Looking for a winter turnaround

The Hindu, November 26, 2015

M R Madhavan*

The winter session of Parliament that starts today follows a monsoon sessionthat did not see any work being done in the Rajya Sabha and only a few discussions in the Lok Sabha. This session starts with two days being dedicated to discussing the contributions of B.R. Ambedkar before moving on to routine business from Monday (November 30).

The government has listed 20 bills for consideration and passing. These include the Constitution Amendment Bill, to enable the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST); the Electricity (Amendment) Bill; the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill; the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill; the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill; the Whistle Blowers Protection (Amendment) Bill, and the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill.

The GST Constitution Amendment Bill is just the first step in the legislative process to introduce this tax. The Constitution Amendment needs to be passed by both Houses by a two-thirds majority ? it has been passed by the Lok Sabha but will be referred back to that House if the Rajya Sabha amends it. Then it needs to be ratified by 15 State Legislatures before it gets the President?s assent. This would set the stage for the introduction of the Bill in both Parliament and the State Legislatures to impose the tax, and repeal various other tax laws such as excise acts, sale tax acts, and so on.

Finding a mutually agreeable position

Given the supermajority requirement, the GST Bill will require the support of most of the opposition parties. This Bill was referred by the Rajya Sabha to a select committee. The dissent note given by the members of the Congress indicates that they support the idea of GST with some changes in the Bill. These include setting a cap of 18 per cent on the tax rate, creating a dispute settlement authority for implementation issues by the Centre or the States, removing the 1 per cent tax on inter-State sale of goods, and inclusion of tobacco, alcohol and electricity in the GST. The success of the government in getting this Bill passed will depend on its ability to find a mutually agreeable position on many of these issues.

The Electricity Bill is a significant move towards greater competition in the sector. The Electricity Act 2003 trifurcated the sector into generation, transmission and distribution. The distribution companies purchase power from the generating companies, carry it using the networks of the transmission companies, and have a distribution system through which they supply electricity to the final consumer. This Bill further bifurcates distribution by enabling supply companies. This means that distribution companies will maintain the last mile network while supply companies will purchase electricity from the generators, pay the transmission and distribution companies for using their networks, and supply to the end consumer. The Bill envisages multiple supply companies in a geographical area which would compete for business and lead to improved customer service and lower tariffs.

The Real Estate Regulation Bill seeks to regulate the transactions between developers of residential property and buyers. It recognises the information and power asymmetry between developers and customers, and establishes various norms for developers. These include registering all projects, disclosure on websites of the layout plan and completion date, separate bank account for each project and ensuring that 70 per cent of the funds collected are used for construction of the project.

The Juvenile Justice Bill has been passed by the Lok Sabha and has to be taken up by the Rajya Sabha. The age at which a person may be tried as an adult is being reduced from 18 years to 16 years in case of heinous crimes (which carry a maximum punishment of at least seven years imprisonment). The Bill also has provisions for children in need of care and protection, and adoptions (a single male cannot adopt a girl child). It sets punishment for offences, some of which do not appear proportional to the gradation of the offence. For example, giving a child (that is, a person below 18 years of age) any intoxicating liquor or tobacco product may lead to a prison sentence of seven years, while the maximum punishment for selling or buying a child is five years imprisonment.

The Child Labour Act is being amended. Currently, children below 14 years of age cannot be employed in hazardous industries (which include domestic service). The Bill amends this to prohibit the employment of children below 14 years in all occupations except when the child helps his/her family after school hours. The Bill prohibits children between the ages of 14 and 18 years from entering hazardous occupations.

Curbing corruption

Two Bills related to curbing corruption are also part of this session?s list of business. Currently, the Prevention of Corruption Act makes giving a bribe to a public servant an abetment to the main offence. The Bill amends this provision to explicitly make this an offence. The Act requires prior sanction for prosecution of public officials; the Bill extends this protection to former officials.

The Whistle Blowers Protection Act was passed last year to protect persons making disclosures related to corruption. This Act is being amended to prohibit disclosures under 10 categories (the same list under which information may be denied in the Right to Information Act).
The agenda also includes the introduction of 14 Bills. These include the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill, an earlier version of which was introduced by the United Progressive Alliance government but lapsed with the dissolution of the last Lok Sabha, and the Indian Institutes of Management Bill which will regulate these institutions and give them the power to grant degrees (currently, they can only give diplomas).

Other than legislative business, several members are likely to raise other issues for discussions. The government also needs to get supplementary demand for grants to be passed.

The first year of the current Parliament saw significant work done with limited disruptions. This was followed by the monsoon session in which there was very little productivity. Given the importance of Parliament?s role in deliberating the various legislative bills and scrutinising the work of the government through constructive debates, one hopes that the last session was an aberration, and that we can see a productive winter session ahead.

*President and co-founder of PRS Legislative Research

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