The NDA government on Friday outmanoeuvred the Opposition to win parliamentary approval for key bills mandating the auction of coal, iron ore and other mines, blowing more wind into its reform sails.
Despite its minority in the Rajya Sabha, the government managed to get the support of regional parties on the coal bill to isolate the Congress, the Left parties and the DMK, with the split of votes in the House reading 107 to 69. The JD(U) staged a walkout, and many members of the Opposition were absent.
Auctioning coal assets sets a precedent for other natural resources and will help avoid scams like the one under the former UPA regime that was estimated to have cost the exchequer Rs 1,86,000 crore. Since auctions were introduced by ordinance in October, the government has made Rs 2,10,000 crore by selling 23 coal blocks so far. Some estimates peg total income at an eye-popping Rs 15,00,000 crore over a 30-year period. All the money goes to states where the coal blocks are located.
“It is an important day for Indian democracy, Parliament and the Indian economy as the politics of obstructionism led by Congress failed today,” said finance minister Arun Jaitley after the passage of the Coal Mines (Special Provision) Bill and Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill.
The mines regulation bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha with two amendments and sent back to the Lok Sabha where the government had no difficulty in ensuring its re-passage.
During the current session, the government secured passage for the insurance bill, legislation that was stuck for seven years; on Friday it also introduced the black money bill aiming to get untaxed money back into the country.
Now all eyes are on the government’s next move on a land acquisition bill that also replaces an ordinance, the last of the six ordinances awaiting parliamentary approval. The land ordinance expires on April 6, and can be repromulgated but only when Parliament is not in session.
Both Houses went into recess to reassemble again on April 20; the government cannot re-promulgate the ordinance unless it prorogues Parliament. A restrictive land acquisition law brought in by the UPA has widely been seen as stymying industry at every turn; Narendra Modi’s government is keen to come up with a more business-friendly law but is being blocked by several parties including some of its friends. The government, which dominates the Lok Sabha but is well short of a majority in the Rajya Sabha, was considering a joint session of Parliament to get the land bill through but gave up the idea when it sensed the reservations of some regional parties that broke with the rest of the opposition to support the coal and minerals bills.
The regional parties’ support will be crucial for another important bill, on the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which the NDA regime intends to pass in the next part of the budget session. Sources said the government would like the GST law to cap its latest round of reforms, and could come back to the land bill after getting GST done.
“The government of India, the council of ministers will take a view on it (land bill). There is no dejection,” said Jaitley. Parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu said, “The land ordinance was a correct step. Many states demanded changes as infrastructure creation and rural development came to a halt. We will now hold consultations across the states. Some better ideas and suggestions may come up.
We will take up the land bill in the second half of the budget session.” Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh said the opposition parties were “compromised”, but his colleague Jairam Ramesh expressed confidence that Opposition unity on the land bill would remain.