The winter session of Parliament which ended last week was a legislative washout. The government was hoping to secure Parliament’s approval for 19 Bills during the session. Out of these it could get two financial Bills, and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, passed. Not listed on Parliament’s legislative agenda was the Income Tax Amendment Bill. The government pushed through this Bill without any debate in the Lok Sabha. But this poor performance should not undermine Parliament’s legislative efforts this year. The highest law-making body was able to pass approximately 80 Bills in 2016.
The idea of a single indirect tax mooted at the beginning of this century finally came to fruition. Rajya Sabha passed the goods and services tax (GST) Bill, and the state assemblies ratified it this year. In addition to GST, three key Bills piloted by the finance ministry were also passed. These Bills revamp the insolvency resolution of companies and individuals, strengthen debt recovery and allow the government to use the Aadhaar database to provide subsidies and services.
During the year, a Bill to establish real-estate regulators in states and to protect the interests of consumers was also passed. The Companies Act of 2013 underwent its first set of changes when the upper house approved an amendment Bill earlier in the year. This Bill removes minimum paid-up share capital requirements and makes changes to fraud reporting by auditors. It also specifies financial, and imprisonment, penalties for accepting or non-repayment of deposits in violation of the Act.
This year, Parliament also focused its legislative attention on issues related to child labour, compensatory afforestation, and anti-hijacking. It banned employment of children under the age of 14 in all occupations (except family enterprises). It established funds at the Central and state levels to collect compensation for diversion of forest land and use it for afforestation and wildlife protection. It enacted a new law expanding the definition of hijacking and providing the death penalty if it resulted in the death of hostages or security personnel.
Parliament also stepped in and legislated for a uniform entrance examination for admission to undergraduate and postgraduate courses in all medical and dental colleges in the country. Another highlight of the year was the passing of amendments to the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act of 1988. These amendments supplement the fight against corruption by establishing authorities to investigate and confiscate benami properties.
However, the legislative year has not been free from controversy. A Bill which will enable the leader of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha to be part of the selection committee of the Lokpal is pending in Parliament. It has led to the opposition benches questioning the government’s anti-corruption stance and criticizing it for the delay in the appointment of the Lokpal even after the passing of the law in 2013.
The government has also taken flak from the opposition for not taking Parliament into confidence by failing to take the legislative route for the demonetization of currency. They pointed out that previous demonetization exercises involved parliamentary scrutiny through the passing of requisite Bills. Opposition parties also raised objections to an amendment to the Citizenship Act that makes illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan eligible for citizenship on the basis of their religion. A joint committee of Parliament is now examining this Bill in greater detail.
This year has also been witness to missed opportunities. Multiple factors have prevented the Bills to operationalize GST from being introduced in Parliament. Rajya Sabha has passed a Bill to increase maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks and another Bill to overhaul the mental-healthcare framework in the country. The Lok Sabha could not pass both these Bills due to continued disruptions in the winter session.
A legislative proposal to update the consumer protection law in the country and another one that prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV and AIDS are pending in both houses after being scrutinized by parliamentary committees.
At the end of the year, 60 Bills are pending before Parliament. These deal with technical and diverse subjects such as surrogacy, merchant shipping, rights of transgenders, company law and protection of whistle-blowers. A robust legislative process is a prerequisite for effective law-making in such a context. The events of this year have shown that our process for making laws is relatively flexible. Some Bills saw no debate and others witnessed limited debate before being passed. In many cases, Bills were not examined by parliamentary committees. Joint committees scrutinized some Bills instead of specialized subject committees, leading to further dilution of the legislative process.
However, the job of Parliament does not end at passing laws. It has a role to play in reviewing the rules that operationalize these legislations on the ground. Both houses of Parliament have a committee each to scrutinize rules made by the government under different laws. These general purpose committees neither have the bandwidth nor the technical expertise to examine different rules and regulations.
A new legislative year is scheduled to begin next month. It will bring new ideas before Parliament that will need deliberation. Political parties will have to introspect about their roles in our parliamentary system. The institution of Parliament will have to rethink its legislative processes. In the absence of these, Parliament will become a mere rubber stamp for government laws.