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Archive for February, 2010

A CRS Report on Parliamentary Questions

February 12th, 2010 1 comment

Unlike the Parliamentary system, the concept of ‘question hour’ or ‘question time’ doesn’t really exist in the American legislature.  Here’s an interesting report done by the Congressional Research Service on the possibility of a question time in the US.

From our point of view, the report is interesting because it reviews the existing provisions for a Parliamentary Question Time  in different countries (India isn’t mentioned), and considers the pros and cons of such a system.

The report concludes:

“Whether the question period would be successful in a system of separated powers depends in large part on the attitude of its participants and on the format the question period ultimately assumes. The question period has the potential of involving more rank-and-file Members in the policy-making process, and improving the means of communication between executive departments and the Congress. It also could harden relations between the Congress and the Executive, and might increase the level of partisan controversy in Congress.”

There’s even an online petition among a few american bloggers to push for a question time in the US.  Read about it here.

In this country of course, parliamentary questions are an established feature of the work of Parliament. Parliamentary questions cover a huge range of topics and can be an mine of information and data about government policy. The Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha sites put the complete text of all parliamentary questions (and the responses to them) online.

To eat or not to eat: Bt Brinjal

February 11th, 2010 3 comments

The row over Bt Brinjal, a genetically modified version of the plant, provoked the government into imposing a moratorium on the commercial cultivation of the plant in India.  The debate has revolved around issues of economic efficacy, human health, consumer choice and farmers’ rights.

Jairam Ramesh, the Minister of State for Environment and Forests, made public his views on the subject, a gist of which is given below:

  • The Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC) report recommended commercial cultivation of Bt Brinjal but qualified it by stating that since the issue has important policy implications at the national level, the government should take a final view on the matter.
  • Most of the state governments have expressed concern and have sought to ban the use of Bt Brinjal, or all GM crops.
  • Pesticides have harmful effect on human health and Bt technology is one way of reducing pesticide use.  However, other routes such as non-pesticide pest management can be explored.  For example, about 6 lakh farmers in Andhra Pradesh practice non-pesticide pest management over an area of about 20 lakh acres.
  • Safety is a concern since the kind of tests that have been done is not specific or stringent enough to detect toxins.  Also, tests have only been carried out by the developers of the product, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd. (Mahyco).  (The results of the biosafety tests are available on the GEAC website).
  • There is no large-scale public funded biotechnology effort toward agriculture, which could compete with Mahyco.  Monsanto is the main producer of Bt Brinjal, and Mahyco is owned to the extent of 26% by Monsanto.
  • While two government owned agricultural universities — University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), Coimbatore – have produced Bt Brinjal along with Mahyco, doubts have been raised about how Bt related research in these universities have been funded.
  • There are apprehensions that there will be diversity loss in the variety of Brinjal if Bt Brinjal is introduced, and this fear cannot be glossed over.
  • While Bt Cotton and Bt Brinjal are not comparable, the introduction of Bt Cotton in India has made India the second largest grower of cotton in the world.  Over 90% of cotton farmers in India cultivate Bt Cotton.  Many farmers support Bt Cotton on economic grounds but some did express doubts.
  • The Central Institute of Cotton Research, Nagpur has developed a Bt cotton variety (Bikaneri Nerma) whose seeds can be kept by farmers for planting during the next season.  The Director of the Institute while expressing support for Bt Brinjal has mentioned that resistance development is a serious issue.  Therefore, more tests that are well-designed, widely-accepted and independently conducted are necessary.
  • The GEAC process has been questioned by  Dr P.M. Bhargava, the Supreme Court nominee on GEAC.  He opposed the recommendation on the ground that all necessary tests had not been carried out before coming to a decision.  The 2006 committee of the GEAC had asked for several tests to be conducted which were not taken into account by the second expert committee.  All GEAC reports (including additional tests) of tests conducted with regard to Bt Brinjal are in the public domain.
  • There is some evidence that the GEAC not followed global regulatory norms of which India is a party.  For example, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development etc.
  • Some international scientists have raised doubts about Bt Brinjal and the way the tests were conducted.
  • Many Indian scientists have supported commercialization of Bt Brinjal such as Dr G. Padmanabhan of the Indian Institute of Science; Dr Deepak Pental, Vice Chancellor of Delhi University; and Dr Raj Bhatnagar of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, New Delhi.  However, even they have mentioned the need for a statutory body with regulatory powers and R&D capabilities to govern all aspects of GM crops.
  • The Indian Council of Agricultural research and a number of farmer’s groups have come out in support of the move to introduce Bt Brinjal.

In order to understand the process followed by GEAC before giving the green signal to Bt Brinjal, we have made a timeline in which the plant was approved and the bodies involved in the process.

2000-2005 Scientific tests carried out by Mahyco on Bt Brinjal
2006 Mahyco submits bio-safety data to GEAC (regulatory body under the Ministry of Environment and Forests). Seeks permission for large scale trials.
Supreme Court stops ongoing field trials of GM crops due to a PIL filed by civil society representatives.
2007 The expert committee 1 set up by GEAC, submits its report.  Recommends seven more studies on bio-safety be repeated for reconfirmation of data generated during confined multi-location trials but approves large scale trials.
Supreme Court lifts ban on GM crop field trials subject to conditions such as isolation distance etc.
As per GEAC direction, Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (IIVR) takes up the responsibility of large scale trails of Mahyco’s Bt Brinjal trials at 10 research institutions across the country in 2007 and 11 in 2008.
2009 Jan: IIVR submits the results of the large scale trails. Due to concerns raised by several

stakeholders, GEAC constitutes another expert committee to look into adequacy of biosafety data generated as well as the concerns raised by all stakeholders.

Oct 8: Expert-committee 2 submits its report. States benefits of Bt Brinjal far outweigh the perceived and projected risks.
Oct 14: GEAC approves the environmental release of Bt Brinjal containing the event EE1 (with one dissent note from P.M. Bhargava).
Oct 15: Jairam Ramesh announces a nationwide consultation in January and February of 2010 pending a final decision on this issue.
2010 Jan 13 to Feb 6: Public meetings were organized on the Bt Brinjal issue. The summary of the consultations is available on the Ministry’s website.
Many states announce ban on commercial cultivation of Bt Brinjal including Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka.
Feb 9: Jairam Ramesh decides to halt the commercialization of Bt Brinjal.

Update on the Women’s Reservation Bill

February 9th, 2010 5 comments

Speaker Meira Kumar has urged political parties to arrive at a consensus on the women’s reservation bill.  The 2008 Bill has the following main features. 

1. It reserves one-third of all seats in Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies within each state for women. 

2. There is quota-within-quota for SCs, STs and Anglo-Indians. 

3. The reserved seats will be rotated after each general elections – thus after a cycle of three elections, all constituencies would have been reserved once.  This reservation will be operational for 15 years.

 This Bill has had a chequered history.  A similar Bill was introduced in 1996, 1998 and 1999 – all of which lapsed after the dissolution of the respective Lok Sabhas.  A Joint Parliamentary Committee chaired by Geeta Mukherjee examined the 1996 Bill and made seven recommendations.  Five of these have been included in the latest 2008 Bill.  These are (i) reservation for a period of 15 years; (ii) including sub-reservation for Anglo Indians; (iii) including reservation in cases where the state has less than three seats in Lok Sabha (or less than three seats for SCs/STs); (iv) including reservation for the Delhi assembly; and (v) changing “not less than one-third” to “as nearly as may be, one-third”.

 Two of the recommendations are not incorporated in the 2008 Bill.  The first is for reserving seats in Rajya Sabha and Legislative Councils.  The second is for sub-reservation for OBC women after the Constitution extends reservation to OBCs.

The 2008 Bill was referred to the Standing Committee on Law and Justice.  This Committee failed to reach a consensus in its final report.  The Committee has recommendedthat the Bill “be passed in Parliament and put in action without further delay.  Two members of the Committee, Virender Bhatia and Shailendra Kumar (both belonging to the Samajwadi Party) dissented stating that they were not against providing reservation to women but disagreed with the way this Bill was drafted.  They had three recommendations:  (i) every political party must distribute 20% of its tickets to women; (ii) even in the current form, reservation should not exceed 20% of seats; and (iii) there should be a quota for women belonging to OBCs and minorities.

The Standing committee considered two other methods of increasing representation.  One suggestion (part of election commission recommendations) was to requite political parties to nominate women for a minimum percentage of seats.  The committee felt that parties could bypass the spirit of the law by nominating women to losing seats.  The second recommendation was to create dual member constituencies, with women filling one of the two seats from those constituencies.  The Committee believed that this move could “result in women being reduced to a subservient status, which will defeat the very purpose of the Bill”.

It is interesting to note that the Committee did not reject the two recommendations of the Geeta Mukherjee Committee that are not reflected in the Bill.  The Committee concluded that the issue of reservations to Rajya Sabha and Legislative Councils needs to be examined thoroughly as the upper Houses play an equally important role under the Constitution.  Incidentally, it is not possible to reserve seats in Rajya Sabha given the current system of elections to that house (see Appendix below).

On the issue of  reservations to OBC women, the Committee said that “all other issues may be considered at an appropriate time by Government without any further delay at the present time in the passage of the Bill”.

Though the Bill does not have a consensus – it has been opposed by SP, RJD and JD(U) – most parties have publicly expressed their support for it.  The government will likely not find it difficult to muster two-third support in each House of Parliament were the Bill be taken up for consideration and passing.  It would be interesting to see whether the Bill is brought before Parliament in the upcoming Budget Session.

Appendix: Impossibility of Reservation in Rajya Sabha

Article 80of the Constitution specifies that members of state assemblies will elect Rajya Sabha MPs through single transferable vote.  This implies that the votes are first allocated to the most preferred candidate, and then to the next preferred candidate, and so on.  This system cannot accommodate the principle of reserving a certain number of seats for a particular group.  Currently, Rajya Sabha does not have reservation for SCs and STs.

Therefore, any system that provides reservation in Rajya Sabha implies that the Constitution must be amended to jettison the Single Transferable Vote system.

Defections in Parliament

February 8th, 2010 1 comment

In the late 1960s and 70s, defections (elected legislators changing parties after the election) in Parliament and State Legislatures became very frequent, so frequent in fact, that the epithet “Aaya Ram Gaya Ram” was coined to describe the same.  To curb this problem which created instability in our legislatures, Parliament amended the Constitution.  They inserted the Tenth Schedule to the Constitution “to curb the evil of political defections”.  As a result, we currently have an anti-defection law with the following features:

1.  If an MP/MLA who belongs to a political party voluntarily resigns from his party or, disobeys the party “whip” (a direction given by the party to all MPs/ MLAs to vote in a certain manner), he is disqualified.   The party may however condone the MP/ MLA within 15 days.

2.  An independent MP/ MLA cannot join a political party after the election.

3.  An MP/ MLA who is nominated (to the Rajya Sabha or upper houses in state legislatures) can only join a party within 6 months of his election.

4.  Mergers of well-defined groups of individuals or political parties are exempted from disqualification if certain conditions are met.

5.  The decision to disqualify is taken by the Speaker/ Chairman of the House.

The table below summarizes provisions of anti-defection law in some other countries.  (For more, click here).  As one may note, a number of developed countries do not have any law to regulate defection.

Regulation of defection in some countries

Country Experi-ence Law on defection The Law on Defection
Bangladesh Yes Yes The Constitution says a member shall vacate his seat if he resigns from or votes against the directions given by his party.  The dispute is referred by the Speaker to the Election Commission.
Kenya Yes Yes The Constitution states that a member who resigns from his party has to vacate his seat.  The decision is by the Speaker, and the member may appeal to the High Court.
Singapore Yes Yes Constitution says a member must vacate his seat if he resigns, or is expelled from his party.  Article 48 states that Parliament decides on any question relating to the disqualification of a member.
South Africa Yes Yes The Constitution provides that a member loses membership of the Parliament if he ceases to be a member of the party that nominated him.
Australia Yes No
Canada Yes No
France Yes No
Germany Yes No
Malaysia Yes No
United Kingdom Yes No

Welcome to The PRS Blog!

February 6th, 2010 6 comments

The objective of this blog is to supplement the information provided on the PRS website, with more analysis, information, that might be useful for readers.  We expect to discuss issues about legislation and policy on some occasions and about the functioning of Parliament at other times.  Interesting Parliament trivia will also find their place on the blog from time to time.

The Parliament itself puts up significant amount of information on its website, making it relatively easy for anyone tracking the institution to access data.  But what we at PRS have tried to do is to add value to the information that we have accessed from Parliament, and make our products even more relevant to users.  We hope readers of this blog will share their views with us on a range of issues.

We know that a number of people both in India and abroad use our website as a resource on legislation and Parliament. Our somewhat tentative beginning on Twitter (www.twitter.com/prslegislative) is now being followed more widely.  Recent updates from Twitter will also be displayed on the Blog.

The only way in which our legislation will become better over time is when lots of people like us scrutinise issues in detail, engage with our law makers and ensure that the process takes into account the inputs of citizens from across the country.  As we prepare ourselves for the upcoming Budget session of Parliament, we expect to post on our blog quite regularly.  We hope you will find this useful in the weeks and months ahead!  Please spread the word about this new blog, and thank you for all your continued support.

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