Bills

Winter Session 2018: What's happened so far

So far, both Houses of Parliament have been witnessing disruptions.  At the beginning of the session, 23 Bills were listed for passage, and 20 were listed for introduction.  Two weeks in, one Bill has been passed by both Houses, and three others by Lok Sabha.  These include Bills dealing with the re-haul of consumer protection laws, regulation of surrogacy, and recognition of transgender persons.  Six Bills have been introduced.  These include three Bills which replace the Ordinances currently in force, and a Bill to regulate dam safety.  In this blog, we discuss the key features of some of these Bills. 

Enhancing rights of consumers

The Consumer Protection Bill, 2018 replaces the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.  It was introduced in view of the significant changes in the consumer market landscape since the 1986 Act.  It introduces several new provisions such as enabling consumers to make product liability claims for an injury or harm caused to them, nullifying unfair contracts which impact consumer interests (such as contracts which charge excessive security deposits), and imposing penalties for false and misleading advertisements on manufacturers, as well as on the endorsers of such advertisements. 

The Bill also sets up Consumer Dispute Redressal Commissions (or courts) at the district, state, and national level, to hear complaints on matters related to deficiencies in services or defects in goods.  While these Commissions are also present under the 1986 Act, the Bill increases their pecuniary jurisdiction: District Commissions will hear complaints with a value of up to one crore rupees; State Commissions between one and ten crore rupees; and National Commission above 10 crore rupees.  The Bill also sets up a regulatory body known as the Central Consumer Protection Authority.  This Authority can take certain actions to protect the rights of consumers as a class such as passing orders to recall defective goods from the market, and imposing penalties for false and misleading advertisements. 

Recognising transgender persons and their rights

Last week, Lok Sabha also passed the Transgender Bill, 2018.  This Bill seeks to recognise transgender persons, confers certain rights and entitlements on them related to education, employment, and health, and carves out welfare measures for their benefit.  The Bill defines a transgender person as one whose gender does not match the gender assigned at birth.  It includes trans-men and trans-women, persons with intersex variations, gender-queers, and includes persons having such socio-cultural identities as kinnar, hijra, aravani, and jogta.  The Bill requires every establishment to designate one person as a complaint officer to act on complaints received under the Bill. 

The Bill provides that a transgender person will have the right to self-perceived gender identity.  Further, it also provides for a screening process to obtain a Certificate of Identity, certifying the person as ‘transgender’.  This implies that a transgender person may be allowed to self-identify as transgender individual, but at the same time they must also undergo the screening process to get certified as a transgender.  Therefore, it is unclear how these two provisions of self-identification and an external screening process will reconcile with each other. 

Regulating surrogacy and overhauling the Medical Council of India

The Surrogacy Bill, 2017 which regulates altruistic surrogacy and prohibits commercial surrogacy was also passed in Lok Sabha.  Surrogacy is a process where an intending couple commissions an eligible woman to carry their child.  In an altruistic surrogacy, the surrogate mother is not given any monetary benefit or reward, and the arrangement only covers her medical expenses and health insurance.  The Bill sets out certain conditions for both the intending couple and the surrogate mother to be eligible for surrogacy.  The intending couple must be Indian citizens, be married for at least five years, and at least one of them must be infertile.  The surrogate mother must be a close relative of the couple, must be married and must have had a child of her own.  Further, a surrogate mother cannot provide her own gametes for surrogacy.

The surrogate mother has been given certain rights with regard to the procedure of surrogacy.  These include requiring her written consent to abort the surrogate child, and allowing her to withdraw from the surrogacy at any time before the embryo is implanted in her womb. 

Another key Bill which was listed for passage in Lok Sabha this session but could not be taken up is the National Medical Commission Bill, 2017 (NMC Bill).  Several amendments to this Bill were introduced in Lok Sabha last week.  The NMC Bill seeks to replace the Medical Council of India, with a National Medical Commission.  It introduces a common final year undergraduate medical examination called the National Exit Test which will also grant the license to practice medicine.  Only medical students graduating from a medical institute which is an institute of national importance will be exempted from qualifying this National Exit Test.  The Bill also gives the NMC the power to frame guidelines to decide the fees of up to 50% of seats in private medical colleges and deemed universities.  The NMC may also grant limited license to certain mid-level practitioners connected with the medical profession to practice medicine.  The qualifying criteria for such mid-level practitioners will be determined through regulations, and they may prescribe specified medicines in primary and preventive healthcare. 

Regulating dam safety

The Dam Safety Bill, 2018 was introduced in Lok Sabha and applies to all specified dams across the country.  These are dams with: (i) height more than 15 metres, or (ii) height between 10 metres to 15 metres and subject to certain additional design and structural conditions.  It seeks to provide for the surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of specified dams for prevention of dam failure related disasters.  It creates authorities at the national and state level to formulate policies and regulations on dam safety and implement them.  It also puts certain obligations on dam owners by requiring them to provide a dam safety unit in each dam, among other things. 

When the Bill was being introduced, few opposition members raised objections on the grounds of Parliament’s legislative competence to make a law on dam safety which applies to all states.  They gave the example of the previous Dam Safety Bill, 2010, which applied only to the states of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal who had adopted resolutions requiring Parliament to pass a law on dam safety.

So far the winter session has seen poor productivity with Lok Sabha working for 14% of its scheduled time, and Rajya Sabha for 5%.  This is one of the least productive sessions of the 16th Lok Sabha.  This is also the last major session before the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha.  Both Houses will meet tomorrow after the Christmas break.  With a packed legislative agenda, it is essential for Parliament to function in order to discuss and deliberate the Bills listed.  However, with a limited number of sitting days available in the ongoing session and continued disruptions, it remains to be seen if Parliament will be able to achieve its legislative agenda.

- This post is a modified version of an article published by The Wire on December 26, 2018.

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

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