Your voice can change the law

The laws made by Parliament and state legislative assemblies influence every facet of our lives. It is important that citizens understand how laws are made and how we can engage with the lawmaking process—it’s a sign of a healthy democracy.
The first step is ascertaining the need for a new law or if changes are required in an existing one. Citizen groups play an important role here. For example, the idea of citizens’ access to government information was raised first by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan. The subsequent campaign for people’s right to information acted as a catalyst and resulted in the Right to Information Act being enacted by Parliament in 2005.
Next, the ministry concerned prepares a Bill or draft of the proposed law or amendment to it. The ministry then circulates the draft to the ministries concerned for their comments. In the last six-seven years, some ministries have started inviting public comments and feedback on the draft Bill. The Union ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution had invited public comments on the draft food security Bill in 2011 by publishing a copy of the draft Bill on its website. Comments and suggestions from individuals, citizen groups and other ministries (including the ministries of law and justice and finance) can be used to revise the draft Bill. In the case of the food security draft Bill, suggestions by citizen groups to focus on the needs of vulnerable groups in remote areas were incorporated.
After the ministry finalizes the draft, it is presented to the cabinet for approval and once cleared is introduced in Parliament. On most occasions, Bills introduced in Parliament are referred for detailed examination to Parliamentary standing committees, which scrutinize the work of the ministry concerned. The committee usually takes out advertisements in national newspapers inviting comments and suggestions. Citizen groups, stakeholders and experts present their views to the committee in person. This was leveraged effectively last year when 140 witnesses engaged with the Parliamentary standing committee examining the Lokpal Bill for approximately 40 hours. The work done by the committee on the Bill and its recommendations is compiled in a report and shared with both houses of Parliament. However, the cabinet is not bound to accept the recommendations of the standing committee.
The fourth step in the legislative process is debate on different aspects of the Bill in the house in which the Bill was introduced initially. A Bill which has been referred to a standing committee can be debated in the house only after the report of the committee is presented to the house. At this stage, citizens and civil society organizations can reach out to individual members of Parliament (MPs) and political parties and explain their concerns. The Right to Food Campaign (www.righttofoodindia.org) used social media websites to encourage college students and other volunteers to meet individual MPs and talk about the right to food Bill. There are occasions on which representations made at this stage have either forced the government to make amendments to a Bill or have prevented it from being passed in Parliament. The pension Bill, which was introduced by the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2000, could not be taken up for consideration because of opposition from trade unions and the Left parties.
After a Bill is discussed and passed by one house, it comes up for discussion in the second house, which offers another opportunity for dissecting it. Once the Bill is passed by Parliament, it is referred to the President for his assent.
Public engagement with the legislative process does not end with the Bill being passed by Parliament. The law provides the broad policy framework, and the government has to frame rules and regulations to implement the law. Citizen groups can give their feedback to the ministry on these rules and regulations. Last year, when the government framed rules under the Information Technology Act, it received detailed feedback from a number of groups working in the area of technology, Internet policy and free speech highlighting their concerns. They also reached out to MPs from different political parties on the subject.
Today, interested individuals and citizen groups can find detailed information about MPs and Bills on the Internet and can use this to reach out to MPs. The Lok Sabha (www.loksabha.nic.in) and Rajya Sabha (www.rajyasabha.nic.in) websites provide mobile phone numbers and addresses of all MPs. Our website, PRS Legislative Research (www.prsindia.org), has a feature called Bill Track through which you can check the current status of Bills in Parliament and their content, Through MP Track, citizens can get information on the work done by MPs in Parliament.
A number of stakeholders are involved at every stage of the lawmaking process. The final Act is usually a compromise between competing interests. Despite this, citizens’ voices can make a difference by enriching the debates.
Chakshu Roy is head, outreach initiatives, at PRS Legislative Research, a Delhi-based not-for-profit group whose mission is to make the legislative debate better informed.