(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
March 08, 2009
THE last few months of the UPA regime were marked by undemocratic methods and a blatant display of its contempt for parliament. Given the dubious methods utilised by the ruling alliance to establish its majority in the Lok Sabha following withdrawal of support of the Left parties, its reluctance to face parliament was perhaps not unexpected. But the lengths to which it went to push forward its agenda without parliamentary approval was record breaking. It is striking that those who have been proactive in berating members of parliament with harsh and often unwarranted accusations of degrading parliament have maintained a conspicuous silence about the role of the government in this regard.
Firstly, the number of days on which parliament was in session was drastically cut. During 2005, the first full year of the UPA regime, there were 85 days when parliament was in session. However in 2008 the last year of the UPA regime the number came down to just 46 days. The monsoon session, usually between three weeks to a month was dispensed with altogether. This was done to avoid facing another no-confidence motion. Technically only one confidence/no-confidence motion can be taken up in a single session. So the UPA government in an unprecedented move extended the budget session till December! This was a first in India’s parliamentary history.
The second aspect of its disregard for democratic procedure was its bypassing of important recommendations made by the standing committees studying the various reports of different ministries. At present there are 24 department related standing committees, 16 of which are chaired by members of the Lok Sabha and 8 of which are chaired by Rajya Sabha members. The standing committee system was introduced in April 1993 on the understanding that the work of the ministries could be better scrutinised including the demands for grants in the budget, by smaller dedicated committees comprising of members of all parties and from both houses of parliament. Although the schedule of meetings of these committees may differ with some meeting more regularly than others, by and large the committees produce detailed reports of the functioning of ministries with strong recommendations. Concerned standing committees also go through proposed legislations with detailed comments and recommendations. Although the recommendations are not binding on the government, since these are all party committees, the government is expected to consider the recommendations with some seriousness and make appropriate changes in the proposed draft legislations.
When the Left parties were supporting the government, it was Left pressure which forced the government to accept many of the recommendations of the standing committees on crucial legislations, in addition to the Left parties own suggestions. For example on the NREGA Act the draft legislation of the government did not incorporate many important recommendations of the standing committee. Similarly on the tribal Forest Rights Act the government wanted to ignore crucial recommendations of the select committee. On the Right to Information Act, ignoring the recommendations of the standing committee the government wanted to bring certain amendments to dilute the Act. On all these issues it was the Left parties which prevented the government from diluting the recommendations of the committees.
However following the withdrawal of support the situation changed and the government led by the Congress went back to its old authoritarian style. The first victim was the Unorganised Sector Workers legislation. In spite of the proposals of the Sengupta commission and the unanimous recommendations of the standing committee for labour, the government pushed through a legislation which greatly diluted the recommendations and denied unorganised sector workers their legitimate rights. But the contempt for standing committees was taken even further.
On some crucial bills, the government brought the bills to parliament without even referring it to the standing committees. This is a deliberate breach of procedure to find convenient shortcuts for legislations which cannot stand the scrutiny of the standing committee. Thus the notorious anti-dalit, anti-tribal SC/ST Reservation in Posts and Services bill was not referred to the standing committee at all but brought straight to parliament. Other such bills include one which utterly dilutes the Prevention of Corruption Act by bringing objectionable amendments and another which encroaches on the rights of state governments to be consulted on the setting up of Minority Educational Institutes in the respective States.
Compounding this, the government pushed through these legislations which had not gone through the standing committees or by ignoring the recommendations of the standing committees, without any discussion in parliament. On the last day of the “budget” session, December 23, the government utilised the commotion in the House over the introduction of the Insurance Bill to enhance FDI to 49 per cent, to push through a record number of bills. In the Lok Sabha with the cooperation of the chair, the government put 8 bills to vote and got them passed without any discussion. In the Rajya Sabha it pushed through two such legislations.
Since this was done on the last day of the session, there was no scope for protest. However since a bill passed in one House has to get the approval of the other House before it is enacted as law, the opportunity came in the 2009 budget session scheduled in February for just 10 days. Most of the bills passed in the Lok Sabha were included in the business list for the Rajya Sabha
Among them was the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill. This is a piece of legislation which was strongly opposed by the standing committee. It referred to the bill as a bill to commercialise the forest and not to protect it. This bill gave the right to corporates to take over forest land, cut trees , the only condition being that they had to pay a monetary compensation. The entire fund would be taken over by the central government by-passing the states. But the government ignored all objections and forced the bill through the Lok Sabha. In the Rajya Sabha the entire opposition demanded the setting up of a select committee of the House to go into the bill. Ultimately the government had to retract and the bill was withdrawn from the agenda.
Yet another bill passed by the Lok Sabha without discussion was the amendments on corruption which would have turned the Prevention of Corruption Act into the Protection of Corruption Act. By three amendments the government wanted to protect bureaucrats by changing the definitions in the present Act to allow gaping loopholes, including doing away with the present clause to report the income of government officials. With the initiative of the CPI(M) strong opposition to the amendments were expressed during meetings with the chair. Ultimately the government was forced to change its plan. In the Lok Sabha, Left MPs along with Scheduled Caste MPs of other parties strongly protested against the bill which had been passed in the Rajya Sabha without any discussion. Here also the government had to bow to pressure. Since the term of parliament has ended the government as a face saving device has referred the bill to the SC commission.
On an extremely important piece of legislation namely the amendments to the Land Acquisition Act and for Relief and Rehabilitation, the government waited till the last few days to bring it to parliament and that too without including crucial amendments to these legislations made by the standing committee. The inclusion of these amendments would have made private parties/corporates acquiring land accountable to certain basic norms and guarantees. The CPI(M) moved the relevant amendments in the Lok Sabha which however were not accepted. In the Rajya Sabha without adequate notice which would have permitted parties to move amendments, the government tried to push through the bills on the very last day of parliament. Once again it was the intervention of the CPI(M) which prevented this mockery of parliamentary norms.
A recent survey by the PRS Legislative research organization has shown that it was the CPI(M) which was the most active in parliament. In terms of attendance of its MPs it was highest with a 79 per cent attendance compared to “others” at 68 per cent or less. Equally important in terms of its participation in debates, during question hour, in demanding accountability from the government and other parliament related responsibilities of members each and every MP of the CPI(M) had participated compared to a high of 11 to 13 per cent of MPs of other parties who did not participate at all. Further, on an average, the CPI(M) MP participated in 47 debates compared to just 30 to 33 debates for other parties.
Clearly in the 14th Lok Sabha, the role of the CPI(M) MPs and other Left MPs in upholding the interests of the people were significant. This is in contrast to the Congress led UPA government’s efforts more so in the last year of its government to bulldoze parliament and parliamentary norms in the service of agendas of corporates and elite interests.