Who will foot the Bill?

Financial Express, January 07, 2014

The fifteenth Lok Sabha, which likely has a couple of weeks of sittings left before the general elections, has been one of the least productive and effective ones. The trend has been visible for some time. The number of sittings have been decreasing over time—from a high of 120-140 days in the 1950s and 1960s, to decline to a stage when we are glad to have 70 sitting days in any year. And even these sitting days are not utilised—a significant amount of time is lost to disruptions. Indeed, the current Lok Sabha fares the worst on the metric of proportion of scheduled time that is lost to disruptions—it has lost over one-third of the scheduled hours. The contrast on combining declining sitting days with increased disruptions is stark: each of the first three Lok Sabhas logged over 3,700 hours in the House; at the 90% mark, the 15th Lok Sabha has sat for less than 1,350 hours. This Lok Sabha will sit for less than 40% of the time that the first three Lok Sabhas averaged.

One of the main casualties of this performance has been the inability of Parliament to pass key legislations. The current Lok Sabha has passed a total of 163 Bills so far. This is the lowest number of Bills passed by a full-term Parliament (see graph). The previous two Lok Sabhas (corresponding to the NDA government and the UPA-1 government) passed 297 and 248 Bills, respectively. Even these figures indicate a decline: the first three Parliaments as well of the two full Parliaments in the 1980s passed over 330 Bills on average, while the extended Parliament of the early 1970s (including the Emergency period) passed 482 Bills.

Indeed, the lower amount of time available has affected the level of deliberation on the Bills that were passed. Over a third of all Bills passed by the current Lok Sabha witnessed less than one hour of debate. These include key Bills such as the one that protects women from sexual harassment at workplace, which was passed without any debate earlier this year.

The first session of the current Parliament started with the President’s address listing out the priorities of the government. In this address, eight Bills were listed as part of a 100-day agenda. Of these, just one—the Food Security Bill—has been passed, in the fifth year of the government. Of the other seven Bills, three relate to reservation for women in Lok Sabha and state assemblies, municipal councils and panchayats. Two relate to setting up national councils on health and higher education. One was the public services Bill (now called the Citizen Grievance Bill), and the other related to amending the Right to Information Act to exempt file notings from its purview. All the Bills (other than the RTI amendment) have been introduced but have been awaiting consideration for over two years.

Some key pieces of legislation have been passed by this Parliament. These include laws related to food security, land acquisition, Lokpal, and the new companies act. Bills have been passed to protect women and children from sexual offences, and women from sexual harassment at workplace. The Right to Education Bill was passed in the first few months of the UPA-2. The nuclear liability act was passed and the green tribunal was established. A new statutory regulator has been established for the pension sector.

That said, the unfinished agenda is fairly long. As of now, there are 126 Bills pending in Parliament. These span most sectors from education to health to service delivery and corruption to agriculture to financial markets and civil aviation to biotechnology.

The government has introduced a set of Bills related to higher education. These aim to reform the regulatory structure, permit foreign institutions, create rating systems, set up tribunals, allow innovation universities, etc. There was also a Bill that separated the regulation of medical education from professional practice.

A number of Bills seek to address corruption and improve service delivery including those related to whistleblowers, public procurement, citizens’ grievances, judicial accountability, electronic service delivery and UID.

Two major Bills to reform the taxation structure are still to be taken up by Parliament. The Direct Taxes Code Bill was introduced in August 2010, and the Constitutional Amendment Bill to enable the imposition of goods and services tax was introduced in March 2011.

Though the Pension Bill was passed, the financial sector is still awaiting a resolution to the Insurance Bill, the forward contracts amendment (that seeks to establish an independent regulator for commodity forwards and derivatives) and microfinance sectors. An ordinance that amends the SEBI Act (and some related laws) has been issued twice in the last six months but has not been ratified by Parliament and will lapse in mid-January.

A number of Bills propose to establish sector regulators. These include the biotechnology sector, civil aviation, coal, nuclear safety, and the profession of private detectives.

The agriculture sector has been waiting for a new Seeds Bill (which seeks to ensure that the seeds sold to farmers meet the promised performance) since 2004 and the Pesticides Bill since 2008.

A new Parliament will be constituted in the next six months. There is a long list of pending legislative proposals and there is broad agreement on many of these across political parties. Indeed, many of these pending Bills have been examined by all-party standing committees which have agreed in principle with the main proposals (with perhaps some changes and, in some cases, with some dissenting opinions). After the elections, the new government (whoever forms it) would have the opportunity of deciding the priority list and convincing the other parties that the groundwork done by the committees can be used to take up these Bills for discussion in Parliament. Let us hope (keeping fingers crossed) that it manages to do so and that the new year brings in a more productive Parliament.

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