Budget Session: Key Bills still hanging fire

By ZRG | Updated: Feb 21, 2013, 12:03 PM IST

Ajay Vaishnav / Zee Research Group

Yet another Parliamentary session is around the corner and expectations are at fever-pitch. Given the Budget Session beginning on February 21 could well be the last such exercise of the incumbent government, expectations are high that the month-long congregation of Indian lawmakers should yield some productive and quality business. The expectations aren’t unwarranted as previous few sessions have lost considerable business hours and the taxpayers’ money due to bitter acrimony between the government and the opposition.

Many key Bills are hanging fire and need immediate attention, especially when public apathy towards the establishment is at an all-time high. The bigger question, therefore, is whether our parliamentarians can get their act together and deliver. Zee Research Group takes the opportunity to revisit key Bills that have been pending for long.

1. The Lokpal Bill – Never before in the recent history of India the demand for establishment of a public institution has stirred and whipped up as much public passion and outburst. The credit must go to Gandhian Anna Hazare’s activism (including the latest threat to start fresh agitation) which has forced the government to show earnestness. The Union Cabinet has cleared most of the amendments recommended for the Lokpal Bill by the Rajya Sabha Select Committee. Not so long ago, the UPA establishment was resisting many of the provisions such as bringing the Prime Minister’s Office within the remit of the Lokpal and providing for the selection of the CBI director and Lokpal members by diverse collegiums. The delinking of Lokpal at the Centre from Lokayukta in the states (states will still require to set up a Lokayukta within a year of the enactment of the central law) too has been done.

Problem: The possibility of the Lokpal Bill being passed by Parliament is high due to consensus over amendments to major contentious portions. Yet the Cabinet’s rejection of some of the Rajya Sabha committee’s recommendations raises doubts. The establishment’s desire to retain control over CBI is one such grey area along with the rejection of the recommendation to keep government-supported NGOs outside the ombudsman’s purview.

2. The National Food Security Bill – Touted as the UPA-II’s most ambitious social security programme, the Bill seeks to provide 5 kilograms of foodgrains per person at a flat rate of Rs 3 per kg for rice, Rs 2 per kg for wheat and Rs 1 per kg for coarse cereals. There won’t be a separate below poverty line (BPL) and above poverty line (APL) distinctions so far as the Bill is concerned.

Problem: Government’s previous attempts to introduce the Bill in Parliament haven’t succeeded. While the Congress is keen to create a perfect poll launch pad for the Gandhi scion, the opposition will leave no stone unturned to create hurdles in its passage. Even bigger question before the government is to arrange Rs 10,000 crores to finance one of the world’s biggest food security programme amid burgeoning fiscal deficit.

3. The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill – Judicial reforms have been high on UPA’s agenda yet very little progress has been achieved. While the government has failed to get Parliament pass the ambitious Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill (passed in Lok Sabha but couldn’t be brought up in Rajya Sabha), there is a lack of clarity in its plans to change the present mechanism of appointment of senior judges by a collegiums of judges. The present system of judicial appointments at senior level is opaque.

Problem: The Bill is facing stiff opposition from eminent jurists and the higher judiciary. Media reports suggest that the government has decided to retain a controversial clause in the Bill which debars judges from making verbal comments against any constitutional authority in open courts.

4. The Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill & The Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority Bill – The Bills seek Parliament’s clearance to increase the limit on foreign ownership in local insurance companies to 49% from 26% and allow up to 49% overseas holding in pension-fund managers.

Problem: The main opposition party BJP is for keeping the FDI ceiling in the sector at 26 per cent. The Left parties too are opposing the Bill for ideological reasons. BJP leader Yashwant Sinha headed Parliamentary Standing Committee which scrutinised the Insurance Bill was against raising the ceiling on FDI in the sector arguing that it would expose the sector to global vulnerability.

5. The Women’s Reservation Bill – First drafted in the Lok Sabha on September 12, 1996 by the then Deve Gowda government, the Bill proposes to reserve one-third of the total seats for women at each level of legislative decision-making. The Bill was introduced and passed in the Rajya Sabha in 2010 but can become a law only if Lok Sabha too concurs.

Problem: A decade and more to just introduce the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament is self-explanatory why a move to promote gender equality in decision-making hasn’t seen the light of day. The travesty is that all parties vouch for the cause but never do the needful to implement it. Sonia Gandhi terming it as high on party’s agenda at Jaipur session has fuelled fresh speculation that the UPA may introduce it in the Lok Sabha.

6. The Whistleblower’s Protection Bill – The aim of the Bill is to establish a mechanism to register complaints or any allegations of corruption or wilful misuse of power against a public servant. It also provides for safeguards against victimisation of the person who makes the complaint.

The broader objective of the Bill to promote greater public participation in the fight against graft naturally makes ‘powers that be’ uncomfortable and reluctant to the idea. The increasing incidents of harassment, intimidation and violence against whistleblowers across the country in recent years prove the need for expediting it and encouraging citizens to speak out against wrongdoing in the public sector.

Problem: The Bill doesn’t clearly outline penalties or punishments for authorities “victimising” complainants. Moreover, it doesn’t guarantee complete anonymity of the complainant, i.e. under certain circumstances the CVC can disclose complainants’ identity to the head of the government department under scrutiny. Whistleblowers may further be discouraged with the provision of fines and punishments imposed if their allegations are proven false.