly, without disruptions. And to do that, the presiding officers of both Houses would have to ensure that MPs protesting over different issues are prevented from derailing proceedings. This will have to be supplemented with the building of political consensus around these legislations.