Let the public participate

5 Aug

This post was first published in Takshashila’s Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review on May 3, 2013.  The article can be accessed here.

Given the failure of many government legislations in achieving the objectives for which they were formulated, a case for institutionalising deeper public consultations in the legislative process has been made in the recent past. Currently, there are four entry points where citizens can participate in the legislative process: first, the identifying stage; second, the drafting stage; third, the legislative stage; and fourth, the post-legislative stage.

Civil society organisations can alert the government to the need for a particular legislation or changes in an existing law. The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, a farmers and workers group, ran a successful campaign for a Right to Information law, which was finally enacted in 2005. The recent anti-corruption agitation led to the introduction of a Lokpal Bill currently pending in the Rajya Sabha. The long-running Right to Food campaign by a network of NGOs has been instrumental in raising awareness about chronic hunger and the eventual introduction of the National Food Security Bill in 2011.

The government can also suo moto decide that a law is required in a particular sector. It may get inputs from specialised bodies such as the National Human Rights Commission and the Law Commission or appoint a group to study a sector and draft a law. These groups or bodies may hold consultations with independent experts and stakeholders. Furthermore, an individual Member of Parliament (MP) can also introduce a Bill in either House. This is known as a Private Member’s Bill (for example, Lok Sabha MP, Kalikesh Singh Deo introduced the Disclosure of Lobbying Activities Bill in 2013 to regulate lobbying activities). Although these are generally never passed, they act as signalling devices to the government, which may introduce its own legislation on the subject. It is possible for the public to approach their constituency representatives to advocate for a particular law.

Government Bills are drafted by the concerned ministry, which is then vetted by other ministries. There are also times when the government approaches an independent expert to draft a law. Recently, it appointed the Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission, under the chairmanship of Justice BN Srikrishna to reform the financial sector laws.

The government may publish the draft legislation in the public domain for feedback. Drafts of the Electronic Service Delivery Bill, the National Sports Bill and the Land Acquisition and Resettlement Bill were published for a specified time period (generally 20-30 days). It may also circulate the draft among a select set of stakeholders for comments.  An individual MP may solicit public feedback on his Private Member Legislation. For example, Biju Janata Dal, MP Baijayant Panda uses his personal website and social media tools such as Facebook to publicise the draft of his private member bills.

There are few avenues of public engagement once the Bill is introduced in the Parliament. Since 1993, 24 Department-related Standing Committees (DRSCs) were formed to scrutinise Bills and other policies of the Government (before 1993 Bills were sometimes referred to ad-hoc committees for scrutiny). Generally most Bills are referred to these DRSCs, however, the presiding officer of the House has the discretion not to do so. For instance, key Bills such as the Special Economic Zones Bill, 2005 and the National Investigation Agency Bill, 2008 were not referred to a DRSC. In contrast, the Lokpal Bill passed by the Lok Sabha was sent to a Select Committee by the Rajya Sabha although it had been examined by the DRSC.

These DRSCs may solicit feedback from the public by issuing notices in key newspapers and the Gazette of India. The public comments are also tabled in the form of a report. However, the level of public engagement varies with different Bills. For instance, the DRSC scrutinising the Companies Bill, 2009 received 101 comments while only 10 submissions were received for the Armed Forces Tribunal (Amendment) Bill, 2012.

The government is not bound to accept the recommendations of the DRSC but individual MPs may introduce amendments to the Bill when it is being considered by the House. The MP may suggest amendments based on the DRSC’s suggestions or any public feedback.

Once Bills are enacted, ministries draft and notify Rules (also known as subordinate legislation) to enable their implementation. These Rules may be scrutinised by the Subordinate Legislation Committee, which is empowered to seek public feedback.

Post legislative scrutiny of laws is not mandatory in India. It may however be undertaken by bodies such as the Law Commission of India, the DRSCs or a specific commission appointed for the purpose who may hold public consultations. Recently, rape laws were reviewed by the Justice Verma Committee before an Ordinance was promulgated on the matter.

Many other democracies have devised meaningful ways to encourage public participation in the legislative process. In countries such as the UK, Australia and South Africa, it is mandatory to hold public consultations or publish draft Bills for comments. In fact, in South Africa it is a constitutionally mandated provision. In the UK, the Government publishes Green Paper and White Paper, which sets out its central ideas on the Bill. After introduction, it is compulsory to refer a Bill to a committee in the UK and the US. However, there is no such requirement in Australia, Canada and South Africa. Unlike in India and South Africa, it is mandatory for the Government in countries such as the UK, Australia and Canada to respond to the recommendations of the committee. While post legislative scrutiny in India is largely a matter of discretion of the Government, in the UK it is compulsory to do so within three to five years. In the US, legislative oversight committees review laws on a continuous basis. In Australia, most laws have to be reviewed within three years.  Public comments are also solicited during the post-legislative scrutiny.

India can learn from the experience of these countries and tailor them to suit our requirements. There are many ways in which the government can deepen public engagement in the legislative process.

First, ministries can be mandatorily required to publish the draft Bill for a reasonable time and publicise it through different media. Along with the draft Bill, the ministry may be required to include available background information on the subject and facilitate access to legal and legislative record on the matter.

Second, it should be compulsory to refer a Bill to a DRSC or select committee for scrutiny. This could be at both the pre-legislative stage and the legislative stage.  These committees should be required to hold wide consultations with a variety of stakeholders (NGOs, state and local governments, special interest groups, academics and legal experts). Public participation may be facilitated by increasing access to constituency offices, using a variety of media outlets to publicise the Bill and creating public participation offices that can interface with the public.

Third, in order to increase transparency in the feedback process, the government could be required to publish a report demonstrating how the inputs from stakeholders have been considered while formulating the law.

Fourth, most Acts should be subject to a post legislative scrutiny through public engagement every three to five years.  This could be carried out if each Bill includes an Explanatory Note giving the criteria or outcomes by which the Bill could be judged for effectiveness.  This responsibility could be given to a specialised committee.

Such measures will result in robust legislations, which shall need lesser amendments and will be successful in achieving the objective with which that legislation was enacted.

2 Responses to “Let the public participate”

  1. Rich Goyer August 8, 2013 at 3:42 am #

    Good stuff

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  1. 4 Reasons for public participation | Democracy in action - August 6, 2013

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