Above: Ministers MA Naqvi, Ravi Shankar Prasad at Parliament House, New Delhi/Photo: UNI
Pendency of bills in the Upper House is cause for concern. After the formation of a new Lok Sabha, the government should be mandated to reconsider the bills and strategy regarding them
By Vivek K Agnihotri
First the facts. On June 21, when the Rajya Sabha had its first full meeting after the formation of the 17th Lok Sabha, Venkaiah Naidu, the vice-president of India, made the following observations: “At the end of the last and the 248th session of Rajya Sabha, a total of 55 Bills were pending consideration in this House. After the lapsing of the 22 Bills that were referred to earlier, the pendency in this House now stands at 33 Bills. Three bills are pending for more than 20 years, six bills are pending between 10-20 years, 14 bills are pending between 5-10 years and 10 bills are pending for less than 5 years. The oldest pending bill, the Indian Medical Council (Amendment) Bill, 1987, has been pending for more than 32 years. This is certainly not a happy situation…
“In order to streamline the process, I suggest that if a Bill is not taken up for consideration and passing in Rajya Sabha within five years of introduction of such Bills, such pending Bills should be treated as deemed to have lapsed.”
Prior to making this observation, the chairman of the Rajya Sabha also made this significant remark: “Under the provision of Article 107 of the Constitution, Bills passed by the Lok Sabha during the course of its five-year term and pending in Rajya Sabha get lapsed with the dissolution of the House of the People. Accordingly, 22 Bills passed by the 16th Lok Sabha and were pending in the Upper House got lapsed.
“In effect, Lok Sabha has to take up these 22 Bills again for consideration and passing. I am afraid it would take a minimum of two sessions for doing so. And this means that the efforts of Lok Sabha for passing these 22 Bills have been rendered waste. The Bills that got lapsed in Rajya Sabha were important from the socio-economic transformation of our country.”
These two observations, taken together, raise two major concerns. First, that a large number of bills are pending consideration in the Rajya Sabha, some of them for decades, which is not a happy situation. Second, some bills, which, after a laborious and time-consuming process, reach the stage of getting discussed and passed, lapse due to dissolution of the Lok Sabha and, therefore, have to be dealt with from the beginning.
The bills referred to as “pending in the Rajya Sabha” are those which were introduced in the House and have not seen the light of day. In order to get to the root cause of these not being taken up for consideration and passage, we need to look into the governmental logic for introduction of a Bill in a particular House. All so-called money bills (Articles 109 and 110) are constitutionally mandated to be introduced in the Lok Sabha. All the other bills can be introduced in either House of Parliament. But, in the context of the persisting as well as current political scenario in Parliament, the government takes recourse to introducing in the Lok Sabha a bill which is of great significance and of more immediate concern as it is confident of getting it passed on account of its majority there.
Other bills, of a non-controversial nature, where the Opposition could be expected to fall in line in due course may be introduced in the Rajya Sabha for the purpose of balancing government business between the two Houses. Moreover, towards the end of the tenure of a Lok Sabha, the government pitches in for introducing bills in the Rajya Sabha on account of its confidence that bills will not lapse on the dissolution of the Lok Sabha. Thus, the government is able to flag its good legislative intentions even though there is little time or possibility of getting a bill passed by both the Houses within the remaining tenure of the Lok Sabha.
Thereafter, for one reason or another, namely, change in government, lack of consensus on the subject or change in the situation which had led to the introduction of the bill, it continues to be on the rolls of the Rajya Sabha. This is because the Rajya Sabha being a permanent body (it is never dissolved), the Bills there don’t lapse till they leave its portals and reach the Lok Sabha. The government often has a convenient lapse of memory and lets sleeping dogs lie indefinitely. The remedy recommended by Naidu is that all such Bills should be deemed to have lapsed if they have been kept pending for over five years.
At the same time, he expressed concern about the constitutional provision, namely, Article 107, the relevant provisions (Clauses (4) and (5)) of which read as follows:
“(4) A Bill pending in the Council of States which has not been passed by the House of the People shall not lapse on a dissolution of the House of the People.
“(5) A Bill which is pending in the House of the People, or which having been passed by the House of the People is pending in the Council of States, shall subject to the provisions of Article 108, lapse on a dissolution of the House of the People.”
The “doctrine of lapse” enunciated in the provisions above, implies that any bill, irrespective of its origin, whether in the Rajya Sabha or the Lok Sabha, lapses once it has entered the portals of the Lok Sabha. But there are exceptions such as when a bill passed by both Houses has been sent for obtaining the president’s assent or when the president has notified his intention to summon a joint sitting of Houses to consider a bill upon which the two Houses have disagreed (Article 108) or when a bill introduced in the Rajya Sabha is pending before a Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee serviced by the Rajya Sabha Secretariat.
Be that as it may, in both types of cases flagged by Naidu, there is need for a “wider debate”. As far as the long-term pendency of the bills in the Rajya Sabha is concerned, the suggestion of Naidu that they should be deemed as lapsed after five years is eminently workable. However, a better proposition would be that after the formation of a new Lok Sabha, the government should be mandated to reconsider the bills pending in the Rajya Sabha and the minister for parliamentary affairs should be required to make a statement in Parliament about the government’s strategy in respect of those Bills. In other words, he should say which of them would be withdrawn, which would be pursued and which would be replaced by a new bill. In the event of the government failing to make such a statement within, say, six months of the formation of the new government, all the bills pending in the Rajya Sabha prior to the formation of the Lok Sabha shall be deemed to have lapsed.
The other concern voiced by Naidu is of far greater import. It is about the “indiscriminate” lapsing of the bills, pending in either House, on the dissolution of the Lok Sabha in view of Clause (5) of Article 107. The parliamentary legislative process is a long-drawn one. Various stages through which a bill has to necessarily go through—introduction, reference to the Department Related Standing Committee (which may involve consultations with stakeholders), and passage after discussion and debate—consume considerable time.
The time-frame is further stretched as the parliament, of late, has about 60 to 70 sitting days per year spread across three sessions (budget, monsoon and winter). The way out would be to provide that a bill passed by the Lok Sabha and pending in the Rajya Sabha at the time of the dissolution of the former may continue to be discussed in the Upper House. But this would need to be sent back to the new Lok Sabha for reconsideration. It may, however, be withdrawn or replaced by the government, with the permission of the House, at any time.
However, the changes proposed for both the eventualities mentioned above would require appropriate amendments to the Constitution. There is another way out, one which the government sometimes adopts. It brings in bills to replace some of the ordinances, promulgated under Article 111 during the previous Lok Sabha, in the first session of Parliament summoned after the general election. Most of the time, conversion of such ordinances into acts is a well-orchestrated short-cut to pet legislative proposals. It, thus, to some extent, helps circumvent the tortuous legislative process.
—The writer is a former Secretary-General of the Rajya Sabha