disruption parliament

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.

JPC vs PAC

By Chakshu Rai and Anirudh Burman What is the difference between a JPC and a PAC? A structured committee system was introduced in 1993 to provide for greater scrutiny of government functioning by Parliament. Most committees of Parliament include MPs from both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. A Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) is an ad-hoc body. It is set up for a specific object and duration. Joint committees are set up by a motion passed in one house of Parliament and agreed to by the other. The details regarding membership and subjects are also decided by Parliament. For example, the motion to constitute a JPC on the stock market scam (2001) and pesticide residues in soft drinks (2003) was moved by the government in the Lok Sabha. The motion on the stock market scam constituted a JPC of 30 members of which 20 were from the Lok Sabha and 10 were from the Rajya Sabha. The motion to constitute the JPC on pesticides included 10 members from the Lok Sabha and 5 from the Rajya Sabha. The terms of reference for the JPC on the stock market scam asked the committee to look into financial irregularities, to fix responsibility on persons and institutions for the scam, to identify regulatory loopholes and also to make suitable recommendations. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), however, is constituted every year. Its main duty is to ascertain how the money granted (budget) by Parliament has been spent by the government. The PAC scrutinises the accounts of the government on the basis of CAG reports. The composition and functions of the committee are governed by parliamentary procedures. The PAC can consist of 15 to 22 members. Not more than 15 members can be from the Lok Sabha, and the representation from the Rajya Sabha cannot exceed 7 members. A minister cannot be a member of the PAC. What can a JPC do that a PAC cannot? The PAC examines cases involving losses and financial irregularities. Its examination is usually limited to the scrutiny of CAG reports and issues raised by the reports. The committee expresses no opinion on points of general policy, but it is within PAC’s jurisdiction to point out whether there has been waste in carrying out that policy. The mandate of a JPC depends on the motion constituting it. This need not be limited to the scrutiny of government finances. How many JPCs have we had so far? Although a number of joint committees have been formed since Independence, four major JPCs have been formed to investigate significant issues that have caused controversy. These are: (1) Joint Committee on Bofors Contracts; (2) Joint Committee to enquire into irregularities in securities and banking transactions; (3) Joint Committee on stock-market scam; and (4) Joint Committee on pesticide residues in and safety standards for soft drinks. How effective have JPCs been? Is the government bound by their recommendations? JPC recommendations have persuasive value but the committee cannot force the government to take any action on the basis of its report. The government may decide to launch fresh investigations on the basis of a JPC report. However, the discretion to do so rests entirely with the government. The government is required to report on the follow-up action taken on the basis of the recommendations of the JPC and other committees. The committees then submit ‘Action Taken Reports’ in Parliament on the basis of the government’s reply. These reports can be discussed in Parliament and the government can be questioned on the basis of the same. How effective is the PAC process? Between 2005 and 2010, the PAC has prepared 54 reports and examined ministries that have cumulatively received around 80% of the budgetary allocations in the last five financial years. Since it is not possible to examine every CAG audit finding in a formal manner, ministries have to submit Action Taken Notes to the PAC on all audit paragraphs. A 2009-10 report of the PAC, however, noted that there were 4,934 audit paragraphs still pending with various ministries. What can the JPC or the PAC find in the 2G case that is not already known, that the CAG and the Trai have not already said? The JPC or the PAC can only look at the documents and examine ministry officials who testify before the committee. The parliamentary committees can arrive at independent conclusions based on the documents placed before them. Members of the committee can also place dissent notes if they do not agree with the majority. Can Raja be tried and the telecom licences cancelled on basis of a JPC report or do we need a CBI report as well? Prosecution of individuals and cancellation of licences are executive functions and can only be initiated by the government. A JPC report can recommend the prosecution of a particular person or the cancellation of certain licences. However, the government can disagree with the JPC’s findings and refuse to take such action. How much of Parliament time have we lost already and how many critical Bills are stuck? The Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are supposed to work daily for six hours and five hours, respectively. The Lok Sabha has worked for five hours and forty five minutes and Rajya Sabha has worked for an hour and twenty five minutes in the past 12 days. Some important Bills that are listed for consideration and passing in Parliament are the Seeds Bill, 2004; the Commercial Division of High Courts Bill, 2009; and the Amendment to the Right to Education Act, 2010. Bills listed for introduction include the National Identification Authority Bill, 2010; the Protection of Women from Sexual Harassment in Workplace Bill, 2010; the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, 2010; Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill; and the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill. This article appeared in Financial Express.