There is no sanctity to law-making in India. Neither in the process nor in politics. This was on full display during the debate and passage of the two agricultural Bills in the Rajya Sabha, and the subsequent suspension of eight MPs. Opposition MPs were demanding that the two contentious Bills be examined by a select committee of the House. With MPs trooping into the well of the House, raising slogans, papers were thrown at the Deputy Chairman Harivansh who was presiding over the House.
During the debate on the two Bills in Lok Sabha, the government ignored the demands of the Opposition for referring them to a Parliamentary Committee. And it was in no mood to refer them to a select committee of the Rajya Sabha.
The responsibility for making laws rests with the people’s representatives in Parliament. This responsibility has two elements. The first is the careful scrutiny of the law to determine whether the government’s proposal addresses a particular problem or not and simultaneously ensure that in the process of fixing one problem, it doesn’t create another. The second element is debate on the floor of Parliament, both on merit and ideology. Both these elements complement each other. The sharp debate on the floor of Parliament cannot replace the careful analysis done by Parliamentary Committees, which act as a bridge between Parliament and people.
The mockery of these two elements did not occur for the first time in the Rajya Sabha.
The weight of vote
Last year, after the general elections, the Rajya Sabha had witnessed snatching of papers and sloganeering on the amendment to the Right to Information Bill. However, things did not escalate much and voting could take place. The government was able to win that vote after the Congress party had walked out in protest. Asking for votes to be recorded is a right of every Member of Parliament (MP). It accomplishes two things. First, it allows MPs to record their stand publicly on a particular issue. Second, it tests the numbers of the ruling and the Opposition alliance on the floor of the House.
But the votes on referring Bills to committees are contentious because the government has bypassed the scrutiny of Bills by such panels. In the current Lok Sabha, 17 Bills have been referred to Parliamentary Committees. But no government Bills have been referred to a committee this year. In the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19) 25 per cent of the Bills introduced were referred to committees. This number was much lower than 71 per cent and 60 per cent in the 15th (2009-14) and 14th (2004-09) Lok Sabha, respectively.
Why scrutiny is important
A recent select committee of the Rajya Sabha was examining the law to regulate surrogacy in the country. As part of its scrutiny of the Bill, the committee travelled to four cities to understand the intricacies of surrogacy. It met with representatives of different groups and heard the testimony of the National Human Rights Commission, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and multiple state governments along with the government department piloting the Bill. Based on its own study, evidence and feedback from experts and citizens, the committee suggested certain changes to the government’s Bill.
But for many years, our Parliament has focussed only on debating laws, without them being examined by Parliamentary Committees. The reason for Parliament’s one-sided focus is because its rules require that all Bills follow a process of debate and passing by both Houses. But these rules do not provide that every Bill should be referred to a Parliamentary Committee. As a result, fewer legislative proposals of the government are being examined by these committees.
So, in a nutshell, all laws do not receive the same amount of parliamentary attention. A few undergo rigorous scrutiny by Parliamentary Committees. Others are passed with just a simple debate on the floor of the House. When the treasury and Opposition agree, even the most far-reaching laws are passed by Parliament with alacrity. When there is disagreement on politically contentious Bills such as the two Bills related to agriculture, then the swift passage results in unruly scenes in Parliament. The outweighing factor is the government’s urgency in enacting a particular legislation. When the government is in a hurry, even Bills amending the Constitution can be passed in two to three days.
When Parliamentary Committees do not scrutinise Bills, it increases the chances of the country being saddled with half-baked laws. These, then, have to be brought back to Parliament for changes to be made to them. But a large country like ours cannot afford to have a hurriedly made law. The cost to the nation is not only the time and resources of Parliament in changing the law. A hurriedly made law has an opportunity and financial cost to the entire nation.
How the govt can do better
The first step in strengthening the law-making process starts with the government. The machinery of the government has to be proactive and not reactive while making laws. This will allow the government to introduce its legislative proposals in time for comprehensive parliamentary scrutiny. The government will also be able to, then, inform Parliament of the time frame in which it would like the House’s approval on its proposal. The government will also have to provide Parliament with supporting documents, data and analysis for MPs to be able to make an informed decision on its legislative proposals.
For example, the government has recently introduced three labour Bills in Parliament. They are replacing the three labour Bills that were scrutinised by the Parliamentary Committee on labour. The committee had made certain recommendations, some of which have been accepted and incorporated by the government in the new Bills. But the government has not put before Parliament a comparison indicating which of the committee’s recommendations it has accepted and the new provisions it has brought in the new Bill. This then makes the job of members of Parliament difficult when they have to debate and vote on hundreds of clauses of the Bills.
Parliament also has to play a role in strengthening the law-making process. It has to overhaul its rules to ensure that all Bills that are introduced by the government go through timely scrutiny by Parliamentary Committees. This would ensure that Bills are not stalled in committees and the government can have a time table for the clearance of its legislative agenda. In addition, it has to augment the human resources of its committees, so that these bodies can deal with the increasing complexity of subjects being brought before them. If our Parliament does not change its rules for legislative scrutiny by committees, it would slowly start losing its relevance and end up becoming a rubber stamp to government Bills.
The author is the Head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research. Views are personal.