The current impasse in Parliament has created a logjam that threatens to disrupt the proceedings of the winter session. The latest reason that has brought the situation to such a pass is the decision of the Union cabinet to permit foreign direct investment (FDI) in the multi-brand retail sector, opening the way for international supermarket giants like Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco to open their shops in India.
While the Cabinet does have the right to take executive decisions, it's unprecedented that such decisions are taken and announced when Parliament is in session. This runs contrary to the spirit of parliamentary democracy and our constitutional scheme of things. It is, therefore, not unreasonable that parliamentarians, cutting across political parties, have demanded that this decision ought to have been taken after the issue was discussed by both the Houses. Once the decision has been taken, any discussion on the issue is simply infructuous. Unless, of course, the government is willing to reverse its decision and allow a meaningful discussion in Parliament to determine what decision India must take on this score. This is precisely what all the opposition parties, and some important allies of the government in the UPA, are demanding today.
Thus, whether this winter session can be salvaged, or, whether it would be allowed to be wasted, depends crucially on the willingness of the government to accede to such a reasonable demand. This session had, on its agenda, the passage of important legislations, including the Lokpal Bill. It's learnt that the Parliamentary Standing Committee examining the draft Lokpal Bill has completed its deliberations to recommend its suggestions to the Parliament. Whether this Bill will see the light of day in this session, as promised by the government and by a unanimous resolution of both the Houses to this effect will, thus, crucially depend on the government's response on reversing the Cabinet's decision on permitting FDI in the retail sector.
If this doesn't happen, then serious and legitimate doubts over the UPA's intentions arise. Such a disruption of the session would permit the government to conveniently avoid getting both embarrassed and cornered on issues of price rise, corruption and black money, apart from the contentious issues involved in the Lokpal Bill. Recollect that in the last two decades, the Lokpal Bill was brought before the Parliament on more than one occasion, but it never saw the light of day due to, among other reasons, a disagreement on whether the prime minister must be included in its ambit. The disruption of parliamentary proceedings in this session can well allow such procrastination to continue, denying India an effective institution of a lokpal.
The ball, thus, is in the government's court. If it's committed to the welfare of the aam aadmi, it must break this logjam by reversing the Cabinet decision on FDI, discuss the matter in the Parliament and take a decision in accordance with the sense of the House. This would also allow Parliament to discuss and make the UPA take the required decisions on other important issues.
The opposition to allowing FDI in the retail sector began from the moment such a proposal was first announced in the 2004-05 budget speech. Given the firm opposition by the Left parties, whose support was crucial for the then UPA government, this was shelved. Subsequently, on January 11, 2011, the president of the Congress and chairperson of the UPA wrote to the prime minister urging him to take a hard look at the impact that the entry of foreign players would have on small-scale stores and on the livelihood security of small-scale operators before taking any decision.
Opposing such a proposal, the Left parties, in a note to the then UPA-Left Coordination Committee, in October 2005, highlighted the fact that retail trade, on the basis of a conservative estimate, contributes around 11% to India's GDP and had then employed over 40 million people. According to the Fourth Economic Census, 1998, retail trade accounted for 42.5% of the total non-agricultural own account enterprises in rural areas and 50.5% in the urban areas. This translates into 38.2% in rural and 46.4% in urban employment in such own account enterprises. Therefore, crores of Indians are today dependent upon retail trade for their livelihood. Undermining this by permitting the entry of multinational giants will only push millions into poverty and misery. This will add to the woes of the 'real India' where over 80 crore people eke out an existence on less than Rs. 20 a day.
Substantial issues can be discussed in the Parliament if the UPA decides to create conditions for such a discussion. It is clear that permitting FDI in the retail sector may well provide new avenues for profits for the beleaguered international capital in today's global double dip recession. Maybe, such were the assurances that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave President Barack Obama when he met him recently. This, however, can only happen at grave expense to the Indian people and it will damage the health of our economic fundamentals too.
Rather than adhering to some false notions of prestige, there is nothing lost if the government were to reverse its decision and allow a proper discussion and the rest of the winter session to function in order to discharge its duty in legislating on the crucial issues discussed here.
Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed by the author are personal