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Pre-legislative scrutiny: How can citizens be more actively involved?

December 18th, 2010 1 comment

In recent public discourse over lobbying, two issues that have underscored the debate are:

  1. Greater transparency in the policymaking process, and
  2. Equality of access for all stakeholders in engaging with the process.

There is a need to build linkages between citizens and the policy making process, especially by strengthening scrutiny before a Bill is introduced in Parliament. Currently, there is no process established to ensure pre-legislative scrutiny by the citizenry.

Other democracies incorporate several measures to enhance public engagement in the pre-legislative process. These include:

  • Making all Bills available in the public domain for a stipulated period before introducing them in the legislature. This includes, publishing these Bills in forms (language, medium etc) that are accessible to the general public.
  • Making a report or Green paper on the legislative priorities addressed by the Bill available for citizens.
  • Forming adhoc committees to scrutinise the Bill before it is piloted in the House.
  • Having Standing Committees examine the Bill before introducing it in the House.
  • Providing a financial memorandum for each Bill, which specifies the budgetary allocation for the process/bodies created by the Bill.
  • Creating online fora for discussion. For the sections of the stakeholders who have limited access to the internet, efforts are made to proactively consult them through other media.
  • Expanding the purview of citizens’ right to petition their representatives with legislative proposals.

There are several instances, in the last few years itself, wherein civil society groups have played an active role in the development of pre-legislative scrutiny in India.

  • Public consultation with cross-section of stakeholders when drafting a Bill: The Right to Information Act is seen as a landmark legislation when highlighting the role of civil society actors in the drafting of a Bill.  It also serves as a prime example for how it the movement mobilised widespread public opinion for the Bill, bringing together different sections of the citizenry.
  • Public feedback on draft Bills: In several cases, after a Bill has been drafted the concerned ministry or public body publishes the Bill, inviting public comments. The Right to Education Bill, the National Identification Authority Bill and the Draft Direct Taxes Code Bill 2009 are recent cases in point. These announcements are made through advertisements published in newspapers and other media. For instance, the government has recently proposed to amend the rules of the RTI and has invited public feedback on the rules by December 27.
  • Engaging with legislators: It is important to expand engagement with lawmakers after the Bill has been introduced in Parliament, as they will determine what the law will finally contain.  This is done by approaching individual legislators or members of the committee which is likely to examine the legislation. Standing Committees invite feedback on the Bill through newspaper advertisements.  For instance, the Standing Committee examining the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill heard testimonies from journalists, civil society groups, thinktanks, public bodies and government departments.

The role of the media and channelising the potential of the internet are other key approaches that need to be explored. Other examples and channels of engagement with the legislative process are illustrated in the PRS Primer on Engaging with Policymakers

Land Acquisition: Public realm, private gain

September 8th, 2010 4 comments

One of the most politically contentious issues in recent times has been the government’s right to acquire land for ‘public purpose’.  Increasingly, farmers are refusing to part with their land without adequate compensation, the most recent example being the agitation in Uttar Pradesh over the acquisition of land for the Yamuna Express Highway.

Presently, land acquisition in India is governed by the Land Acquisition Act, an archaic law passed more than a century ago in 1894.  According to the Act, the government has the right to acquire private land without the consent of the land owners if the land is acquired for a “public purpose” project (such as development of towns and village sites, building of schools, hospitals and housing and state run corporations).  The land owners get only the current price value of the land as compensation.  The key provision that has triggered most of the discontent is the one that allows the government to acquire land for private companies if it is for a “public purpose” project.  This has led to conflict over issues of compensation, rehabilitation of displaced people and the type of land that is being acquired.

The UPA government introduced the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill in conjunction with the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill on December 6, 2007 in the Lok Sabha and referred them to the Standing Committee on Rural Development for scrutiny.  The Committee submitted its report on October 21, 2008 but the Bills lapsed at the end of the 14th Lok Sabha.  The government is planning to introduce revised versions of the Bills.  The following paragraphs discuss the lapsed Bills to give some idea of the government’s perspective on the issue while analysing the lacunae in the Bills.

The Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, 2007 redefined “public purpose” to allow land acquisition only for defence purposes, infrastructure projects, or any project useful to the general public where 70% of the land had already been purchased from willing sellers through the free market.  It prohibited land acquisition for companies unless they had already purchased 70% of the required land.  The Bill also made it mandatory for the government to conduct a social impact assessment if land acquisition resulted in displacement of 400 families in the plains or 200 families in the hills or tribal areas.  The compensation was to be extended to tribals and individuals with tenancy rights under state laws.  The compensation was based on many factors such as market rates, the intended use of the land, and the value of standing crop.  A Land Acquisition Compensation Disputes Settlement Authority was to be established to adjudicate disputes.

The Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2007 sought to provide for benefits and compensation to people displaced by land acquisition or any other involuntary displacements.  The Bill created project-specific authorities to formulate, implement and monitor the rehabilitation process.  It also outlined minimum benefits for displaced families such as land, house, monetary compensation, skill training and preference for jobs.  A grievance redressal system was also provided for.

Although the Bills were a step in the right direction, many issues still remained unresolved.  Since the Land Acquisition Bill barred the civil courts from entertaining any disputes related to land acquisition, it was unclear whether there was a mechanism by which a person could challenge the qualification of a project as “public purpose”.  Unlike the Special Economic Zone Act, 2005, the Bill did not specify the type of land that could be acquired (such as waste and barren lands).  The Bill made special provision for land taken in the case of ‘urgency’.  However, it did not define the term urgency, which could lead to confusion and misuse of the term.

The biggest loop-hole in the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill was the use of non-binding language.  Take for example Clause 25, which stated that “The Government may, by notification, declare any area…as a resettlement area.” Furthermore, Clause 36(1) stated that land for land “shall be allotted…if Government land is available.”  The government could effectively get away with not providing many of the benefits listed in the Bill.  Also, most of the safeguards and benefits were limited to families affected by large-scale displacements (400 or more families in the plains and 200 or more families in the hills and tribal areas).  The benefits for affected families in case of smaller scale displacements were not clearly spelt out.  Lastly, the Bill stated that compensation to displaced families should be borne by the requiring body (body which needs the land for its projects).  Who would bear the expenditure of rehabilitation in case of natural disasters remained ambiguous.

If India is to attain economic prosperity, the government needs to strike a balance between the need for development and protecting the rights of people whose land is being acquired.

Kaushiki Sanyal

The article was published in Sahara Time (Issue dated September 4, 2010, page 36)

How is a law enacted in Parliament?

March 17th, 2010 No comments

Because of the interest in the Women’s Reservation Bill and the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, we’ve received a number of queries about the process by which a bill becomes an Act.

We have a more comprehensive primer on the subject, but here’s the process in brief:

• The ministry drafts a text of the proposed law, which is called a ‘Bill’, after calling comments from other ministries, and even from the public.  The draft is revised to incorporate such inputs and is then vetted by the Law Ministry. It is then presented to the Cabinet for approval.

• After the Cabinet approves the Bill, it is introduced in Parliament. In Parliament, it goes through three Readings in both Houses.

• During the First Reading the Bill is introduced. The introduction of a Bill may be opposed and the matter may be put to a vote in the House.

• After a Bill has been introduced, the Bill may be referred to the concerned Departmentally Related Standing Committee for examination.

• The Standing Committee considers the broad objectives and the specific clauses of the Bill referred to it and may invite public comments on a Bill. It then submits its recommendations in the form of a report to Parliament.

• In the Second Reading (Consideration), the Bill is scrutinized thoroughly. Each clause of the Bill is discussed and may be accepted, amended or rejected. The government, or any MP, may introduce amendments to the Bill.  However, the government is not bound to accept the Committee’s recommendations.

• During the Third Reading (Passing), the House votes on the redrafted Bill.

• If the Bill is passed in one House, it is then sent to the other House, where it goes through the second and third readings.

• After both Houses of Parliament pass a Bill, it is presented to the President for assent.   He/She has the right to seek information and clarification about the Bill, and may return it to Parliament for reconsideration. (If both Houses pass the Bill again, the President has to assent)

• After the President gives assent, the Bill is notified as an Act.