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Examining the Consumer Protection Bill, 2018

August 10th, 2018 No comments

The Consumer Protection Bill, 2018 was introduced in Lok Sabha in January 2018. The Bill replaces the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. Previously in 2015, a Bill had been introduced to replace the 1986 Act. The 2015 Bill acknowledged that the rapid change in consumer markets, introduction of practices such as misleading advertisements, and new modes of transactions (online, teleshopping, etc.) had necessitated the need for a new law. The Bill was subsequently referred to a Standing Committee, which recommended several changes to it. The Bill was withdrawn and replaced with the Consumer Protection Bill, 2018. The Bill is listed for passage in the ongoing Monsoon Session. In this post, we analyse the Bill in its current form.

How is the 2018 Bill different from the 1986 Act?

The Bill adds various provisions for consumer protection that were absent in the 1986 Act. Key among them are the provisions on product liability and unfair contracts. Under product liability, when a consumer suffers an injury, property damage or death due to a defect in a product or service, he can file a claim for compensation under product liability. The Bill outlines cases in which the product manufacturer, service provider and seller will be held guilty under product liability. Under the proposed law, to claim product liability, an aggrieved consumer has to prove any one of the conditions mentioned in the Bill with regard to a manufacturer, service provider and seller, as the case may be.

An unfair contract has been defined as a contract between a consumer and manufacturer/ service provider if it causes significant change in consumer rights. Unfair contracts cover six terms, such as payment of excessive security deposits in an arrangement, disproportionate penalty for a breach, and unilateral termination without cause. The consumer courts being set up under the Bill will determine contract terms to be unfair and declare them null and void.

What are the different bodies being set up under the Bill?

The Bill sets up Consumer Protection Councils as advisory bodies, who will advise on protection and promotion of consumer rights. However, it does not make it clear who these Councils will render advise to. Under the 1986 Act, the Consumer Protection Councils have the responsibility to protect and promote consumer rights.

To promote, protect, and enforce consumer rights, the Bill is setting up a regulatory body, known as the Central Consumer Protection Authority. This Authority can also pass orders to prevent unfair and restrictive trade practices, such as selling goods not complying with standards, and impose penalties for false and misleading advertisements.

The Bill also sets up the Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions (known as consumer courts) at the district, state and national levels. These Commissions will adjudicate a broad range of complaints, including complaints on defective goods and deficient services of varying values. These Commissions are also present under the 1986 Act. However, their pecuniary jurisdiction (amount up to which they can hear complaints) has been revised under the Bill. The Bill also adds a provision for alternate dispute redressal mechanism. As part of this, mediation cells will be attached with the Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions.

What are the penal provisions under the Bill?

The Bill increases penalties for different offences specified in it. It also adds penalties for offences such as issuing misleading advertisements, and manufacturing and selling adulterated or spurious goods. For example, in case of false and misleading advertisements, the Central Consumer Protection Authority can impose a penalty of up to Rs 10 lakh on a manufacturer or an endorser. For a subsequent offence, the fine may extend to Rs 50 lakh.  The manufacturer can also be punished with imprisonment of up to two years, which may extend to five years for every subsequent offence. The Authority can also prohibit the endorser of a misleading advertisement from endorsing any particular product or service for a period of up to one year.  For every subsequent offence, the period of prohibition may extend to three years.  There are certain exceptions when an endorser will not be held liable for such a penalty.

Are there any issues to think about in the Bill?

The 2018 Bill is a marked improvement over the 2015 Bill and addresses several issues in the 2015 Bill. However, two major issues with regard to the Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions remain. We discuss them below.

First issue is with regard to the composition of these Commissions. The Bill specifies that the Commissions will be headed by a ‘President’ and will comprise other members.  However, the Bill delegates the power of deciding the qualifications of the President and members to the central government.  It also does not specify that the President or members should have minimum judicial qualifications.  This is in contrast with the existing Consumer Protection Act, 1986, which states that the Commissions at various levels will be headed by a person qualified to be a judge.  The 1986 Act also specifies the minimum qualification of members.

Under the current Bill, if the Commissions were to have only non-judicial members, it may violate the principle of separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.  Since these Commissions are adjudicating bodies and will look at consumer dispute cases, it is unclear how a Commission that may comprise only non-judicial members will undertake this function.

Second issue is with regard to the method of appointment of members of the Commissions. The Bill permits the central government to notify the method of appointment of members of the Commissions.  It does not require that the selection involve members from the higher judiciary.  It may be argued that allowing the executive to determine the appointment of the members of Commissions could affect the independent functioning of the Commissions.  This provision is also at variance with the 1986 Act.  Under the Act, appointment of members to these Commissions is done through a selection committee.  These section committees comprise a judicial member.

As mentioned previously, the Commissions are intended to be quasi-judicial bodies, while the government is part of the executive.  There may be instances where the government is a party to a dispute relating to deficiency in service provided by a government enterprise, for e.g., the Railways.  In such a case, there would be a conflict of interest as the government would be a party to the dispute before the Commissions and will also have the power to appoint members to the Commission.

Amendments to the IBC: Implications for real estate allottees

July 26th, 2018 No comments

The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 was enacted to provide a time-bound process to resolve insolvency among companies and individuals.  Insolvency is a situation where an individual or company is unable to repay their outstanding debt.  Last month, the government promulgated the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Ordinance, 2018 amending certain provisions of the Code.  The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Second Amendment) Bill, 2018, which replaces this Ordinance, was introduced in Lok Sabha last week and is scheduled to be passed in the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament.  In light of this, we discuss some of the changes being proposed under the Bill and possible implications of such changes.

What was the need for amending the Code?

In November 2017, the Insolvency Law Committee was set up to review the Code, identify issues in its implementation, and suggest changes.  The Committee submitted its report in March 2018.  It made several recommendations, such as treating allottees under a real estate project as financial creditors, exempting micro, small and medium enterprises from certain provisions of the Code, reducing voting thresholds of the committee of creditors, among others.  Subsequently, the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Ordinance, 2018, was promulgated on June 6, 2018, incorporating these recommendations.

What amendments have been proposed regarding real estate allottees?

The Code defines a financial creditor as anyone who has extended any kind of loan or financial credit to the debtor.  The Bill clarifies that an allottee under a real estate project (a buyer of an under-construction residential or commercial property) will be considered as a financial creditor.  These allottees will be represented on the committee of creditors by an authorised representative who will vote on their behalf.

This committee is responsible for taking key decisions related to the resolution process, such as appointing the resolution professional, and approving the resolution plan to be submitted to the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT).  It also implies that real estate allottees can initiate a corporate insolvency resolution process against the debtor.

Can the amount raised by real estate allottees be considered as financial debt?

The Insolvency Law Committee (2017) had noted that the amount paid by allottees under a real estate project is a means of raising finance for the project, and hence would classify as financial debt.  It had also noted that, in certain cases, allottees provide more money towards a real estate project than banks.  The Bill provides that the amount raised from allottees during the sale of a real estate project would have the commercial effect of a borrowing, and therefore be considered as a financial debt for the real estate company (or the debtor).

However, it may be argued that the money raised from allottees under a real estate project is an advance payment for a future asset (or the property allotted to them).  It is not an explicit loan given to the developer against receipt of interest, or similar consideration for the time value of money, and therefore may not qualify as financial debt.

Do the amendments affect the priority of real estate allottees in the waterfall under liquidation?

During the corporate insolvency resolution process, a committee of creditors (comprising of all financial creditors) may choose to: (i) resolve the debtor company, or (ii) liquidate (sell) the debtor’s assets to repay loans.  If no decision is made by the committee within the prescribed time period, the debtor’s assets are liquidated to repay the debt.  In case of liquidation, secured creditors are paid first after payment of the resolution fees and other resolution costs.  Secured creditors are those whose loans are backed by collateral (security).  This is followed by payment of employee wages, and then payment to all the unsecured creditors.

While the Bill classifies allottees as financial creditors, it does not specify whether they would be treated as secured or unsecured creditors.  Therefore, their position in the order of priority is not clear.

What amendments have been proposed regarding Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs)?

Earlier this year, the Code was amended to prohibit certain persons from submitting a resolution plan.  These include: (i) wilful defaulters, (ii) promoters or management of the company if it has an outstanding non-performing asset (NPA) for over a year, and (iii) disqualified directors, among others.  Further, it barred the sale of property of a defaulter to such persons during liquidation.  One of the concerns raised was that in case of some MSMEs, the promoter may be the only person submitting a plan to revive the company.  In such cases, the defaulting firm will go into liquidation even if there could have been a viable resolution plan.

The Bill amends the criteria which prohibits certain persons from submitting a resolution plan.  For example, the Code prohibits a person from being a resolution applicant if his account has been identified as a NPA for more than a year.  The Bill provides that this criterion will not apply if such an applicant is a financial entity, and is not a related party to the debtor (with certain exceptions).  Further, if the NPA was acquired under a resolution plan under this Code, then this criterion will not apply for a period of three years (instead of one).  Secondly, the Code also bars a guarantor of a defaulter from being an applicant.  The Bill specifies that such a bar will apply if such guarantee has been invoked by the creditor and remains unpaid.

In addition to amending these criteria, the Bill also states that the ineligibility criteria for resolution applicants regarding NPAs and guarantors will not be applicable to persons applying for resolution of MSMEs.  The central government may, in public interest, modify or remove other provisions of the Code while applying them to MSMEs.

What are some of the other key changes being proposed?

The Bill also makes certain changes to the procedures under the Code.  Under the Code, all decisions of the committee of creditors have to be taken by a 75% majority of the financial creditors.  The Bill lowers this threshold to 51%.  For certain key decisions, such as appointment of a resolution professional, approving the resolution plan, and making structural changes to the company, the voting threshold has been reduced from 75% to 66%.

The Bill also provides for withdrawal of a resolution application, after the resolution process has been initiated with the NCLT.  Such withdrawal will have to be approved by a 90% vote of the committee of creditors.

Monsoon Session 2018: What to Expect

July 17th, 2018 No comments

The Monsoon Session of Parliament begins tomorrow and will continue till August 10, 2018.  It is scheduled to have 18 sittings during this period.  This post outlines what is in store in the upcoming session.

The session has a packed legislative agenda.  Presently, there are 68 Bills pending in Parliament.  Of these, 25 have been listed for consideration and passage.  In addition, 18 new Bills have been listed for introduction, consideration, and passage.  This implies that Parliament has the task of discussing and deliberating 43 Bills listed for passage in an 18-day sitting period.  Key among them include the Bills that are going to replace the six Ordinances currently in force.  The government is going to prioritize the passage of these six Bills to ensure that the Ordinances do not lapse.

Besides the heavy legislative agenda, the session will also witness the election of a new Deputy Chairman for the Upper House.  Former Deputy Chairman, P.J. Kurien’s term ended on July 1, 2018.  The upcoming election has generated keen interest, and will be closely watched.  The role of the Deputy Chairman is significant, as he quite frequently oversees the proceedings of the House.  The Deputy Chairman is responsible for maintaining order in the house and ensuring its smooth functioning.  The preceding Budget Session was the least productive since 2000 due to disruptions.  Rajya Sabha spent only 2 hours and 31 minutes discussing legislative business, of which 3 minutes were spent on government Bills.  In this context, the role of the Deputy Chairman is important in ensuring productivity of the house.

Another key player in ensuring productivity of Parliament is the Speaker of the Lower House.  In Budget Session 2018, the Speaker was unable to admit a no confidence motion.  This failure was based on her inability to bring the house in order.  Repeated disruptions led to the passage of only two Bills in Lok Sabha.  The same session also saw disruptions by certain MPs demanding special category status for Andhra Pradesh.  Between the last session and the upcoming session, a key development includes the resignation of five YRSC members, reducing the strength of MPs from Andhra Pradesh to 20.  In light of this, one has to wait to see whether the demand for special category status for Andhra Pradesh will be raised again.

Coming to the legislative agenda, of the six Bills that aim to replace Ordinances, key include: (i) the Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill, 2018, (ii) the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2018, (iii) the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Bill, 2018, and (iv) the Commercial Courts (Amendment) Bill, 2018.  The Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill aims to confiscate the properties of people who have absconded the country in order to avoid facing prosecution for economic offences.  The Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill, 2018 was introduced in Lok Sabha in March 2018.  Subsequently, an Ordinance was promulgated on April 21, 2018.  The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill increases the punishment for rape of women, and introduces death penalty for rape of minor girls below the age of 12.  The Insolvency and Bankruptcy (Amendment) Bill aims to address existing challenges in the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code.  It amends the Code to include homebuyers as financial creditors in the insolvency resolution process.

There are some Bills that have been passed by one house but are pending in the other, and some that are pending in both the houses.  These cut across various sectors, including social reform, education, health, consumer affairs, and transport.  Some key reformative legislation currently pending include the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016, and the Triple Talaq Bill.  The Triple Talaq Bill, passed on the day of introduction in Lok Sabha, is pending in Rajya Sabha.  When introduced in Rajya Sabha, the opposition introduced a motion to refer the Bill to a Select Committee.  In the forthcoming session, it remains to be seen whether the Bill will be sent to a Select Committee for detailed scrutiny or will be passed without reference to a Committee.  Other pending legislation include the the National Medical Commission Bill, 2017, the RTE (Second Amendment) Bill, 2017, the Consumer Protection Bill, 2018 and the Specific Relief (Amendment) Bill, 2017.

Of the 18 new Bills listed for introduction, all have been listed for consideration and passage as well.  These include the Trafficking of Persons Bill, 2018, the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, and amendments to the RTI Act.  Since they have been listed for passage, it remains to be seen whether these Bills are scheduled to be scrutinized by a Parliamentary Committee.  In the 16th Lok Sabha, only 28% of the Bills introduced in Lok Sabha have been referred to Committees.  This number is low in comparison to 60% and 71% of the introduced Bills being referred to Committees in the 14th and 15th Lok Sabha, respectively.  Committees ensure that Bills are closely examined.  This facilitates informed deliberation on the Bill, and strengthens the legislative process.

Besides taking up the legislative agenda, an important function of Parliament is to discuss issues of national importance and hold the government accountable.  In the previous session, the issue of irregularities in the banking sector was repeatedly listed for discussion.  However, due to disruptions, it was not taken up.  Budget Session 2018 saw the lowest number of non- legislative debates since the beginning of the 16th Lok Sabha.  In the upcoming session, it is likely that members will raise various issues for discussion.  It remains to be seen whether Parliament will function smoothly in order to power through its agenda, and fulfil its obligation to hold the government accountable.

 

Role of Parliament in holding the government accountable

November 22nd, 2017 No comments

Parliament sessions are usually held thrice a year: once in February for the Budget Session, once around July or August for the Monsoon Session, and once in November for the Winter Session.  This year, the government is yet to announce the dates for the Winter Session.  While there has been uncertainty around whether Parliament will meet, ministers in the government have indicated that the Session will be held soon.[1]

The practice of allowing the government to convene Parliament differs from those followed in other countries.  Some of these countries have a limited role for the government in summoning the legislature, because in a parliamentary democracy the executive is accountable to Parliament.  Allowing the government to call the Parliament to meet could be in conflict with this principle.  While we wait for the government to announce the dates for the Winter Session, this post looks at the relationship between Parliament and the government, recommendations made over the years on improving some parliamentary customs, and discusses certain practices followed by other countries.

What is the role of Parliament in a democracy?

The Constitution provides for the legislature to make laws, the government to implement laws, and the courts to interpret and enforce these laws.  While the judiciary is independent from the other two branches, the government is formed with the support of a majority of members in the legislature.  Therefore, the government is collectively responsible to Parliament for its actions.  This implies that Parliament (i.e. Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) can hold the government accountable for its decisions, and scrutinise its functioning.  This may be done using various methods including, during debates on Bills or issues on the floor of Parliament, by posing questions to ministers during Question Hour, and in parliamentary committees.

Who convenes Parliament?

Parliament must be convened by the President at least once in every six months.  Since the President acts on the advice of the central government, the duration of the session is decided by the government.

Given the legislature’s role in keeping the executive accountable for its actions, one argument is that the government should not have the power to convene Parliament.  Instead, Parliament should convene itself, if a certain number of MPs agree, so that it can effectively exercise its oversight functions and address issues without delay.  Some countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia release an annual calendar with the sitting dates at the beginning of the year.

How regularly has Parliament been meeting over the years?

Over the years, there has been a decline in the sitting days of Parliament.  While Lok Sabha met for an average of 130 days in a year during the 1950s, these sittings came down to 70 days in the 2000s.  Lesser number of sittings indicates that Parliament was able to transact less business compared to previous years.  To address this, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution has recommended that Lok Sabha should have at least 120 sittings in a year, while Rajya Sabha should have 100 sittings.[2] Sitting days of Parliament

The Constituent Assembly, while drafting the Constitution had debated the power that should be given to Parliament with regard to convening itself.  Mr. K. T. Shah, a member of the Assembly, had suggested that in case the President or the Prime Minister are unable or unwilling to call for a Parliament session, the power to convene the Houses should be given to the presiding officers of those Houses (i.e., the Chairman of Rajya Sabha and the Speaker of Lok Sabha).  In addition, he had also suggested that Parliament should itself regulate its procedure, sittings and timings.[3]

How does Parliament hold the government accountable?

One of the forums of holding the government accountable for its actions is the Question Hour.  During Question Hour, MPs may pose questions to ministers related to the implementation of laws and policies by the government.questions answered

In the 16th Lok Sabha, question hour has functioned in Lok Sabha for 77% of the scheduled time, while in Rajya Sabha it has functioned for 47%.  A lower rate of functioning reflects time lost due to disruptions which reduces the number of questions that may be answered orally.  While Parliament may sit for extra hours to transact other business, time lost during Question Hour is not made up.  Consequently, this time lost indicates a lost opportunity to hold the government accountable for its actions.

Further, there is no mechanism currently for answering questions which require inter-ministerial expertise or relate to broader government policy.  Since the Prime Minister does not answer questions other than the ones pertaining to his ministries, such questions may either not get adequately addressed or remain unanswered.  In countries such as the UK, the Prime Minister’s Question Time is conducted on a weekly basis.  During the 30 minutes the Prime Minister answers questions posed by various MPs.  These questions relate to broader government policies, engagements, and issues affecting the country.[4]

How is public opinion reflected in Parliament?

MPs may raise issues of public importance in Parliament, and examine the government’s response to problems being faced by citizens through: (i) a debate, which entails a reply by the concerned minister, or (ii) a motion which entails a vote.  The time allocated for discussing some of these debates or Bills is determined by the Business Advisory Committee of the House, consisting of members from both the ruling and opposition parties.

Using these methods, MPs may discuss important matters, policies, and topical issues.  The concerned minister while replying to the debate may make assurances to the House regarding steps that will be taken to address the situation.  As of August 2017, 50% of the assurances made in the 16th Lok Sabha have been implemented.[5] Motions

Alternatively, MPs may move a motion for: (i) discussing important issues (such as inflation, drought, and corruption), (ii) adjournment of business in a House in order to express displeasure over a government policy, or (iii) expressing no confidence in the government leading to its resignation.  The 16th Lok Sabha has only discussed one adjournment motion so far.

To improve government accountability in Parliament, the opposition in some countries such as the UK, Canada, and Australia forms a shadow cabinet.[6],[7]  Under such a system, opposition MPs track a certain portfolio, scrutinise its performance and suggest alternate programs.  This allows for detailed tracking and scrutiny of ministries, and assists MPs in making constructive suggestions.  Some of these countries also provide for days when the opposition parties decide the agenda for Parliament.

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[1] Sonia Gandhi accuses of Modi govt ‘sabotaging’ Parliament Winter session, Arun Jaitley rejects charge’, The Indian Express, November 20, 2017, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/jaitley-refutes-sonia-gandhis-charge-of-sabotaging-parliament-session-says-congress-too-had-delayed-sitting-4946482/; ‘Congress also rescheduled Parliament sessions: Arun Jaitley hits back at Sonia Gandhi’, The Times of India, November 20, 2017, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/congress-also-rescheduled-parliament-sessions-arun-jaitley-hits-back-at-sonia-gandhi/articleshow/61726787.cms.

[2]  Parliament and State Legislatures, Chapter 5, National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, March 31, 2002, http://lawmin.nic.in/ncrwc/finalreport/v1ch5.htm.

[3] Constituent Assembly Debates, May 18, 1949.

[4]  Prime Minister’s Question Time, Parliament of the United Kingdom, http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/business/questions/.

[5]  Lok Sabha and Session Wise Report of Assurances in Lok Sabha, Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, http://www.mpa.gov.in/mpa/print_summary_lses_ls.aspx.

[6]  Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, Parliament of the United Kingdom, http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/government-and-opposition1/opposition-holding/.

[7]  Current Shadow Ministry List, Parliament of Australia, http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/Parliamentary_Handbook/Shadow.

Rajya Sabha extends sitting hours, changes timing of Question Hour

November 14th, 2014 6 comments

Recently the Chairman of Rajya Sabha issued a direction to extend the sitting hours and change the timing of Question Hour in the Upper House. Beginning with the Winter Session, which starts on November 24, Rajya Sabha will meet from 11 am to 6 pm, an hour more than its typical sitting hours. Question Hour will be scheduled from 12 pm to 1 pm, which was earlier held in the first hour of meeting.

Members of Parliament (MPs), in addition to their legislative capacity, play an important role to keep the government accountable. One mechanism for them to hold the government responsible for its policies and actions is Question Hour in Parliament. During Question Hour, MPs raise questions to Ministers on various policy matters and decisions.

Currently, all MPs can submit up to ten questions for every day that Parliament is in Session. Of these, 250 Questions are picked up by a random ballot to be answered each day that Parliament meets. While 230 Questions are answered in writing by Ministries, 20 Questions are scheduled to be answered orally by Ministers on the floor of the House. When a Question is answered orally by a Minister, MPs are also able to ask him/her two Supplementary Questions as a follow up to the response given. Therefore the proper functioning of Question Hour allows Parliament to be effective in its accountability function.

Over the years Question Hour has become a major casualty to disruptions in Parliament. The last decade has seen a decline in the number of questions answered orally on the floor of the House. Rajya Sabha had tried to address this problem in 2011, when Question Hour was shifted to be held from 2 pm to 3 pm, but this was discontinued within a few days.

Percentage of Questions Answered Orally

The 2014 Budget Session saw both Houses of Parliament work for over hundred percent of their scheduled sitting time. However, while Question Hour functioned for 87% of its scheduled time in Lok Sabha, it functioned for only 40% of its scheduled time in Rajya Sabha. In 13 of the 27 sittings of the 2014 Budget Session, Question Hour in Rajya Sabha was adjourned within a few minutes due to disruptions.

It was as a result of these increasing disruptions in the Upper House that the change in timing of the Question Hour and extension of its hours of sitting were proposed. While the Rules of Procedures of Rajya Sabha designate the first hour of sitting for Question Hour, they also allow the Chairman of the House to direct otherwise. It is using this Rule that the Chairman of Rajya Sabha, Mr. Hamid Ansari, issued directions for the Question Hour to be shifted to noon.

It now remains to be seen whether this change in timing of Question Hour in the Upper House will be sufficient to allow for its smoother functioning.

Sources:

M.N. Kaul and S.L. Shakdher, Practice and Procedure of Parliament, Lok Sabha Secretariat, 6th Edition, 2009

Rajya Sabha Rules of Procedure, Rajya Sabha Secretariat, 2010

 

Legislative performance of State Assemblies

May 27th, 2014 2 comments

As the dust settles around the 16th Lok Sabha, attention must now shift to the state assemblies, some of which have been newly constituted like Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and the few that will go into elections in the next few months like Maharashtra and Haryana. There are 30 state legislative assemblies not including the newly formed state of Seemandhara. In our federal structure, laws framed by the state assemblies are no less important and deserve the same diligence and debate as laws made by Parliament.

A brief look in to the performance of some of our state assemblies reveals that these institutions which form the cornerstones of our democracy need some serious attention.

State Assemblies: business hours

The current Haryana Legislative Assembly that comes to the end of its five year term in October this year has held 10 sessions since 2009 till March 2014, meeting for a total of 54 days – an average of 11 days per year.

In comparison, the Lok Sabha sat for an average of 69 days each year from 2009 to 2014. Among state assemblies, only Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh sat for fewer days than Haryana. In the same period the Kerala Assembly sat for an average of 50 days per year, while Tamil Nadu Assembly sat for 44 days.

In its previous term, the Gujarat Legislative Assembly sat for a total of 157 days – an average of 31 days each year. Similarly, the current Goa Legislative Assembly sat for 24 days in 2012 and for 39 days in 2013. Over the last 10 years, the Assembly sat for an average of 26 days a year.  It recorded the highest number of sitting days in the last 10 years, at 39 days.

Law making in the states

In most states, Bills are passed with little or no discussion. Most Bills are introduced and passed on the last day of each session, which gives Members hardly any opportunity to examine or discuss legislation in detail. Unlike Parliament, where most Bills are referred to a department related standing committee which studies the Bill in greater detail, in most states such committees are non-existent.  The exceptions are Kerala which has constituted subject committees for this purpose and states like Goa and Himachal Pradesh where Select Committees are constituted for important Bills.

The current Haryana Assembly has passed 129 Bills, all of which were passed on the same day as they were introduced. Upto 23 Bills were passed on a single day, which left hardly any time for substantial discussion.

In the twelfth Gujarat Assembly, over 90% of all Bills were passed on the same day as they were introduced. In the Budget Session of 2011, 31 Bills were passed of which 21 were introduced and passed within three sitting days.

Of the 40 Bills passed by the Goa Assembly till May 2013, three Bills were referred to Select Committees. Excluding Appropriation Bills, the Assembly passed 32 Bills, which were taken up together for discussion and passing in five days. Almost all Bills were passed within three days of introduction. On average, each Bill was discussed for four minutes.

In 2012, the West Bengal Legislative Assembly passed a total of 39 Bills, including Appropriation Bills.  Most Bills were passed on the same day they were introduced in the Assembly.  In 2011, a total of 23 Bills were passed. On average, five Members participated in the discussions on each Bill. In 2012, the Delhi Legislative Assembly passed 11 Bills. Only one of the 11 Bills was discussed for more than 10 minutes. The performance of the Chhattisgarh and Bihar Vidhan Sabhas follow the same pattern.

Over the last few years, some assemblies such as Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana have taken some positive steps which include setting up subject committees and permitting live telecast of Assembly proceedings.

Every legislator- in Parliament and the states – is accountable to his voter. Weak democratic institutions deprive legislators of their right to oversee the government as enshrined in the Constitution. Inadequate number of sitting days, lack of discussion on Bills, and passing of the Budget and demands for grants without discussion are symptoms of institutional ennui and do not do justice to the enormous import of these legislative bodies.

Serious thought and public debate is needed to reinvigorate these ‘temples of democracy’ and provide elected representatives with the opportunity to exercise their right to legislative scrutiny, hold government to account, and represent their constituents.

16वीं लोकसभा- मौके हैं तो मुश्किलें भी

May 20th, 2014 1 comment

हम सबने यह देखा है कि भारतीय संसदीय इतिहास में 15वीं लोकसभा का कार्यकाल सबसे निराशाजनक में से एक रहा। कमोबेश निर्धारित समय का 40 फीसद बाधित रहा। पूर्ण लोकसभा के कार्यकाल में सबसे कम बिल पारित हुए। इससे न केवल सरकार के विधायी कार्य गंभीर रूप से बाधित हुए बल्कि अपने निर्वाचिकों का प्रतिनिधित्व करते हुए हमारे सांसद सरकार को जवाबदेह बनाने के मौके से भी वंचित रहे। अक्सर बाधित रहने, पेपर स्प्रे कांड, कार्यवाही का वाकआउट और लोकसभा अध्यक्ष द्वारा बार-बार व्यवस्था बनाए रखने की मनुहार करते रहने वाकयों के लिए 15वीं लोकसभा याद की जाती रही। अब जब 15वीं लोकसभा अपने कार्यकाल की समाप्ति की ओर पहुंच चुकी है, तो ऐसा लगता है कि यह महत्वपूर्ण संस्था अपनी साख और विश्वसनीयता खोती दिख रही है। ऐसे में 16वीं लोकसभा से इसकी साख और विश्वसनीयता बरकरार रखने की लोगों की अपेक्षाएं और आकांक्षाएं ज्यादा बढ़ जाती हैं।

विधायी एजेंडा

राज्यसभा में मौजूदा समय में 60 बिल लंबित हैं। इनमें राइट्स ऑफ पर्सन्स विद डिसएबिलिटीज बिल भी शामिल है। लोगों को विशिष्ट पहचान संख्या जारी करने के लिए स्थापित किए जाने वाले राष्ट्रीय पहचान प्राधिकरण संबंधी नेशनल आइडेंटीफिकेशन अथॉरिटी ऑफ इंडिया बिल और भ्रष्टाचार को रोकने के लिए भ्रष्टाचार निरोधक (संशोधन) बिल भी लंबित हैं। इनमें से कई बिलों के अपने खास महत्व हैं और ये बड़ी संख्या में लोगों को प्रभावित करते हैं। नई गठित लोकसभा को इन बिलों को पारित करने को अपनी प्राथमिकता में लेना होगा।

इसके अतिरिक्त भ्रष्टाचार को रोकने संबंधी बिलों का एक पूरा समूह है जिसे पूर्व की लोकसभा में सिरे नहीं चढ़ाया जा सका। भ्रष्टाचार से निपटने के लिए संसद में पेश किए गए इन नौ बिलों में से केवल तीन ही दोनों सदनों से पारित किए जा सके हैं। बचे हुए छह बिल सिटिजन चार्टर, इलेक्ट्रॉनिक सर्विस डिलीवरी, बेनामी ट्रांजैक्शन, सरकारी खरीदफरोख्त, ज्युडिशियल स्टैंडर्ड और प्रीवेंशन ऑफ ब्राइबेरी ऑफ फॉरेन ऑफिशियल लैप्स हो चुके हैं। वित्तीय और आर्थिक क्षेत्रों से जुड़े कुछ अहम बिल जैसे जीएसटी बिल, डायरेक्ट कोड बिल, माइक्रोफाइनेंस बिल और माइंस व मिनरल्स बिल पिछली लोकसभा से नहीं पारित कराए जा सके।

संसद को मजबूती

हमारे प्रतिनिधि लोकतंत्र में चुने गए प्रतिनिधि अपने मतदाताओं के प्रति जवाबदेह होते हैं। अपने वर्तमान स्वरूप में एंटी डिफेक्शन लॉ हमारे लोकतंत्र की स्वत: स्फूर्त प्रक्रिया चेक एंड बैलेंस को कमजोर करता है। इस बिल का मकसद सरकार की अस्थिरता को कम करना था, लेकिन यह सांसदों के उनके निर्वाचकों के हितों की आवाज उठाने की स्वतंत्रता को सीमित करता दिखता है। 15वीं लोकसभा में करीब एक चौथाई बिल 30 मिनट के भीतर ही पारित हो गए जिसका आशय यह है कि व्यावहारिक रूप से इनको लेकर कोई बहस नहीं हुई। 25 फीसद से कम बिलों पर तीन घंटे से अधिक की बहस हुई। यह संकेत देता है कि महत्वपूर्ण मसलों से संबंधी बिल अक्सर अपर्याप्त बहस और समझ के ही पारित हो रहे हैं। नई लोकसभा को अपने सांसदों को उचित मौके और पर्याप्त समय देना चाहिए जिससे वे किसी बिल को लेकर अपनी राय जाहिर कर सकें और बिल को पारित करने से पहले उसके विभिन्न प्रावधानों के निहितार्थ सामने आ सकें। अधिकांश बिल ध्वनिमत से पारित हो जाते हैं। इसमें किसी को यह पता नहीं चलता कि इस पर प्रत्येक सांसद ने कैसे और किस तरह वोट किया। किसी बिल पर सांसदों द्वारा किए गए वोट को सार्वजनिक किया जाना चाहिए। इससे सांसदों और संसद की कार्यशैली में बहुत बड़ी पारदर्शिता और जवाबदेही लायी जा सकती है। कुछ अन्य सीमाएं भी अस्तित्व में हैं जो संसद को ज्यादा प्रभावी होने के आड़े आती हैं। इनमें सांसदों को उनके संसदीय उत्तरदायित्व निभाने के लिए रिसर्च की अपर्याप्त मदद, एक कमजोर कमेटी प्रणाली जिसकी कार्यप्रणाली पारदर्शी नहीं है, विधायी जांच और फीडबैक से पहले की प्रक्रिया की कमी, सदन में मामलों को उठाने के लिए सांसदों के पास पर्याप्त समय की अनुपलब्धता आदि शामिल हैं। इन बाधाओं को दूर करके नई गठित लोकसभा के सदस्य अपना उत्तरदायित्व प्रभावी तरीके से संपन्न कर पाएंगे।

संसद उन कुछ चुनिंदा संस्थाओं में है जिसे हमारे पूर्वजों ने इस भरोसे के साथ हमें सौंपा है जिस पर हम तर्कसंगत तरीके से गर्व कर सकें। 16वीं लोकसभा के हमारे प्रतिनिधियों के पास अब उस दायित्व को पूरा करने के लिए वह मौका और चुनौती है जिसकी मदद से हम सब अधिक विचारात्मक और सृजनात्मक लोकतंत्र की ओर आगे बढ़ सकें।

– This article was published in Dainik Jagran on May 18, 2014.

Ordinance making powers of the Executive in India

September 27th, 2013 18 comments

In light of the decision of the union cabinet to promulgate an Ordinance to uphold provisions of the Representation of People Act, 1951, this blog examines the Ordinance making power of the Executive in India.  The Ordinance allows legislators (Members of Parliament and Members of Legislative Assemblies) to retain membership of the legislature even after conviction, if

(a)     an appeal against the conviction is filed before a court within 90 days and

(b)     the appeal is stayed by the court.

However, the Ordinance will only be promulgated after it receives the assent of the President.

I. Separation of powers between the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary

In India, the central and state legislatures are responsible for law making, the central and state governments are responsible for the implementation of laws and the judiciary (Supreme Court, High Courts and lower courts) interprets these laws.

However, there are several overlaps in the functions and powers of the three institutions.  For example, the President has certain legislative and judicial functions and the legislature can delegate some of its functions to the executive in the form of subordinate legislation.

II. Ordinance making powers of the President

Article 123 of the Constitution grants the President certain law making powers to promulgate Ordinances when either of the two Houses of Parliament is not in session and hence it is not possible to enact laws in the Parliament.[i]

An Ordinance may relate to any subject that the Parliament has the power to legislate on. Conversely, it has the same limitations as the Parliament to legislate, given the distribution of powers between the Union, State and Concurrent Lists. Thus, the following limitations exist with regard to the Ordinance making power of the executive:

i.   Legislature is not in session: The President can only promulgate an Ordinance when either of the two Houses of Parliament is not in session.

ii.   Immediate action is required: The President cannot promulgate an Ordinance unless he is satisfied that there are circumstances that require taking ‘immediate action’[ii].

iii.   Parliamentary approval during session: Ordinances must be approved by Parliament within six weeks of reassembling or they shall cease to operate.  They will also cease to operate in case resolutions disapproving the Ordinance are passed by both the Houses.  

Figure 1 shows the number of Ordinances that have been promulgated in India since 1990.  The largest number of Ordinances was promulgated in 1993, and there has been a decline in the number of Ordinance promulgated since then.  However, the past year has seen a rise in the number of Ordinances promulgated.

           Figure 1: Number of national Ordinances promulgated in India since 1990

Ordinances PromulgatedSource: Ministry of Law and Justice; Agnihotri, VK (2009) ‘The Ordinance: Legislation by the Executive in India when the Parliament is not in Session’; PRS Legislative Research

III. Ordinance making powers of the Governor

Just as the President of India is constitutionally mandated to issue Ordinances under Article 123, the Governor of a state can issue Ordinances under Article 213, when the state legislative assembly (or either of the two Houses in states with bicameral legislatures) is not in session.  The powers of the President and the Governor are broadly comparable with respect to Ordinance making.  However, the Governor cannot issue an Ordinance without instructions from the President in three cases where the assent of the President would have been required to pass a similar Bill.[iii]

IV. Key debates relating to the Ordinance making powers of the Executive

There has been significant debate surrounding the Ordinance making power of the President (and Governor).  Constitutionally, important issues that have been raised include judicial review of the Ordinance making powers of the executive; the necessity for ‘immediate action’ while promulgating an Ordinance; and the granting of Ordinance making powers to the executive, given the principle of separation of powers.

Table 1 provides a brief historical overview of the manner in which the debate on the Ordinance making powers of the executive has evolved in India post independence.

Table 1: Key debates on the President’s Ordinance making power

Year

Legislative development

Key arguments

1970 RC Cooper vs. Union of India In RC Cooper vs. Union of India (1970) the Supreme Court, while examining the constitutionality of the Banking Companies (Acquisition of Undertakings) Ordinance, 1969 which sought to nationalise 14 of India’s largest commercial banks, held that the President’s decision could be challenged on the grounds that ‘immediate action’ was not required; and the Ordinance had been passed primarily to by-pass debate and discussion in the legislature.
1975 38th Constitutional Amendment Act Inserted a new clause (4) in Article 123 stating that the President’s satisfaction while promulgating an Ordinance was final and could not be questioned in any court on any ground.
1978 44th Constitutional Amendment Act Deleted clause (4) inserted by the 38th CAA and therefore reopened the possibility for the judicial review of the President’s decision to promulgate an Ordinance.
1980 AK Roy vs. Union of India In AK Roy vs. Union of India (1982) while examining the constitutionality of the National Security Ordinance, 1980, which sought to provide for preventive detention in certain cases, the Court argued that the President’s Ordinance making power is not beyond the scope of judicial review. However, it did not explore the issue further as there was insufficient evidence before it and the Ordinance was replaced by an Act. It also pointed out the need to exercise judicial review over the President’s decision only when there were substantial grounds to challenge the decision, and not at “every casual and passing challenge”.
1985 T Venkata Reddy vs. State of Andhra Pradesh In T Venkata Reddy vs. State of Andhra Pradesh (1985), while deliberating on the promulgation of the Andhra Pradesh Abolition of Posts of Part-time Village Officers Ordinance, 1984 which abolished certain village level posts, the Court reiterated that the Ordinance making power of the President and the Governor was a legislative power, comparable to the legislative power of the Parliament and state legislatures respectively. This implies that the motives behind the exercise of this power cannot be questioned, just as is the case with legislation by the Parliament and state legislatures.
1987 DC Wadhwa vs. State of Bihar It was argued in DC Wadhwa vs. State of Bihar (1987) the legislative power of the executive to promulgate Ordinances is to be used in exceptional circumstances and not as a substitute for the law making power of the legislature.  Here, the court was examining a case where a state government (under the authority of the Governor) continued to re-promulgate ordinances, that is, it repeatedly issued new Ordinances to replace the old ones, instead of laying them before the state legislature.  A total of 259 Ordinances were re-promulgated, some of them for as long as 14 years.  The Supreme Court argued that if Ordinance making was made a usual practice, creating an ‘Ordinance raj’ the courts could strike down re-promulgated Ordinances.
Source: Basu, DD (2010) Introduction to the Constitution of India; Singh, Mahendra P. (2008) VN Shukla’s Constitution of India; PRS Legislative Research

 

This year, the following 9 Ordinances have been promulgated:

  1. The Securities Laws (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013
  2. The Readjustment of Representation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in Parliamentary and Assembly Constituencies Second Ordinance, 2013
  3. The Securities and Exchange Board of India (Amendment) Second Ordinance, 2013
  4. The National Food Security Ordinance, 2013
  5. The Indian Medical Council (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013
  6. The Securities and Exchange Board of India (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013
  7. The Readjustment of Representation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in Parliamentary and Assembly Constituencies Ordinance, 2013
  8. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013
  9. The Securities Laws (Amendment) Second Ordinance, 2013

Three of these Ordinances have been re-promulgated, i.e., a second Ordinance has been promulgated to replace an existing one.  This seems to be in violation of the Supreme Court’s decision in DC Wadhwa vs. State of Bihar.

 


Notes:

[i] With regard to issuing Ordinances as with other matters, the President acts on the advice of the Council of Ministers. While the Ordinance is promulgated in the name of the President and constitutionally to his satisfaction, in fact, it is promulgated on the advice of the Council of Ministers.

[ii] Article 123, Clause (1)

[iii]  (a) if a Bill containing the same provisions would have required the previous sanction of the President for introduction into the legislature;

(b) if the Governor would have deemed it necessary to reserve a Bill containing the same provisions for the consideration of the President; and

(c) if an Act of the legislature containing the same provisions would have been invalid unless it received the assent of the President.

Status of Legislation in the 15th Lok Sabha

August 19th, 2013 3 comments

The ongoing Monsoon Session of Parliament is being widely viewed as the ‘make or break’ session for passing legislation before the end of the 15th Lok Sabha in 2014. Hanging in balance are numerous important Bills, which will lapse if not passed before the upcoming 2014 national elections.

Data indicates that the current Lok Sabha has passed the least number of Bills in comparison to other comparable Lok Sabhas. The allocated time to be spent on legislation in the Monsoon Session is also below the time recommended for discussion and passing of Bills by the Business Advisory Committee of the Lok Sabha. Eight out of a total of 16 sittings of the Monsoon Session have finished with only 15 percent of the total time spent productively.

Success rate of the 15th Lok Sabha in passing legislation

India’s first Lok Sabha (1952-1957)  passed a total of 333 Bills in its five year tenure. Since then, every Lok Sabha which has completed over three years of its full term has passed an average of 317 Bills. Where a Lok Sabha has lasted for less than 3 years, it has passed an average of 77 Bills. This includes the 6th, 9th, 11th and 12th Lok Sabhas. The ongoing 15th Lok Sabha, which is in the fifth year of its tenure, has passed only 151 Bills (This includes the two Bills passed in the Monsoon Session as of August 18, 2013).

In terms of parliamentary sessions, Lok Sabhas that have lasted over three years have had an average of fifteen sessions. The 15th Lok Sabha has finished thirteen parliamentary sessions with the fourteenth (Monsoon Session) currently underway.

Bills Passed by Lok Sabhas

Legislative business accomplished in the 15th Lok Sabha

For the 15th Lok Sabha, a comparison of the government’s legislative agenda at the beginning of a parliamentary session with the actual number of Bills introduced and passed at the end of the session shows that: (i) on average, government has a success rate of getting 39 percent of Bills passed; and (ii) on average, 60 percent success rate in getting Bills introduced.

final2.2

final2.3

The Monsoon Session of Parliament was scheduled to have a total of 16 sitting days between August 5-30, 2013. Of the 43 Bills listed for consideration and passage, 32 are Bills pending from previous sessions. As of August 18, 2013, the Rajya Sabha had passed a total of five Bills while the Lok Sabha had passed none. Of the 25 Bills listed for introduction, ten have been introduced so far.

The Budget Session of Parliament earlier this year saw the passage of only two Bills, apart from the appropriation Bills,  of the 38 listed for passing. These were the Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill and the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill.

Time allocated for legislation in the Monsoon Session

The Lok Sabha is scheduled to meet for six hours and the Rajya Sabha for five hours every day.  Both houses have a question hour and a zero hour at the beginning of the day, which leaves four hours for legislative business in the Lok Sabha and three hours in the Rajya Sabha. However, both Houses can decide to meet for a longer duration. For example, Rajya Sabha has decided to meet till 6:00 PM every day in the Monsoon Session as against the normal working hours of the House until 5:00 PM.

The Business Advisory Committee (BAC) of both Houses recommends the time that should be allocated for discussion on each Bill. This session’s legislative agenda includes a total of 43 Bills to be passed by Parliament.  So far, 30 of the Bills have been allocated time by the BAC, adding up to a total of 78 hours of discussion before passing.

If the Lok Sabha was to discuss and debate the 30 Bills for roughly the same time as was recommended by the BAC, it would need a minimum of 20 working days.  In addition, extra working days would need to be allocated to discuss and debate the remaining 13 Bills.

With eight sitting days left and not a single Bill being passed by the Lok Sabha, it is unclear how the Lok Sabha will be able to make up the time to pass Bills with thorough debate.

 

House of Lost Opportunities

The last few days have seen repeated disruptions in Parliament. In an Opinion Editorial published in the Indian Express, Chakshu Roy of PRS Legislative Research discusses the impact of the current disruptions on Parliament. His analysis points to how disruptions are an opportunity lost  to hold the government accountable and to deliberate on significant legislative and policy issues.

The second half of the budget session commenced last week with hardly any business transacted due to disruptions on different issues. This is not new. The 15th Lok Sabha has seen entire parliamentary sessions lost without any work being done. As it nears the end of its term, Parliament’s productive time stands at 70 per cent, which is significantly lower than that of previous Lok Sabhas.

As disruptions in Parliament have become routine, public reaction to such disruptions has also become predictable. Figures depicting the quantum of taxpayers’ money lost every hour that Parliament does not function start doing the rounds, and the cry for docking the salary of disrupting members of Parliament becomes louder. What does not get adequate attention is the opportunity lost for holding the government accountable and deliberating on important legislative and policy issues.

MPs are required to keep the government in check and oversee its functioning. One of the ways in which they do so is by asking ministers questions about the work done by their ministries. Ministers respond to such questions during the first hour of Parliament, which is known as question hour. During this hour, 20 questions are slotted for oral responses by ministers. Based on the response, MPs can cross-question and corner the minister by asking supplementary questions. On certain occasions, they are also able to extract assurances from the minister to take action on certain issues. When question hour is disrupted, not only are these opportunities lost, it also leads to ineffective scrutiny of the work done by the various ministries of the government. Last week, some of the questions that could not be orally answered related to four-laning of highways, performance of public sector steel companies, supply of food grains for welfare schemes, and generic versions of cancer drugs. In 2012, out of the 146 hours allocated for question hour in both Houses of Parliament, roughly only 57 hours were utilised. Since the beginning of the 15th Lok Sabha in 2009, approximately 43 per cent of the allocated time has been spent on question hour.

When Parliament is disrupted regularly, its capacity to make laws is affected. Excluding routine financial legislation, since 2009, the government had planned to introduce 390 bills. So far, it has been able to introduce only 187 of them. It had also planned to have 365 bills scrutinised and passed by Parliament. So far, 96 of them have received parliamentary approval. Disruptions in Parliament also eat into the time available for discussing a bill in the house. In Lok Sabha, roughly 35 per cent of bills were passed with an hour or less of debate, a case being the sexual harassment bill, which was passed by Lok Sabha in September of last year in 16 minutes. Some would argue that since parliamentary committees scrutinise most bills in detail, there is no harm done if the bills are not debated in the House. However scrutiny of a bill behind closed doors is hardly a substitute for spirited debates on the merits and demerits of a bill on the floor of the House. Currently there are 115 bills awaiting parliamentary scrutiny and approval. Important social and economic legislation is currently pending before Parliament. The food security bill, the land acquisition bill, the companies and the goods and services tax bill are just a few of them.

Out of the laundry list of pending bills, some are political and may be stuck in Parliament till consensus around them can be built. But there are a number of bills that are administrative in nature, and have no political undercurrents and are possibly not coming up for discussion because of the limited time that is available for legislative debate on account of frequent disruptions.

In September 1997, to celebrate the golden jubilee of the country’s Independence, a special session of Parliament was convened. At this special session, MPs had resolved to preserve and enhance the dignity of Parliament by adhering to the rules of procedure of Parliament relating to the orderly conduct of parliamentary proceedings. Last year, Parliament completed 60 years since its first sitting. To mark the occasion, another special session of both Houses was convened, where MPs had resolved to uphold the dignity, sanctity and supremacy of Parliament. Ensuring that the proceedings of both Houses run smoothly so that Parliament can discharge its responsibility effectively is the best way of ensuring its supremacy. The question that needs to be asked is whether our members of Parliament are ready to stand by the resolutions that they voluntarily adopted.