In the ongoing stalemate between protesting farmers and the Centre, the government has repeated its offer of keeping the three contentious farm laws on hold for one to one-and-a-half years, while the farmers have rejected the offer and insisted that the laws be repealed. Over the years, Parliament has repealed several laws — and there have also been precedents of the government not bringing a law into force for several years after it has been passed.
Bringing/removing a law
Parliament has the power to make a law and to remove it from the statute books (a law can be struck down by the judiciary if it is unconstitutional). But the passing of a Bill does not mean that it will start working from the next day. There are three more steps for it to become a functioning law. The first step is the President giving his or her assent to the Bill. Then the law comes into effect from a particular date. And finally, the government frames the rules and regulations to make the law operational on the ground. The completion of these steps determines when the law becomes functional.
The first step is the simplest. Article 111 of the Constitution specifies that the President can either sign off on the Bill or withhold his consent. The President rarely withholds their assent to a Bill. The last time it happened was in 2006 when President A P J Abdul Kalam refused to sign a Bill protecting MPs from disqualification for holding an office of profit. A Bill is sent to Parliament for reconsideration if the President withholds his or her assent on it. And if Parliament sends it back to the President, he or he has no choice but to approve it.
Most Bills receive the President’s approval in a few days. President Ram Nath Kovind signed the three farm Bills into law within a week of their passing in September 2020. In 1986, President Zail Singh made use of a loophole in the Constitution. A Bill criticised for violating the privacy of personal correspondence was sent to him for approval seven months before the end of his term. The Constitution does not specify a time limit for the President to approve a Bill. So President Singh decided not to take any action on the Bill until the end of his term.
The next step is deciding the date on which the law comes into effect. In many cases, Parliament delegates to the government the power to determine this date. The Bill states that the law “shall come into force on such date as the Central Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, appoint and different dates may be appointed for different provisions of this Act”. For example, Parliament passed the Recycling of Ships Act in December 2019. In October 2020, the government brought Section 3 of the law into force. This section empowers the government to designate an officer to supervise all ship recycling activities in India.
Giving effect to a law
There are also instances when the government does not bring a law into force for many years. Two examples are the National Environment Tribunal Act and the Delhi Rent Control Act, which Parliament passed during Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao’s tenure. The government never brought these laws into force, which were passed in 1995 and cleared by the President. The National Green Tribunal Act finally repealed the environmental tribunal law in 2010. And a Bill to repeal the Delhi Rent Control Act introduced in 2013 is still pending in Rajya Sabha.
There are also multiple instances where a law specifies when it will come into effect. The 2013 land acquisition law put an outer limit of three months for the Centre to bring it into force after the President approved it. A Bill can also specify the exact date on which it will come into effect. Bills replacing ordinances sometimes do that. In such cases, the Bill sets the date on which the President signed the ordinance (since Parliament was not in session) as the day the law will come into force. For example, the law banning e-cigarettes came into effect from September 18, 2019 (Ordinance date) after Parliament passed the Bill to replace the Ordinance on December 2, 2019. Similarly, the three farm Bills replacing their ordinances came into force on June 5, 2020.
Rules & regulations
A Bill passed by Parliament is the outline of a law. For the law to start working on the ground, individuals need to be recruited or given the power, to administer it. The implementing ministry also needs to finalise forms to gather information and provide benefits or services. These day-to-day operational details are called rules and regulations. And Parliament gives the government the responsibility of making them. These regulations are critical for the functioning of law.
If the government does not make rules and regulations, a law or parts of it will not get implemented. The Benami Transactions Act of 1988 is an example of a complete law remaining unimplemented in the absence of regulations. The law gave the government power to confiscate benami properties. For 25 years, such properties were immune from seizure in the absence of framing relevant government rules. The law was finally repealed in 2016 and replaced with a new one.
Parliament has recommended that the government make rules within six months of passing a law. But parliamentary committees have observed that this recommendation is “being followed in breach by various ministries”. The government not only has the power to make rules but can also suppress rules made by it earlier. In the case of farm laws, the government has made some rules in October 2020.
The author is Head of Outreach, PRS Legislative Research