Ordinance making powers of the Executive in India

In light of the decision of the union cabinet to promulgate an Ordinance to uphold provisions of the Representation of People Act, 1951, this blog examines the Ordinance making power of the Executive in India.  The Ordinance allows legislators (Members of Parliament and Members of Legislative Assemblies) to retain membership of the legislature even after conviction, if (a)     an appeal against the conviction is filed before a court within 90 days and (b)     the appeal is stayed by the court. However, the Ordinance will only be promulgated after it receives the assent of the President. I. Separation of powers between the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary In India, the central and state legislatures are responsible for law making, the central and state governments are responsible for the implementation of laws and the judiciary (Supreme Court, High Courts and lower courts) interprets these laws. However, there are several overlaps in the functions and powers of the three institutions.  For example, the President has certain legislative and judicial functions and the legislature can delegate some of its functions to the executive in the form of subordinate legislation. II. Ordinance making powers of the President Article 123 of the Constitution grants the President certain law making powers to promulgate Ordinances when either of the two Houses of Parliament is not in session and hence it is not possible to enact laws in the Parliament.[i] An Ordinance may relate to any subject that the Parliament has the power to legislate on. Conversely, it has the same limitations as the Parliament to legislate, given the distribution of powers between the Union, State and Concurrent Lists. Thus, the following limitations exist with regard to the Ordinance making power of the executive: i.   Legislature is not in session: The President can only promulgate an Ordinance when either of the two Houses of Parliament is not in session. ii.   Immediate action is required: The President cannot promulgate an Ordinance unless he is satisfied that there are circumstances that require taking ‘immediate action’[ii]. iii.   Parliamentary approval during session: Ordinances must be approved by Parliament within six weeks of reassembling or they shall cease to operate.  They will also cease to operate in case resolutions disapproving the Ordinance are passed by both the Houses.   Figure 1 shows the number of Ordinances that have been promulgated in India since 1990.  The largest number of Ordinances was promulgated in 1993, and there has been a decline in the number of Ordinance promulgated since then.  However, the past year has seen a rise in the number of Ordinances promulgated.            Figure 1: Number of national Ordinances promulgated in India since 1990 Ordinances PromulgatedSource: Ministry of Law and Justice; Agnihotri, VK (2009) ‘The Ordinance: Legislation by the Executive in India when the Parliament is not in Session’; PRS Legislative Research III. Ordinance making powers of the Governor Just as the President of India is constitutionally mandated to issue Ordinances under Article 123, the Governor of a state can issue Ordinances under Article 213, when the state legislative assembly (or either of the two Houses in states with bicameral legislatures) is not in session.  The powers of the President and the Governor are broadly comparable with respect to Ordinance making.  However, the Governor cannot issue an Ordinance without instructions from the President in three cases where the assent of the President would have been required to pass a similar Bill.[iii] IV. Key debates relating to the Ordinance making powers of the Executive There has been significant debate surrounding the Ordinance making power of the President (and Governor).  Constitutionally, important issues that have been raised include judicial review of the Ordinance making powers of the executive; the necessity for ‘immediate action’ while promulgating an Ordinance; and the granting of Ordinance making powers to the executive, given the principle of separation of powers. Table 1 provides a brief historical overview of the manner in which the debate on the Ordinance making powers of the executive has evolved in India post independence. Table 1: Key debates on the President's Ordinance making power


Legislative development

Key arguments

1970 RC Cooper vs. Union of India In RC Cooper vs. Union of India (1970) the Supreme Court, while examining the constitutionality of the Banking Companies (Acquisition of Undertakings) Ordinance, 1969 which sought to nationalise 14 of India’s largest commercial banks, held that the President’s decision could be challenged on the grounds that ‘immediate action’ was not required; and the Ordinance had been passed primarily to by-pass debate and discussion in the legislature.
1975 38th Constitutional Amendment Act Inserted a new clause (4) in Article 123 stating that the President’s satisfaction while promulgating an Ordinance was final and could not be questioned in any court on any ground.
1978 44th Constitutional Amendment Act Deleted clause (4) inserted by the 38th CAA and therefore reopened the possibility for the judicial review of the President’s decision to promulgate an Ordinance.
1980 AK Roy vs. Union of India In AK Roy vs. Union of India (1982) while examining the constitutionality of the National Security Ordinance, 1980, which sought to provide for preventive detention in certain cases, the Court argued that the President’s Ordinance making power is not beyond the scope of judicial review. However, it did not explore the issue further as there was insufficient evidence before it and the Ordinance was replaced by an Act. It also pointed out the need to exercise judicial review over the President’s decision only when there were substantial grounds to challenge the decision, and not at “every casual and passing challenge”.
1985 T Venkata Reddy vs. State of Andhra Pradesh In T Venkata Reddy vs. State of Andhra Pradesh (1985), while deliberating on the promulgation of the Andhra Pradesh Abolition of Posts of Part-time Village Officers Ordinance, 1984 which abolished certain village level posts, the Court reiterated that the Ordinance making power of the President and the Governor was a legislative power, comparable to the legislative power of the Parliament and state legislatures respectively. This implies that the motives behind the exercise of this power cannot be questioned, just as is the case with legislation by the Parliament and state legislatures.
1987 DC Wadhwa vs. State of Bihar It was argued in DC Wadhwa vs. State of Bihar (1987) the legislative power of the executive to promulgate Ordinances is to be used in exceptional circumstances and not as a substitute for the law making power of the legislature.  Here, the court was examining a case where a state government (under the authority of the Governor) continued to re-promulgate ordinances, that is, it repeatedly issued new Ordinances to replace the old ones, instead of laying them before the state legislature.  A total of 259 Ordinances were re-promulgated, some of them for as long as 14 years.  The Supreme Court argued that if Ordinance making was made a usual practice, creating an ‘Ordinance raj’ the courts could strike down re-promulgated Ordinances.
Source: Basu, DD (2010) Introduction to the Constitution of India; Singh, Mahendra P. (2008) VN Shukla's Constitution of India; PRS Legislative Research

  This year, the following 9 Ordinances have been promulgated:

  1. The Securities Laws (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013
  2. The Readjustment of Representation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in Parliamentary and Assembly Constituencies Second Ordinance, 2013
  3. The Securities and Exchange Board of India (Amendment) Second Ordinance, 2013
  4. The National Food Security Ordinance, 2013
  5. The Indian Medical Council (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013
  6. The Securities and Exchange Board of India (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013
  7. The Readjustment of Representation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in Parliamentary and Assembly Constituencies Ordinance, 2013
  8. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013
  9. The Securities Laws (Amendment) Second Ordinance, 2013

Three of these Ordinances have been re-promulgated, i.e., a second Ordinance has been promulgated to replace an existing one.  This seems to be in violation of the Supreme Court’s decision in DC Wadhwa vs. State of Bihar.  

Notes: [i] With regard to issuing Ordinances as with other matters, the President acts on the advice of the Council of Ministers. While the Ordinance is promulgated in the name of the President and constitutionally to his satisfaction, in fact, it is promulgated on the advice of the Council of Ministers.
[ii] Article 123, Clause (1)
[iii]  (a) if a Bill containing the same provisions would have required the previous sanction of the President for introduction into the legislature; (b) if the Governor would have deemed it necessary to reserve a Bill containing the same provisions for the consideration of the President; and (c) if an Act of the legislature containing the same provisions would have been invalid unless it received the assent of the President.

Parliament's scrutiny over government finances

The recent 2G-controversy and the related debate over the role of the PAC as opposed to the JPC also raises a broader Issue regarding the general scrutiny of government finances by Parliament.  Oversight of the government’s finances involves the scrutiny of the government’s financial proposals and policies.  The Indian Constitution vests this power with the Parliament by providing that (a) taxes cannot be imposed or collected without the authority of law, and (b) expenditure cannot be incurred without the authorisation of the legislature. The Indian Parliament exercises financial oversight over the government budget in two stages: (1) at the time of presentation of the annual budget, and (2) reviewing the government’s budget implementation efforts through the year. The Parliament scrutinises the annual budget (a) on the floor of the House, and (b) by the departmentally related standing committees. Scrutiny on the floor of the House The main scrutiny of the budget in the Lok Sabha takes place through: (a) General discussion and voting: The general discussion on the Budget is held on a day subsequent to the presentation of the Budget by the Finance Minister.  Discussion at this stage is confined to the general examination of the Budget and policies of taxation expressed during the budget speech. (b) Discussion on Demand for Grants: The general discussion is followed by a discussion on the Demand for Grants of different ministries. A certain number of days or hours are allocated for the discussion of all the demands. However, not all the demands are discussed within the allotted number of days. The remaining undiscussed demands are disposed of by the Speaker after the agreement of the House.  This process is known as the ‘Guillotine’.  Figure 1 shows the number of Demands discussed and guillotined over the last five years.  It shows that nearly 90% of the Demands are not discussed every year. Some Important Budget Documents Annual Financial Statement – Statement of the estimated receipts and expenditure of the government. Demand for Grants –Expenditure required to be voted by the Lok Sabha.  A separate Demand is required to be presented for each department of the government. Supplementary Demand for Grants – Presented when (a) authorized amounts are insufficient, or (b) need for additional expenditure has arisen. Finance Bill – Details the imposition of taxes, the rates of taxation, and its regulation. Detailed Demand for Grants – Prepared on the basis of the Demand for Grants.  These show further break-up of objects by expenditure, and also actual expenditure in the previous year. For more details see detailed note on Financial Oversight by Parliament here.

Land Acquisition: Public realm, private gain

One of the most politically contentious issues in recent times has been the government’s right to acquire land for ‘public purpose’.  Increasingly, farmers are refusing to part with their land without adequate compensation, the most recent example being the agitation in Uttar Pradesh over the acquisition of land for the Yamuna Express Highway. Presently, land acquisition in India is governed by the Land Acquisition Act, an archaic law passed more than a century ago in 1894.  According to the Act, the government has the right to acquire private land without the consent of the land owners if the land is acquired for a “public purpose” project (such as development of towns and village sites, building of schools, hospitals and housing and state run corporations).  The land owners get only the current price value of the land as compensation.  The key provision that has triggered most of the discontent is the one that allows the government to acquire land for private companies if it is for a “public purpose” project.  This has led to conflict over issues of compensation, rehabilitation of displaced people and the type of land that is being acquired. The UPA government introduced the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill in conjunction with the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill on December 6, 2007 in the Lok Sabha and referred them to the Standing Committee on Rural Development for scrutiny.  The Committee submitted its report on October 21, 2008 but the Bills lapsed at the end of the 14th Lok Sabha.  The government is planning to introduce revised versions of the Bills.  The following paragraphs discuss the lapsed Bills to give some idea of the government’s perspective on the issue while analysing the lacunae in the Bills. The Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, 2007 redefined “public purpose” to allow land acquisition only for defence purposes, infrastructure projects, or any project useful to the general public where 70% of the land had already been purchased from willing sellers through the free market.  It prohibited land acquisition for companies unless they had already purchased 70% of the required land.  The Bill also made it mandatory for the government to conduct a social impact assessment if land acquisition resulted in displacement of 400 families in the plains or 200 families in the hills or tribal areas.  The compensation was to be extended to tribals and individuals with tenancy rights under state laws.  The compensation was based on many factors such as market rates, the intended use of the land, and the value of standing crop.  A Land Acquisition Compensation Disputes Settlement Authority was to be established to adjudicate disputes. The Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2007 sought to provide for benefits and compensation to people displaced by land acquisition or any other involuntary displacements.  The Bill created project-specific authorities to formulate, implement and monitor the rehabilitation process.  It also outlined minimum benefits for displaced families such as land, house, monetary compensation, skill training and preference for jobs.  A grievance redressal system was also provided for. Although the Bills were a step in the right direction, many issues still remained unresolved.  Since the Land Acquisition Bill barred the civil courts from entertaining any disputes related to land acquisition, it was unclear whether there was a mechanism by which a person could challenge the qualification of a project as “public purpose”.  Unlike the Special Economic Zone Act, 2005, the Bill did not specify the type of land that could be acquired (such as waste and barren lands).  The Bill made special provision for land taken in the case of ‘urgency’.  However, it did not define the term urgency, which could lead to confusion and misuse of the term. The biggest loop-hole in the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill was the use of non-binding language.  Take for example Clause 25, which stated that “The Government may, by notification, declare any area…as a resettlement area.” Furthermore, Clause 36(1) stated that land for land “shall be allotted…if Government land is available.”  The government could effectively get away with not providing many of the benefits listed in the Bill.  Also, most of the safeguards and benefits were limited to families affected by large-scale displacements (400 or more families in the plains and 200 or more families in the hills and tribal areas).  The benefits for affected families in case of smaller scale displacements were not clearly spelt out.  Lastly, the Bill stated that compensation to displaced families should be borne by the requiring body (body which needs the land for its projects).  Who would bear the expenditure of rehabilitation in case of natural disasters remained ambiguous. If India is to attain economic prosperity, the government needs to strike a balance between the need for development and protecting the rights of people whose land is being acquired. Kaushiki Sanyal The article was published in Sahara Time (Issue dated September 4, 2010, page 36)

Control over Budget: Effectiveness of Parliament

During the recess, the Departmentally Related Standing Committees of Parliament examine the Demand for Grants submitted by various Ministries.  The Demand for Grants are detailed explanations of that Ministry's annual budget which form part of the total budget of the government.  These are examined in detail, and the committees can approve of the demands, or suggest changes.  The Demand for Grants are finally discussed and voted on by the Parliament after the recess.  (The post below lists the ministries whose Demand for Grants will be discussed in detail after the recess). The issue is - how effective is the institution of Parliament in examining the budget?  Though India specific information on this subject is hard to find, K. Barraclough and B. Dorotinsky have cited the World Bank - OECD Budget procedures Database to formulate a table on the legislature approving the budget presented by the executive ("The Role of the Legislature in the Budget Process: A Comparative Review", Legislative Oversight and Budgeting).  I reproduce the table below:

In Practice, does the legislature generally approve the budget as presented by the Executive? (in percent)
Answer All Countries OECD Countries Presidential democracies Parliamentary democracies
It generally approves the budget with no changes 34 33 14 41
Minor changes are made (affecting less than 3% of total spending) 63 67 71 59
Major changes are made (affecting more than 3% but less than 20% of total spending) 2 0 7 0
The budget approved is significantly different (affecting more than 20% of total spending) 0 0 0 0
Sources:  K. Barraclough and B. Dorotinsky; PRS.

Defections in Parliament

In the late 1960s and 70s, defections (elected legislators changing parties after the election) in Parliament and State Legislatures became very frequent, so frequent in fact, that the epithet "Aaya Ram Gaya Ram" was coined to describe the same.  To curb this problem which created instability in our legislatures, Parliament amended the Constitution.  They inserted the Tenth Schedule to the Constitution "to curb the evil of political defections".  As a result, we currently have an anti-defection law with the following features: 1.  If an MP/MLA who belongs to a political party voluntarily resigns from his party or, disobeys the party "whip" (a direction given by the party to all MPs/ MLAs to vote in a certain manner), he is disqualified.   The party may however condone the MP/ MLA within 15 days. 2.  An independent MP/ MLA cannot join a political party after the election. 3.  An MP/ MLA who is nominated (to the Rajya Sabha or upper houses in state legislatures) can only join a party within 6 months of his election. 4.  Mergers of well-defined groups of individuals or political parties are exempted from disqualification if certain conditions are met. 5.  The decision to disqualify is taken by the Speaker/ Chairman of the House. The table below summarizes provisions of anti-defection law in some other countries.  (For more, click here).  As one may note, a number of developed countries do not have any law to regulate defection.

Regulation of defection in some countries

Country Experi-ence Law on defection The Law on Defection
Bangladesh Yes Yes The Constitution says a member shall vacate his seat if he resigns from or votes against the directions given by his party.  The dispute is referred by the Speaker to the Election Commission.
Kenya Yes Yes The Constitution states that a member who resigns from his party has to vacate his seat.  The decision is by the Speaker, and the member may appeal to the High Court.
Singapore Yes Yes Constitution says a member must vacate his seat if he resigns, or is expelled from his party.  Article 48 states that Parliament decides on any question relating to the disqualification of a member.
South Africa Yes Yes The Constitution provides that a member loses membership of the Parliament if he ceases to be a member of the party that nominated him.
Australia Yes No  
Canada Yes No  
France Yes No  
Germany Yes No  
Malaysia Yes No  
United Kingdom Yes No