The Monsoon Session of Parliament — held between July 26th and August 31st — saw some welcome developments. Though the first week was lost on account of disruptions, Parliament made up much of the lost time. More important, there were at at least six bills which saw significant intervention in Parliament.
The Nuclear Liability bill (Pragati, May 2010) was, perhaps, the most widely discussed bill. Several amendments recommended by the standing committee were negotiated between the government and the opposition before the bill was passed. The main changes were that the operator’s liability limit was tripled to Rs 15 billion, and the operator was given the right to take recourse from the supplier if the incident was caused by faulty equipment or material. Also, only government companies will be allowed to operate nuclear power plants (thus, capping private sector shareholding to 49 percent in any joint venture).
The government had issued an ordinance amending the Enemy Property Act. The 1968 act relates to property of enemy persons, typically those who migrated to Pakistan (which was an “enemy” during 1965). The act vests the property in a custodian. The amendment permitted the custodian to sell such property. The property would also remain vested with the custodian even if the legal heir was an Indian citizen. The government wanted to ratify the ordinance with some changes. The BJP declared that it would support the bill only if there were no changes to the ordinance. The ordinance has now lapsed.
The New Delhi Municipal Council bill was discussed in the Lok Sabha for a couple of hours. However, following suggestions from the opposition, it was referred to the Standing Committee. Two bills passed by the Lok Sabha (without examination by the Standing Committee) were referred by the Rajya Sabha to Select Committees. The Wakf amendment bill changes the composition of Wakf boards and mandates state governments to list all Wakf properties. [Wakf refers to charitable donations made in accordance with Muslim law.]
The Prevention of Torture bill prescribes a maximum penalty of 10 years rigourous imprisonment for any public official found guilty of committing torture. However, courts may hear the case only if the complaint is made within six months of the act of torture, and if the government sanctions prosecution of the official.
The Educational Tribunals bill establishes tribunals at the state and centre to hear cases related to admission of students in colleges, affiliation of colleges to universities, and service matters of employees. The bill was passed by the Lok Sabha and discussed by the Rajya Sabha. However, the Rajya Sabha decided that a wider public debate was necessary and deferred the bill.
That said, on several other measures, this session followed the pattern seen in earlier sessions of the 15th Lok Sabha. The government had an ambitious legislative agenda, and only about a third of which was met. The government had planned to get 33 bills passed; only 21 were passed. The government wanted to introduced 35 bills, it introduced 23 bills.
A bill to revise the salary and allowances of MPs (Pragati, September 2010) was passed. This increases the monthly salary of MPs from Rs 16,000 to Rs 50,000. It raises the daily allowance for attending Parliament from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000. Former MPs will get pension of Rs 20,000 per month, instead of Rs 8,000 earlier. The government has also proposed to increase the constituency allowance (for office and travel) from Rs 20,000 to Rs 45,000 per month, and office expenses (staff, stationery and postage) from Rs 20,000 to Rs 45,000 per month.
Other bills passed include the Foreign Trade amendment, the Industrial Disputes amendment, the Foreign Contribution bill, the Mines and Minerals amendment and the State Bank of India (SBI) amendment bill. The Foreign Trade amendment bill includes services within the scope of the act (to be eligible for export promotion schemes), enables imposition of quantitative restrictions on imports, and strengthens the mechanism to control the export of items that may be used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction.
The Industrial Disputes act was amended to include supervisors earning upto Rs 10,000 per month (earlier Rs 1600) within its purview, and creates new systems for grievance redressal. The Foreign Contribution act replaces a 1976 act, and regulates all donations and grants received in India by foreign sources. The Mines and Minerals act was amended to require a competitive auction mechanism for allocating coal blocks for captive use. The SBI amendment permitted the government to reduce its shareholding from a minimum of 55 percent to 51 percent.
Some significant bills were also introduced. The Direct Taxes Code bill replaces the Income Tax act and the Wealth Tax act. A draft bill was circulated for public comments last year; that bill removed several exemptions, and lowered the tax rate. Following public feedback, many of the original proposals have not been incorporated. The Whistleblower bill provides for protection of persons who reveal information related to corruption or wilful misuse of discretion by a public servant.
Some important bills that were listed for consideration this session were not taken up. These the Women’s Reservation bill, the Seeds bill, the Pesticides bill, the Insurance bill and the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) bill. Some important were not introduced. These include the Judicial Standards and Accountability bill, the Unique Identification Authority bill, the Biotechnology Regulator bill, and the Land Acquisition amendment and Rehabilitation and Resettlement bills.
Several other issues of national importance were also discussed in Parliament. These included price rise of petroleum products, preparations for Commonwealth Games, flood and drought conditions, the Kashmir situation and illegal mining.
Much time was lost on many days as MPs raised issues that concerned them. Hardly any work was done in the first week as the opposition and the government contested whether the discussion on inflation should end with a vote censuring the government. Parliament sat late on several days and extended the session by two days to make up for lost time; the Lok Sabha sat for 94 percent and the Rajya Sabha for 100 percent of the originally scheduled time. However, Question Hour was a major casualty of disruptions. Time lost for Question Hour is never made up. In all, 55 percent of Question Hour was lost in the Lok Sabha, and only 10 percent of the listed starred questions were answered orally. In the Rajya Sabha, 44 percent of the scheduled time was lost and 17 percent of the questions were orally answered.
The good news is that on several issues, the opposition ensured that the government followed due process. The bad news is that Parliament continued to be disrupted repeatedly, and managed to finish only a part of the scheduled agenda.