Force legislators to legislate

One reason for widespread dismay at the toppling of the Vajpayee government is that several Bills which looked like being enacted after years of delay now stand torpedoed. So it is not just Vajpayee’s fortunes that have been affected, but those of a wide spectrum of society.

The Constitution says that when the Lok Sabha is dissolved, all pending legislation lapses, even if it has passed through several stages of the legislative process. A new government has to take up the threads all over again. Now, no new government will simply adopt the text of a Bill prepared by its predecessor: it will change the Bill to suit its own lobbies. But by the time this tinkering is completed and fresh legislation introduced, the government falls. And so the game begins all over again.

Exasperated, the Confederation of Indian Industry has called on the government to issue ordinances to give effect to 11 key Bills which have already been introduced in Parliament and vetted by Parliamentary Committees. These include the Insurance Bill and amendments to the Companies Act, Sick Industrial Companies Act, Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, Securities Contract Act, Essential Commodities Act, and much else. Those interested in quicker justice are dismayed that legislation to amend the Civil Procedure Code, introduced by the United Front, is in cold storage. Legislation to protect geographical indications (that is, prevent foreign piracy of items like Basmati rice, Darjeeling tea and Alphonso mangoes) has yet to be enacted. We need a new law to protect our biodiversity. Various legal drafts have been debated for years, yet the task remains unfinished.

What is the way out? I do not think ordinances, as proposed by the CII, are a solution. Apart from issues of propriety, new ordinances will have to be ratified by the next Lok Sabha. And if politics continues to be as fractured as in recent years — a great probability — then the ordinances will-lapse as surely as the

People are wrong in thinking that the last four governments did not have enough time to pass legislation. They had time, but it was not utilised. Three sessions of parliament per year provide hundreds of hours of legislative time. Even if each Bill takes several hours of deliberation, there is time in a year to pass up to a hundred Bills.

Why, then, are so few Bills passed? Because many legislators are simply not interested in legislating. They want to use Parliament only for kicking up a row, invading the well of the house and generally refusing to let business proceed. One court has likened the proceedings of Parliament to a fish-market. Opposition parties seek to sabotage the very function for which they are elected — to legislate.

The conduct of many state legislatures is far worse than that of the Lok Sabha. At one time, the Bihar Assembly would meet only for a few hours, witness uproarious scenes, and then be prorogued. No legislation was enacted, and instead ordinances were issued. These lapsed with each session of the Assembly, and were then reissued. This ‘ordinance Raj’ was opposed in a public interest suit, and the Supreme Court issued severe strictures against this practice.

No Speaker, in Delhi or state capitals, is willing to suspend unruly legislators. One reason seems to be that, in today’s fractured politics, every legislator is a potential future ally, so nobody wants to take really firm action against hooligans. Besides, when public standards have sunk so low, Speakers seem disinclined to suspend a legislator merely for shouting.

What can be done? I suggest that public-spirited citizens should file a public interest suit in Supreme Court saying that the persistent failure of legislators to legislate violates their fundamental rights and denies them natural justice.

No doubt the Constitution gives Parliament the right to determine what it can do. But every provision of the Constitution is subject to reasonable restriction. For instance, freedom of speech is subject to restrictions on propagating communal hatred or pornography. So Parliament’s functioning is also subject to reasonable restriction. The Supreme Court’s strictures in the Bihar case already constitute a precedent.

The Supreme Court should lay down a minimum number of hours of legislative time for every session of the Lok Sabha or Vidhan Sabha. Even if unruly legislators disrupt proceedings, the House must not be prorogued, and must sit as a long as is needed-every day of the year if necessary to complete the quota of legislative hours laid down by the Supreme Court. This will ensure that unruly elements cannot hijack the legislative process. Judicial activism so far has been limited largely to making good the failings of the executive. Judges have not acted to make good the failings of the legislatures.

Possibly they feel it is reasonable to force the administration to do things in the public interest, but are uneasy about forcing legislatures to enact’ this or that law. That would amount to taking over the function of the legislatures.

Fair enough. But it is entirely reasonable to decree a minimum number of hours of legislative business. This will not violate the sovereignty of legislatures, yet will ensure that the rights of citizens to legislation is not hijacked.

This will not solve all problems. Many Bills are held up today not for want of lack of time but because of disagreements between parties that control the lower house and those that control the upper house. Debates may be unruly and violent. Important Bills may be shelved, and only less important business may be enacted. Still, the outcome will be far superior to the current, outrageous state of affairs. We must oblige legislators to legislate.

What do you think?