Why governments must use their ordinance-making power sparingly
On Wednesday, the Union cabinet approved the food security ordinance. The government has already introduced a National Food Security Bill in Parliament in December 2011. Parliamentary consideration on the bill has been initiated with the standing committee submitting its recommendations and the government proposing amendments to the law. After being listed on several occasions for discussion, members of Parliament began debating the bill in the last few days of the 2013 budget session. In spite all this, the government has chosen to promulgate an ordinance.
In all likelihood, Parliament will reconvene in a few weeks for the monsoon session. In this context, it would be useful to understand the ordinance-making power of government and its usage in the recent past. Under the Constitution, the power to make laws rests with the legislature. The executive has been given the power to make laws when Parliament is not in session and “immediate action” is necessary. In such scenarios, the president can issue an ordinance on the advice of the executive, to have the same effect as an act of Parliament. In the 1980s, the Supreme Court was confronted with a case where a state government repeatedly re-promulgated ordinances that had lapsed in previous assembly sessions. This led the SC to examine the ordinance-making power of government. The SC reasserted the constitutional principle that the primary law-making power rests with the legislature and not the executive. The executive is only given the legislative power to issue an ordinance to meet an “emergent situation”. Such a situation arose in 2011 when, given that students were awaiting their degrees on the completion of their course, the government issued an ordinance to grant IIIT-Kancheepuram the status of an institute of national importance so that students could be awarded their degrees.
Data over the last 60 years indicates that the highest number of ordinances, 34, were passed in 1993. Over the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-2013), there have been 16 ordinances, indicating a decline in the number of ordinances being issued every year.
Once an ordinance is framed, it is to be laid before Parliament within six weeks of its first sitting. Parliament is empowered to either choose to pass the ordinance as law or let it lapse. Once the ordinance is laid in Parliament, the government introduces a bill addressing the same issue. This is typically accompanied by a memorandum tabled by the government, explaining the emergent circumstances that required the issue of an ordinance. Thereafter, the bill follows the regular law-making process. If Parliament does not approve the ordinance, it ceases to exist. The drafters of the Constitution created this check on the law-making power of the executive to reinforce the notion that law-making will remain the prerogative of the legislature.
Earlier this year, in the aftermath of the Delhi gangrape, public pressure led the government to appoint a three-member committee under the late Justice J.S. Verma to suggest changes to laws relating to crimes against women. An amendment bill had already been pending in Parliament. In spite of this, the government brought in the Criminal Law Ordinance, giving effect to some of the committee’s recommendations. Once Parliament reconvened, the government introduced a fresh bill replacing the ordinance, seeking to create more stringent provisions on matters related to sexual offences. It passed muster in both Houses.
While the Criminal Law Ordinance is an illustration of an ordinance successfully passing through Parliament, there are examples of ordinances that have lapsed because they were not approved by Parliament. In 2004, a week after the winter session ended, the government issued an ordinance to give the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority statutory powers as a regulator. Due to political opposition, the ordinance lapsed and, subsequently, the bill lapsed at the end of the 14th Lok Sabha. The government re-introduced it as a bill in 2011, which is currently pending in Parliament.
Although the government has used its power to issue a food security ordinance, the law guaranteeing this right will have to stand scrutiny in Parliament. What remains to be seen is how Parliament debates the right to food in the upcoming monsoon session. That should give us some food for thought.