Budget Session of Parliament Opens: What?s on the Agenda

The Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2015

The budget session of India?s Parliament starts Monday when Prime Minister Narendra Modi?s government will present its first full-year spending plan and look to pass key bills to jumpstart the economy. The Railway budget is the first set piece on the agenda and scheduled to be announced on Thursday Feb. 26 followed by economic survey the next day and the annual budget on Feb. 28. Analysts and economists will be watching for announcements in the federal budget that could revive the economy by boosting investments and manufacturing.

The winter session of Parliament ended late December with opposition parties stalling parliamentary proceedings as they protested alleged forced religious conversions by Hindu hardline groups, some of which are close to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The government introduced a flurry of executive orders or ordinances to push through legislative changes without a vote. The ordinances will lapse if they do not pass a vote within six weeks of Parliament opening on Monday.

?The world is watching if we are decisive or not,? Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told reporters Thursday when asked about the use of emergency legislation. ?It?s an irony that after having seen lethargic governments in the past, you now have a government that is being criticized for being too fast,? he added. Executive orders are used to bring in new laws when Parliament is not in session. But they need to be approved by lawmakers in the following session. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party doesn?t have a majority in the 250-member upper house, the Rajya Sabha, and, with just 43 seats it will need to rely on the Congress party?s 68 seats, to push through the key bills.

In the most-recent session, Congress lent its support to the passage of proposed bills, but they were prevented by protesting in the upper house. ?The BJP will try its best to garner support of political parties to get the bills passed. In case it fails, it can call a joint session of Parliament wherein it will have a majority and can clear the bills,? said Narendra Kumar, associate professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Here?s a snapshot of the key bills on the legislative agenda for the budget session:

Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill?The federal government approved an ordinance in December to raise foreign investment in insurance sector from 26% to 49%. The temporary law needs to be replaced by a permanent one with a vote by lawmakers. The bill was initially introduced in Rajya Sabha, or the upper house, in December 2008 and later referred for re-assessment to a special committee, which submitted its report in December 2011. During the most-recent Parliamentary session at the end of 2014, Mr. Modi?s government tried to clear the bill but was unable to gain the support of opposition parties.

Constitution Amendment Bill or GST Bill?This seeks to amend the constitution to allow for the introduction of a uniform, national goods and services tax. If passed, it will be the country?s biggest tax reform in years. The implementation of GST has been opposed by some states as they are reluctant to surrender their right to impose state-specific taxes. For instance, some have objected to the inclusion of petroleum products and liquor ?major sources of revenue ? in the proposed GST as the move would severely affect their coffers. The finance ministry has moved to smooth out the issues and is hopeful the bill will be approved by lawmakers this session.

Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Bill?The new law will pave the way for the auction of coal mining licenses and provide the enabling provisions needed for the government to allow commercial mining by private players. This couldn?t be passed by lawmakers in the most-recent session of Parliament so the government passed an ordinance in relation to it for the second time in three months. The bill seeks to amend the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973 and the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957.

Citizenship Amendment Bill?Another piece of legislation that didn?t make it through Parliament but was passed by executive order. The Citizenship Act, 1955 provides for citizenship by birth, descent, registration, naturalization and by incorporation of territory. It also provides for renunciation and termination of citizenship under certain circumstances. It contains provisions regarding registration of overseas citizens of India and their rights. Overseas citizens of India are entitled to benefits such as a multiple-entry and multipurpose life-long Indian visas. The bill proposes to add grounds on which a person may register for overseas citizenship of India. These include children whose parents are Indian citizens, spouses of an Indian citizens or overseas citizens of India, among others. The amendment could also bring holders of PIO or Person of Indian Origin status in line with overseas citizens of India, who are entitled to greater benefits. This is something Mr. Modi promised the Indian American community when he visited New York in September.

Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill?This proposed law seeks to amend the country?s archaic mining rules and pave way for auctions of minerals such as iron ore. Auctions would replace the current system where a panel approves applications for mining licenses. An ordinance for the immediate implementation of the policy was introduced in January.

Motor Vehicles Amendment Bill?<.b>This was passed by lower house of Parliament on Dec. 18, 2014 and introduced in upper house on Dec. 22, 2014 but couldn?t be taken up for discussion amid uproar in Parliament. The federal cabinet on Dec. 24 approved an executive order to allow e-rickshaws or battery-operated three-wheelers, which had gone off roads after Delhi High Court banned them last year on safety concerns. The bill seeks to provide a transparent system for issuing driving licenses.

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