A Legislative Downpour
Many records were broken as the Parliament productively passed a large number of Bills this session – yet, the complete absence of scrutiny has left many sceptical
The 2019 Budget/Monsoon session of Parliament turned out to be the most productive in (at least) the last two decades. The government sprung into action, making the most of the first session after re-election, by setting a gold standard for its first 100 days of governance. Not only did it bring contentious amendments to certain acts (UAPA, NIA, RTI), it also re-introduced lapsed bills like the National Medical Council Bill and of course, locked down J&K to effectively abrogate Article 370 – bifurcating it into two separate Union Territories (Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh).
Exercising a healthy majority in the Lok Sabha, the session witnessed a variety of bills being pushed through, despite a crucial check present in Rajya Sabha. This is where the most recent session of Parliament turned interesting as the government managed to cruise through the Upper House without any visible difficulty, despite lacking majority. In fact, the J&K Reorganisation Bill was introduced in Rajya Sabha and received a vigorous mandate following some deliberation. With Prime Minister Modi himself urging parliamentarians to be present in the respective Houses, the government's strong intention to see the bills through reverberated in both Houses as they passed a record 28 bills together in a single session.
It was perhaps the first time in decades that the Parliament pro-actively pursued legislative work with the government – keenly rooting for bills, to see them through instead of just introducing and letting them remain stuck in the House, as has been the norm. It was this diligent approach towards legislative business that allowed the Parliament to clock impressive numbers and set the tone for a new normal, which is a high functioning legislature. Though deliberations featured and bills were passed, the absence of Standing or Select Committees blemished the perfect picture. Such committees, though not necessary, are important to resolve several bones of contention that may stall House proceedings or create unabated pandemonium. Controversial bills such as the RTI, UAPA and POCSO could have made positive use of scrutiny from a parliamentary committee. Questions like whether the death penalty under POCSO would really act as a deterrent, or whether the government might be overreaching with its amendments to RTI, and if the executive should have the right to designate individuals as terrorists, have escaped rigorous scrutiny this session.
Legislations from the Budget session will have a resounding impact on society, marking only the beginning of what lies in store for the next five years. There are several takeaways from our Parliament's recent performance. It remains to be seen if the same kind of proactiveness would continue in the Winter Session or whether this was a one-off statement piece. While clocking surplus productivity exceeds expectations, scrutiny of parliamentary committees is important to sustain the undying spirit of democracy – which ideally takes all voices into consideration.
The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill
Introduced in Lok Sabha by Amit Shah (Minister of Home Affairs); passed by both Houses.
Empowers the government to designate 'individuals' as terrorists based on grounds as mentioned for organisations.
It additionally empowers officers of NIA to investigate cases.
Allows NIA to seize properties connected with terrorism
wherein the approval can be obtained by Director General of NIA.
Designating individuals as terrorists place unchecked power in government's hands and has a high scope for misuse.
Empowering NIA to carry out investigations and seize properties impinges upon state's jurisdiction, as central power (NIA) trumps state police (state subject), flouting federal autonomy enjoyed by states.
The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill
Introduced in Lok Sabha by Nitin Gadkari (Minister for Road Transport and Highways); passed by both Houses.
Constitution of a Motor Vehicle Accident Fund to
provide compulsory insurance cover to all road users.
Provides immunity to good samaritans.
Constitution of National Transportation Policy & Road Safety Board for managing framework and checking standards.
Increases penalties for several offences under the Act to prevent road accidents and increase safety.
Provisions provide scope for misuse by police and increased corruption on roads in the absence of camera-based monitoring.
Brings a variety of general road offences under the category of dangerous driving.
Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill
Introduced in Rajya Sabha by Smriti Irani (Minister of Women & Child Development); passed by both Houses.
Introduces possibility of death penalty for offenders committing aggravated penetrative sexual assault on children alongside extended punishment for penetrative sexual assault of minors.
Provides for fines and punishments for being in possession of, distributing, appearing in, or shooting child pornography.
There was some contention about whether the death penalty can be an effective deterrent.
Interestingly, the gender neutrality this Bill provides in English is absent in the Hindi version, which uses balakon (boys) instead of children.
The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill
Introduced in Lok Sabha by Jitendra Singh (MoS Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions); passed by both Houses.
Allows central government to set the term of office for Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and Information Commissioners (ICs) at both central and state levels.
Allows central government to determine salaries, allowances and other conditions of service for CIC and ICs at central and state level.
Amendments will curtail the autonomy exercised by CIC and ICs and, in general, hamper the functioning of RTI. With decisions on tenures and salaries resting with the Centre, the amendment will disincentivise CIC and ICs to deliver information against government.
Due to the sensitivity of the legislation and unconvincing Statement of Objects and Reasons, the bill deserves scrutiny by a parliamentary committee.
National Investigation Agency (Amendment) Bill
Introduced in Lok Sabha by Amit Shah (Minister of Home Affairs); passed by both Houses.
Lends National Investigation Agency (NIA) the statutory jurisdiction to take up and probe terror cases outside India.
Provides for the constitution of special NIA courts by convert
ing sessions courts.
Adds offences such as human trafficking, manufacture and sale of illegal weapons and cyber-terrorism to the schedule of offences.
A major concern has been vesting NIA with the authority to probe cases abroad without going through the local police – some members called the move window-dressing.
Given allegations that NIA has been misused to target a specific community, concerns lingered around how amendments can be passed without defining 'terrorist'.
The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights of Marriage) Bill
Introduced in Lok Sabha by Ravi Shankar Prasad (Minister of Law & Justice); passed by both Houses.
Succeeding a Supreme Court ruling that prohibits the practice of triple talaq as lacking legal basis, this bill further criminalises perpetrating Muslim men by providing punishment for defaulting husbands.
It provides the custody of minor children to the wife.
Asks the offending husband to compensate the wife with subsistence allowance, equivalent to an alimony.
There was strong objection against the Bill criminalising only Muslim husbands abandoning their wives. Dissenters highlighted how it should be extended to all men abandoning their wives.
The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill
Introduced in Rajya Sabha by Amit Shah (Minister of Home Affairs); passed by both Houses.
Scraps special provisions provided to Jammu and Kashmir through Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution.
Divides the state into two separate Union Territories: Jammu and Kashmir (with legislature) and Ladakh (without legislature)
Retains only seven state land laws while replacing 153 others with Union laws.
The most controversial Bill this session elicited deep distrust – not so much with specific provisions but with whether it should even be considered.
Some went as far as calling the move illegal, given how the government had arrested local political leaders, imposed a curfew, and kept the region under communication lockdown until the Bill was passed in the Upper House.
There was also some concern on the Bill infringing upon the states' rights, particularly people's right to information and personal liberty.
The National Medical Commission Bill
Introduced in Lok Sabha by Dr Harsh Vardhan (Minister of Health and Family Welfare); passed by both Houses.
It allowed constitution of National Medical Commission replacing the Medical Council of India with appointment of 25 members by the central government.
Issuance of licenses to Community Health Providers (CHP) connected with the modern medical profession to practice medicine.
Introduction of National Exit Test (NEXT) for giving licenses for practice to MBBS graduates and allowing admission to post-graduate super-speciality medical education in all medical institutions regulated under the Bill.
Inadequate training will not prevent CHPs from acquiring a license, following which, apprehensions of risk besides degrading quality of healthcare will be large, especially in rural India.
MCI had 2/3rd of its members (160+) directly elected by the medical fraternity but the new system proposes 25 nominated members which raises questions on the integrity of nominated members and, thus, the entire process.
Two objectives of NEXT cannot be intertwined into one since both require different training and knowledge. A certain level of knowledge may be sufficient to practice medicine but higher knowledge remains a prerequisite for pursuing further specialisation.
Passed in both Houses
The Indian Medical Council (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Teachers' Cadre) Bill, 2019
The Jammu and Kashmir Reservation (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Homeopathy Central Council (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Dentists (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Aadhaar and Other Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Central Universities (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The National Investigation Agency (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The New Delhi International Arbitration Centre Bill, 2019
The Protection of Human Rights (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Banning of Unregulated Deposit Schemes Bill, 2019
The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2019
The Companies (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The National Medical Commission Bill, 2019
The Airports Economic Regulatory Authority of India (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2019
The Repealing and Amending Bill, 2019
The Code on Wages, 2019
The Consumer Protection Bill, 2019
The Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupants) Amendment Bill, 2019
The Supreme Court (Number of Judges) Amendment Bill, 2019
The J&K Reorganisation Bill, 2019
The Special Economic Zones (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Arbitration and Conciliation (Amendment) Bill, 2019
Passed only in Lok Sabha
The Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019
The Dam Safety Bill, 2019
The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2019
The Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019
Passed only in Rajya Sabha
The National Institute of Design (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Jammu and Kashmir Reservation (Second Amendment) Bill, 2019
This list is exclusive of Finance and Appropriation Bills