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N-power in India. How safe are our plants?

July 8th, 2011 1 comment

In the aftermath of the nuclear leaks in Japan, there have been concerns regarding the safety of nuclear power plants around the world.

There are some proposals to change the regulatory framework in India to ensure the safety of these plants. We examine some of the issues in the current structure.

 

Which body looks at safety issues regarding nuclear power plants in the country?

 

The apex institution tasked to look at issues regarding nuclear safety is the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.

The AERB was set up in 1983 to carry out regulatory and safety functions regarding nuclear and radiation facilities. The agency has to give clearances for establishing nuclear power plants and facilities.

 

It issues clearances for nuclear power projects in stages after safety reviews. The safety of setting up a nuclear plant in any given area is also assessed by the AERB. For example, it would have looked into the safety of setting up a nuclear power project in Jaitapur in Maharashtra.

 

AERB also reviews the safety mechanisms within existing nuclear plants and facilities. To do this, it requires nuclear facilities to report their compliance with safety regulations, and also makes periodic inspections.

 

Under the recently passed Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010 the AERB is also the authority responsible for notifying when a nuclear incident takes place. Mechanisms for assessing and claiming compensation by victims will be initiated only after the nuclear incident is notified.

 

Why is the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board in the news?

 

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced on March 29, 2011, “We will strengthen the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and make it a truly autonomous and independent regulatory authority.”

 

This announcement came in the backdrop of the continuing crisis and high radiation levels at the Fukusima nuclear plant in Japan.

 

News reports opined that the lack of proper autonomy of Japan’s nuclear regulator curbed its effectiveness. Japan’s ministry of economy, trade and industry regulates the nuclear power industry, and also promotes nuclear technology. These two aims work at cross-purposes.

India’s regulatory structure is similar to Japan in some respects.

 

What measures has the AERB taken post the Fukushima nuclear incident in Japan?

 

Following the nuclear incident in Japan, a high-level committee under the chairmanship of a former AERB chairman has been set up to review the safety of Indian nuclear power plants.

 

The committee shall assess the capability of Indian nuclear power plants to withstand earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, floods, etc. The committee will review the adequacy of provisions for ensuring safety in case of such events.

 

Is there any issue in the current regulatory structure?

 

The AERB is a regulatory body, which derives administrative and financial support from the Department of Atomic Energy. It reports to the secreatry, DAE.

 

The DAE is also involved in the promotion of nuclear energy, and is also responsible for the functioning of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, which operates most nuclear power plants in the country.

 

 

The DAE is thus responsible both for nuclear safety (through the AERB), as well as the operation of nuclear power plants (through NPCIL). This could be seen as a conflict of interest.

 

How does the system of independent regulators differ from this?

 

The telecom sector provides an example of an independent regulator.

 

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India does not report to the Department of Telecommunications. The DoT is responsible for policy matters related to telecommunications, promoting private investment in telecom, and also has a stake in BSNL. Had TRAI reported to the DoT, there would have been a conflict of interest within the DoT.

 

What will the proposed legislation change?

 

Recent news reports have stated that a bill to create an independent regulatory body will be introduced in Parliament soon.

 

Though there is no draft bill available publicly, news reports state that an independent Nuclear Regulatory Authority of India will be created by the bill, and the authority will subsume the AERB within it.

 

This post first appeared as an article on rediff.com and can be accessed here.

NATGRID: Should Parliament have a role?

June 20th, 2011 1 comment

The Union government’s Cabinet Committee on Security recently gave clearance to the Home Ministry’s NATGRID project.  The project aims to allow investigation and law enforcement agencies to access real-time information from data stored with agencies such as the Income Tax Department, banks, insurance companies, Indian Railways, credit card transactions, and more.  NATGRID, like a number of other government initiatives (UIDAI), is being established through governmental notifications rather than legislation passed in Parliament.  The examination of this issue requires an assessment of the benefits of legislation vis-a-vis government notifications.

Government notifications can be issued either under a specific law, or independent of a parent law, provided that the department issuing such notification has the power to do so.  Rules, regulations which are notified have the advantage of flexibility since they can be changed without seeking Parliamentary approval.

This advantage of initiating projects or establishing institutions through government notifications is also potentially of detriment to the system of checks and balances that a democracy rests on.  For, while legislation takes a longer time to be enacted (it is discussed, modified and debated in Parliament before being put to vote), this also enables elected representatives to oversee various dimensions of such projects.  In the case of NATGRID, the process would provide Parliamentarians the opportunity to debate the conditions under which private individual information can be accessed, what information may be accessed, and for what purpose.  This time consuming process is in fact of valuable import to projects such as NATGRID which have a potential impact on fundamental rights.

Finally, because changing a law is itself a rigorous process, the conditions imposed on the access to personal information attain a degree of finality and cannot be ignored or deviated from.  Government rules and regulations on the other hand, can be changed by the concerned department as and when it deems necessary.  Though even governmental action can be challenged if it infringes fundamental rights, well-defined limits within laws passed by Parliament can help provide a comprehensive set of rules which would prevent their infringement in the first place.

The Parliamentary deliberative process in framing a law is thus even more important than the law itself.  This is especially so in cases of government initiatives affecting justiciable rights.  This deliberative process, or the potential scrutiny of government drafted legislation on the floor of Parliament ensures that limitations on government discretion are clearly laid down, and remedies to unauthorised acts are set in stone.  This also ensures that the authority seeking to implement the project is

The other issue pertains to the legal validity of the project itself.  Presently, certain departmental agencies maintain databases of personal information which helps them provide essential services, or maintain law and order.  The authority to maintain such databases flows from the laws which define their functions and obligations.  So the power of maintaining legal databases is implicit because of the nature of functions these agencies perform.  However, there is no implicit or explicit authorization to the convergence of these independent databases.

One may argue that the government is not legally prevented from interlinking databases.  However, the absence of a legal challenge to the creation of NATGRID does not take away from the importance of establishing such a body through constitutionally established deliberative processes.  Therefore, the question to be asked is not whether NATGRID is legally or constitutionally valid, but whether it is important for Parliament to oversee the establishment of NATGRID.

In October 2010, the Ministry of Personnel circulated an “Approach paper for a legislation on privacy”.  The paper states: “Data protection can only be ensured under a formal legal system that prescribes the rights of the individuals and the remedies available against the organization that breaches these rights. It is imperative, if the aim is to create a regime where data is protected in this country, that a clear legislation is drafted that spells out the nature of the rights available to individuals and the consequences that an organization will suffer if it breaches these rights.”

As the lines above exemplify, it is important for a robust democracy to codify rights and remedies when such rights may be potentially affected.  The European Union and the USA, along with a host of other countries have comprehensive privacy laws, which also lay down conditions for access to databases, and the limitations of such use.  The UIDAI was established as an executive authority, and still functions without statutory mandate.  However, a Bill seeking to establish the body statutorily has been introduced, and its contents are being debated in the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance and the Bill has also been deliberated on by civil society at large.

A similar approach is imperative in the case of NATGRID to uphold the sovereign electorate’s right to oversee institutions that may affect it in the future.

 

The NAC Communal Violence Bill: Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence

June 9th, 2011 6 comments

The National Advisory Committee has recently come out with a Communal Violence Bill.  The Bill is intended to prevent acts of violence, or incitement to violence directed at people by virtue of their membership to any “group”.  An existing Bill titled the “Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill, 2005” pending in the Rajya Sabha (analysis here).  The main features of the NAC Bill are explained below:

The Bill makes illegal acts which result in injury to persons or property, if such acts are directed against persons on the basis of their affiliation to any group, and if such an act destroys the secular fabric of the nation.  Such acts include sexual assault, hate propaganda, torture and organized communal violence.

It makes public servants punishable for failing to discharge their stated duties in an unbiased manner.  In addition, public servants have duties such as the duty to provide protection to victims of communal violence and also have to take steps to prevent the outbreak of communal violence.

The Bill establishes a National Authority for Communal Harmony, Justice, and Reparation to prevent acts of communal violence, incitement to communal violence, containing the spread of communal violence, and monitoring investigations into acts of communal violence.  The Authority can also inquire into and investigate acts of communal violence by itself.  The Bill also provides for the setting up of State Authorities for Communal Harmony, Justice, and Reparation.

The central or state government has been given the authority to intercept any messages or transmissions if it feels that it might lead to communal violence.  This power is subject to existing procedures which have to be complied with for intercepting messages and transmissions.

Importantly, if public officers are liable to be prosecuted for offences under the Bill, and prior sanction is required for such prosecution, the state government has to grant or refuse sanction within 30 days.  If not, then sanction will be deemed to have been granted.

The Bill also allows the states to set up one or more Human Rights Defender of Justice and Reparations’ in every district.  The Human Rights defender will ensure that those affected by communal and targeted violence are able to access their rights under existing laws.

Apart from these, the Bill also establishes state and district-level authorities for assessing compensation for victims of communal violence.  States also have numerous obligations towards victims, such as the establishment of relief camps, ensuring proper facilities, medical provisions and clothing for those within such camps, etc.  The states government also has the obligation to create conditions which allow the return of victims of communal violence to the place of their ordinary residence.

 

Does the judiciary “make laws”?

April 20th, 2011 3 comments

A recent case before the Supreme Court has once again highlighted the issue of judicial decisions potentially replacing/ amending legislation enacted by Parliament.  The case importantly pertains to the judiciary’s interpretation of existing law concerning itself.  The eventual outcome of the case would presumably have important implications for the way the higher judiciary interprets laws, which according to some amounts to the judiciary “legislating” rather than interpreting laws.

 

This assertion has often been substantiated by citing cases such as Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan (1997) where the Supreme Court actually laid down the law pertaining to sexual discrimination at workplaces in the absence of a law governing the same.  In numerous other cases, courts have laid down policy guidelines, or have issued administrative directions to governmental departments.

 

In the recent case of Suraz India Trust v. Union of India, a petition has been filed asking the court to reconsider its own judgements regarding the manner of appointment and transfer of judges.  It has been contended that through its judgements in 1994 and 1998 (Advocate on Record Association v. Union of India and Special Reference No. 1 of 1998) the Supreme Court has virtually amended Constitutional provisions, even though amendments to the Constitution can only be done by Parliament.  This question arises since the Constitution provides for the appointment and transfer of judges by the government in consultation with the Chief Justice of India.  The two Supreme Court judgements however gave the primary power of appointment and transfer of judges to the judiciary itself.

 

Importantly, one specific question which has been raised is whether the judgements referred to above really amount to amending the relevant provisions of the Constitution.  Another question raised which is relevant to this discussion is whether the interpretation by courts can actually make provisions in the Constitution redundant.

 

In its judgement on the 4th of April, the Supreme Court referred this case to the Chief Justice of India for further directions.  The outcome of this judgement could potentially require the Supreme Court to define the circumstances when it interprets law, and when it “legislates”.  An indication of the Supreme Court’s attitude concerning this issue may be gleaned from the recent speech of the Chief Justice of India, Justice S.H. Kapadia at the M.C. Setalvad lecture.  The CJI unambiguously stated that:

…In many PILs, the courts freely decree rules of conduct for government and public authorities which are akin to legislation. Such exercises have little judicial function in them. Its justification is that the other branches of government have failed or are indifferent to the solution of the problem. In such matters, I am of the opinion that the courts should be circumspect in understanding the thin line between law and governance...”

 

 

Can compensation be paid for crimes against the state?

March 4th, 2011 5 comments

In a recent judgement (Judgement on Feb 23 – Baldev Singh and Ors. V. State of Punjab), the Supreme Court reduced the sentence of three persons convicted of rape from 10 years to 3 and a half years, and also asked the three convicts to pay a fine of Rs 50,000 each to the victim.   In reducing the sentence, the court drew from the provision in S. 376 (punishment for rape) of the Indian Penal Code which allows the court to reduce the sentence for “adequate and special reasons”.

There have been a number of past cases where the Supreme Court has reversed High Court decisions reducing sentences under this provision for not giving suitable reasons.  In 2007, the Supreme Court struck down a decision of the Karnataka High Court which had reduced the sentence of a convicted rapist to 3 and a half years.  The High Court had stated that the sentence should be reduced since the accused was “a young boy of 18 years belonging to Vaddara Community and Illiterate”.  The Supreme Court stated that there is a legislative mandate to impose a sentence for not less than 10 years.  Only in exceptional cases, for “adequate and special reasons” can a sentence less than 10 years be imposed.  It overturned the Karnataka High Court decision saying that there was an “absence of any reason which could have been treated as “special and adequate reason””.

In Baldev Singh’s case, the Supreme Court said:

1.  The fact that the incident is an old one (the incident took place in 1997) is a circumstance which fits into “adequate and special reasons” for reducing a sentence.

2. The parties have entered into a compromise among themselves.

The issue is whether this judgement has gone beyond the legislative mandate, and whether it has adhered to the principles laid down by earlier decisions of the Supreme Court.  In 2007, the Supreme Court itself stated that for a crime like rape, strong reasons have to be given to reduce the sentence envisaged by the legislature.  Moreover, the provision does not envisage the settlement of a crime by payment of compensation to the victim of a crime.  A criminal act is seen in law as a crime against the whole of society (which is why the state’s prosecution agency, and not the victim, goes to court against alleged criminals).  Therefore, criminal actions such as rape (or murder, robbery, kidnapping etc.) cannot be “settled” by the payment of compensation under the Indian Penal Code.  In this light, it should be interesting to see whether the State files an appeal against this judgement.

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How well does Parliament examine rules framed under various laws?

January 10th, 2011 1 comment

Recently the government released draft rules under the Right to Information Act for consultation before it finalised them.  This process of public consultation on draft rules is a welcome step which is not often followed.

Many Acts passed by Parliament ‘delegate’ the power to make rules and regulations to the executive (government and regulatory bodies such as RBI and TRAI).  The reason is that these rules may need to be changed at frequent intervals (such as, say specifications on food labels), and may not need the time and expense required for amendment to the Act by Parliament.  However, Parliament retains for itself the power to examine these rules.  Most Acts passed by Parliament provide that rules framed under them will be laid before the Parliament.  Any Member of Parliament may demand a discussion on the rules and a vote to modify or nullify them.

In practice, a large number of rules are laid before Parliament, making it very difficult for Parliamentarians to examine them effectively.  In the last session of Parliament, more than 1500 documents were laid before Parliament.  No discussion on specific rules has taken place in Parliament in the 14th and 15th Lok Sabha (2004-10).

Both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha also have Committees on Subordinate Legislation to examine these rules.  Out of 1515 rules, regulations, circulars and schemes laid before Lok Sabha between 2008 and 2010, the Committee has examined 44 documents.  This amounts to only 3% of the afore-mentioned documents laid before the Lok Sabha.

It is important that Parliament oversee the power to make rules that it has delegated to the government.  For that, it needs to invest in strengthening the research staff of the committee on subordinate legislation as well as provide research stafff to MPs.

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Can the Supreme Court ask the government to frame a law?

December 23rd, 2010 4 comments

In a recent case, the Supreme Court directed the appropriate government to enact a law by June 2011.  The case, Gainda Ram & Ors. V. MCD and Ors.[1], concerned the legal framework for regulating hawking in Delhi.  The judgement lays out the background to this case by stating that the regulation of hawking in Delhi had been proceeding under directions issued by the Supreme Court in previous cases, and was being implemented by municipal authorities such as the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC).

The NDMC and the MCD have also framed schemes to regulate hawkers as per a policy of the government framed in 2004.  However, since these schemes were not laid before Parliament, the Court held that these schemes cannot be called ‘law’ or drafted under the authority of any law.  The Court also stated that there is an urgent need to enact a legislation to regulate hawking, and the rights of street vendors.

It referred to a Bill which had been framed by the government, and stated that since the government has already taken the first step in the legislative process by drafting a Bill, the legislative process should be completed.  On the basis of this, and other reasons, it directed the government to enact a law by June 2011.  This judgement raises three issues:

  1. The government is not the law making body in India.  Enacting a law is the function of Parliament and state legislatures.
  2. Even if the Court were to address the correct authority, Courts in India have no authority to direct the legislature to frame a law, let alone specify a time-period.  This may be said to violate the basic principle of “separation of powers” which states that the executive, legislature and judiciary should function independently of each other.  Under the Indian Constitution, the Supreme Court and the High Courts have the power to protect fundamental rights and to interpret law.  The Constitution does not give power to Courts to direct the framing of a law.
  3. Persons can be held in contempt of court for not following its directions.  In this case, it is not clear who would be held in contempt for not enacting a law by June 2011.  The Supreme Court can either hold the Speaker of the Parliament in contempt for not enacting a law by the specified date (it is uncertain whether the Court has this power since no such past instance has arisen). Or it can hold the concerned government official in contempt for not enacting the law within the time period specified (the government in this case, having no power to enact a law).

[1] Decided on October 8, 2010

Parliament’s scrutiny over government finances

December 20th, 2010 No comments

The recent 2G-controversy and the related debate over the role of the PAC as opposed to the JPC also raises a broader Issue regarding the general scrutiny of government finances by Parliament.  Oversight of the government’s finances involves the scrutiny of the government’s financial proposals and policies.  The Indian Constitution vests this power with the Parliament by providing that (a) taxes cannot be imposed or collected without the authority of law, and (b) expenditure cannot be incurred without the authorisation of the legislature.

The Indian Parliament exercises financial oversight over the government budget in two stages: (1) at the time of presentation of the annual budget, and (2) reviewing the government’s budget implementation efforts through the year.

The Parliament scrutinises the annual budget (a) on the floor of the House, and (b) by the departmentally related standing committees.

Scrutiny on the floor of the House

The main scrutiny of the budget in the Lok Sabha takes place through:

(a) General discussion and voting: The general discussion on the Budget is held on a day subsequent to the presentation of the Budget by the Finance Minister.  Discussion at this stage is confined to the general examination of the Budget and policies of taxation expressed during the budget speech.

(b) Discussion on Demand for Grants: The general discussion is followed by a discussion on the Demand for Grants of different ministries. A certain number of days or hours are allocated for the discussion of all the demands. However, not all the demands are discussed within the allotted number of days.

The remaining undiscussed demands are disposed of by the Speaker after the agreement of the House.  This process is known as the ‘Guillotine’.  Figure 1 shows the number of Demands discussed and guillotined over the last five years.  It shows that nearly 90% of the Demands are not discussed every year.

Some Important Budget Documents

Annual Financial Statement – Statement of the estimated receipts and expenditure of the government.

Demand for Grants –Expenditure required to be voted by the Lok Sabha.  A separate Demand is required to be presented for each department of the government.

Supplementary Demand for Grants – Presented when (a) authorized amounts are insufficient, or (b) need for additional expenditure has arisen.

Finance Bill – Details the imposition of taxes, the rates of taxation, and its regulation.

Detailed Demand for Grants – Prepared on the basis of the Demand for Grants.  These show further break-up of objects by expenditure, and also actual expenditure in the previous year.

For more details see detailed note on Financial Oversight by Parliament here.

Will judges have to declare assets under the new Bill on judicial accountability?

December 17th, 2010 1 comment

The issue of judges declaring their assets assumes importance in light of recent allegations and inquiries into allegations of wrongdoing by judges (read our post on the report of the Committee set up to examine allegations of wrongdoing by Justice Soumitra Sen of the Calcutta High Court).  The Delhi High Court also gave a judgement recently, requiring judges of the Supreme Court to declare their assets.

The Bill on judicial accountability (read summary here) requires judges to declare their assets to a specified authority within 30 days of them taking their oath of office.  The assets of spouses and dependents is also required to be disclosed.  The Bill also states that the assets declared will be put up on the website of the relevant court.

Bill on accountability of Judges

December 15th, 2010 No comments

The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, 2010 was introduced in the Lok Sabha on December 1, 2010. The Bill was introduced by the Shri M. Veerappa Moily, the Minister of Law and Justice.

The Bill seeks to (a) lay down judicial standards, (b) provide for the accountability of judges, and (c) establish mechanisms for investigating individual complaints for misbehaviour or incapacity of a judge of the Supreme Court or High Courts. It also provides a mechanism for the removal of judges.

Find the main features of the Bill explained here.