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Top billing, but no real debate

A flurry of Bills cleared on the last day of a ten-day Parliament session is drawing criticism for cocking a snook at the legislative process.

india Updated: Dec 24, 2008 22:04 IST

A flurry of Bills cleared on the last day of a ten-day Parliament session is drawing criticism for cocking a snook at the legislative process. Eight Bills passed by the Lok Sabha in 17 minutes amid bedlam over Minorities Affairs Minister A.R. Antulay’s inflammatory remarks on the recent terror attacks make for an interesting headline. What it does not capture, however, are the man-days that went into the legislative scrutiny of each of these Bills at the committee stage. Typically, a Bill is debated for at least 60 hours by a parliamentary standing committee before it returns to the government for amendments, re-tabling and passage. If, at this stage, bigger issues — like the Antulay episode — occupy our Right Honourable Members, so be it. The system is designed such that Parliament’s principal business — enacting laws — does not suffer. A Bill every other minute can, and does, get passed.

The committee system has its obvious benefits. Since its import into India in the 1990s, the biggest one has been to de-link the legislative process from the parliamentary schedule. Laws get debated round the year in an atmosphere far removed from the heat and dust of Parliament in session. With 27 Bills being passed before the last leg of the Monsoon Session wound up on Tuesday, and 78 pending, the making of laws demands more time than what the parliamentary calendar has to offer. And that too without time lost in theatrics. An outgoing government’s legislative agenda is understandably crowded in the last full session before polls. Election promises—universal social security, for instance—have to be kept. Contentious reforms like higher foreign investment in insurance companies must be rushed.

The governance needs of a nation after 60 years of Independence are divergent from our legacy of colonial laws. A society in transformation, meanwhile, imposes its own imperatives. And a rapidly changing global economy adds to legislative urgency. On all three scores, we need to step on the gas. If that means four in every 10 Bills that our Parliament is passing go through without considered debate on the floor of the House, governance is served as long as the debate takes place somewhere else within the legislative apparatus. Whether our parliamentarians want to be a part of the process is, well, their choice.