reform

The President's speech: Charting out reform

Yesterday the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha engaged in a debate on the President's speech, known as the Motion of Thanks. The President's speech is a statement of the legislative and policy achievements of the government during the preceding year and gives a broad indication of the agenda for the year ahead. Close to the end of the UPA government’s term, it would be useful to evaluate the status of the commitments made in the President’s addresses. (To know more about the significance of the President’s speech refer to this Indian Express article. To understand the broad policy and legislative agenda outlined in this year's address see this PRS Blog.) The President's speeches since the beginning of the 15th Lok Sabha in 2009, have addressed reforms to the financial and social sectors, improving accountability of public officials, and making the delivery of public services more efficient.  We analyse the status of each of these commitments. Accountability in governance processes In an effort to increase accountability and transparency in governance processes, the government introduced a number of Bills.

  • The the Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill and the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill enable individuals to file complaints against judges and other government officials for corruption and misbehaviour.
  • The Whistleblowers Bill has been introduced to protect persons who are making disclosures on corruption, on the misuse of power and on criminal offences by public servants.

These bills have been passed by the Lok Sabha and are pending in the Rajya Sabha.  The government has recently approved amendments to the Lokpal Bill, which may be considered by the Rajya Sabha in the Budget session. Public service delivery In order to make public service delivery more efficient, the government introduced the Electronic Services Delivery Bill and the Citizen’s Charter Bill.

  • The Electronic Services Delivery Bill aims to deliver all government services electronically .
  • The Citizens Charter Bill creates a grievance redressal process for complaints against the functioning of any public authority.
  • Both Bills are pending in the Lok Sabha since introduction in December 2011.
  • Related initiatives include linking the delivery of public services to Aadhaar and moving towards the cash transfer of subsidies. On January 1, 2013, the government piloted cash transfers to deliver subsidies for scholarships and pensions.

Social sector reforms: land, food security and education Broad sectoral reforms have been undertaken in land acquisition, food security and education to aid development and economic growth.

  • Land:  In 2011, the government introduced the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill. The Standing Committee Report on the Bill was released in May last year, based on which the government circulated a list of amendments to the Bill in December 2012.
  • Education: Elementary and middle school education saw reform in 2009 with the passage of the Right to Education Act (RTE Act). This legislation provides every child between the age of six to fourteen years with the right to free and compulsory education. As per the law, by March 2013 all schools are to conform to the minimum standards prescribed. States have expressed concerns over their preparedness in meeting this requirement and it remains to be seen how the government addresses this issue.
  • Food security: The National Food Security Bill is pending in Parliament since 2011. The Bill seeks to make food security a legal entitlement, reform the existing Public Distribution System and explore innovative mechanisms such as cash transfer and food coupons for the efficient delivery of food grains. The Standing Committee gave its recommendations on the Bill in January this year.

Financial sector reforms In order to aid growth and encourage investments, the President had mapped out necessary financial sector reforms.

  • Taxation: The Direct Taxes Code has been introduced in Parliament to enhance tax realisation. However, even though the Standing Committee has presented its report, there has been little progress on the Bill. Efforts are underway to build political consensus on the Goods and Services Tax to rationalise indirect taxes.
  • Regulation of specific sectors: A bill to regulate the pension sector has been introduced in Parliament. Other financial sector reforms include a new Companies Bill, amendments to the Banking laws and a bill regulating the insurance sector.  Amendments to the banking laws have been approved by Parliament, while those to the Companies Bill have only been passed by the Lok Sabha.

In the backdrop of these legislations, it will be interesting to see the direction the recommendations of the Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission, responsible for redrafting all financial sector regulation, takes. Internal security The government is taking measures to deal with internal security concerns such as terrorism and naxalism. In 2009, the President mentioned that the government has proposed the setting up of a National Counter Terrorism Centre. However, this has been on hold since March 2011. At the beginning of the 15th Lok Sabha in June 2009, the President presented the 100 day agenda of the UPA II government, in his address. Of the eight bills listed for passing within 100 days, none have been passed. In addition, the President’s address in 2009 mentioned five other Bills, from which, only the RTE Act has been passed.  In the final year of its tenure, it needs to be seen what are the different legislative items and economic measures, on which the government would be able to build consensus across the political spectrum.  

Will the changes to the Contract Labour Act benefit workers?

A change in the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 may be in the pipeline.  According to news reports, the government may amend the 1970 Act to safeguard the interest of contract workers.  The proposal is to bring parity between permanent and contractual workers in wages and other benefits. The Contract Labour Act, 1970 regulates the employment of contract labour in establishments which employ 20 or more workmen.  It excludes any establishment whose work is intermittent or casual in nature.  The appropriate government may require establishments to provide canteens, rest rooms and first aid facilities to contract labourers.  The contractor shall be responsible for payment of wages to each worker employed by him.  There are penalties listed for contravening the Act. According to the Report of the National Commission on Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), more than 90% of the workforce is part of the unorganised sector.  Contract labour is found in certain activities in the unorganized sector such as in stone quarrying, beedi rolling, rice shelling and brick kiln.  The Commission recommended some measures to protect the workers in the unorganized sector such as ensuring minimum conditions of work, minimum level of social security and improved credit flow to the non-agricultural sector. The Report of the Working Group on “Labour Laws and other Regulations” for the 12th Five Year Plan, also proposed that the 1970 Act should be amended.  The amendment should ensure that in case of contract labour performing work similar to that performed by permanent workers, they should be entitled to the same wage rates, holidays, hours of work and social security provisions.  Furthermore, whenever a contract worker is engaged through a contractor, the contract agreement between the employer and the contractor should clearly indicate the wages and other benefits to be paid by the contractor. However, other experts such as Bibek Debroy, Kaushik Basu and Rajeev Dehejia have recommended broad reforms in India’s labour laws to allow for more flexibility in the labour market.  According to them, these laws protect only a small portion of workers in the organized sector.

The Union Budget

The budget process is covered by live TV and extensively by most newspapers each year.  Most large companies have their own analysis of the budget.  Increasingly, there is an effort by civil society groups to analyse the budget to decipher the allocations to the social sector.  All of this is hugely important and indeed necessary for greater scrutiny and analysis by citizens across the country.

But we at PRS have often spoken about the role of Parliament in effectively scrutinising the government.  If there is anything that the Parliament must scrutinise carefully each year, it is the budget – because this is the way in which the government expresses its real priorities.  Even if the Parliament passes Bills on any subject – right to education, right to health, right to food, etc. – a good measure of the true willingness of the government to implement any of this can be seen by how much money it is willing to allocate to make things a reality.

Former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha spoke about the budget process (Times of India, Feb 27th) and has argued that the current process in India is archaic and is in urgent need of an overhaul.  He also points that Parliament has little power to change anything in the budget, and argues that this undermines the principles of our Parliamentary democracy.  We agree.

On our part, we have produced two documents to help readers understand the budget process better.  How to read the union budget and the Union Budget process can both be accessed from our website.  And we would greatly appreciate your comments on this and other posts on our blog.