Let us have our say

India needs a democratic and transparent pre-legislative process. Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey write.

india Updated: Jul 22, 2011 22:10 IST

Pontius Pilate asked Christ, "What is truth?" and did not wait for an answer. In contrast 'what is civil society?' has provoked innumerable answers, descriptions and definitions. It is suffice to say that the term includes a large chunk of social groups outside the State and the group is much bigger than the small spectrum the media is focusing on.

Much of India's law-making process has been outside the scrutiny of ordinary people. They are not framed by legislators or even senior bureaucrats but are often drafts prepared by babus. Sometimes, powerful business interests influence these laws (like the Special Economic Zone Act) and then they are passed in Parliament with little or no discussion. Sometimes, a popular public demand enters the discourse of a political party and takes the shape of policy and legislation. However, the desire of citizens to participate in the framing of law and policy has intensified over the years, and their voice needs to be included in democratic decision-making.

With growing interest in governance, citizens may suggest policy and legislation and such deliberations will only strengthen constitutional processes. Actual consultation on draft legislation and policy require detailed discussion of the principles, framework and formulation of specifics. These consultations will provoke multiple views and it is important for the institutional framework to assimilate and consider them.

Any group placing its views in the public domain cannot claim total representation. There will be criticism and those need to be resolved. However, assemblies of people can only support the need for legislation. Surveys and votes by raising hands are important to register support for the general idea but cannot be the basis for detailed drafting of a law and its constituent parts.

The principles and framework of any legislation must be debated and the erroneous conclusion that any difference of opinion is tantamount to mala fide intent needs to be questioned. It is in any case only of peripheral importance, as the issues themselves need to be addressed. This applies to laws made both by the formal and informal structures.

Many democracies in the world already have started placing policy and draft laws in the public domain before they are sent to the government, cabinet and then Parliament. The deliberative consultative process is for everyone but focuses more on people who are most affected by the legislation. The policy and the sharing of frameworks are followed by a draft of the bill itself. All this is done within a timeframe. The nascent process of participation of citizens in shaping legislation in the last two decades will find systemic space and democratic credibility.

Today, lokpal has become a phrase, a concept and almost a passion. But that apart, the unpackaging of the concept and the understanding of the bill, and its legal and administrative mechanisms are restricted to a few civil society and government groups. It is time for the interested groups to build a constituency of concerned people who will steer democracy in consonance with constitutional rights. What we need is a well-argued critique of the way we want change.

People must have the space to mobilise and protest - it is a constitutional right. But different processes need different platforms. The argument against corruption will stand or fall, not on the volume of our protest alone, but on the rigour of our proposals.

What we need is a transparent pre-legislative process within the democratic framework. It is important that the pre-legislative process is evolved and shaped in a synergetic manner. If it is properly institutionalised, it will not impinge on executive or legislative privilege. There should be a response to citizens' desire to participate in framing legislation by creating platforms for institutionalised participation to deepen democratic processes.

India today is at a moment in history where a more complex political idiom is being evolved. This needs to be understood, nurtured and used for enriching our processes of making law and policy. It is a test of the maturity of a people, a polity and the underlying democratic mores of all of us.

Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey are social activists The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jul 22, 2011 22:03 IST