Tuesday, June 19, 2018
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Parliament budget session was eventful
By Shastri Ramachandaran
The two parts of the recently-concluded Budget Session of Parliament make for a study in contrast. The first part, which commenced on January 31 and ended on February 9, was a wash out with frequent disruptions. Much of it was because of the Opposition's attack on the government's demonetisation drive. In refreshing contrast, the second part, from March 9 to April 12, was very productive and participatory.

Although both parts of the session may be described as "eventful", it is not positive when applied to the first part. No doubt, the high point of the first part was presentation of the Union Budget. Besides, before concluding the first part of the Budget Session, Parliament passed the motion of thanks to the President's address to the joint sitting of both the Houses. Yet recall of the first part is dominated by the disruptions and adjournments.

In striking contrast, the second part of the Budget Session was eventful in a vibrant and positive sense. Both Houses clocked high working hours and attendance by members of all parties was also very impressive. Conspicuously enough, though there was a volatile situation in Jammu & Kashmir and the state was very much in the news, J&K members were not prominently visible or active in the House during this period

In this session, Lok Sabha passed 22 Bills and Rajya Sabha 14. Among important and much-awaited legislation passed were four Bills related to Goods and Services Tax (GST) -a measure that has been hanging fire for more than a decade. The passage of these four Bills reflected the bipartisan political resolve to push for what is widely viewed as an economic game-changer. Therefore, it is no surprise that the passage of GST-related Bills has been widely hailed especially by the business, trade and investment communities.

While these four Bills hogged much of the limelight, there were other, equally important, Bills passed after debate and discussion. The Mental Healthcare Bill and the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill passed by the Lok Sabha in the second part of the session carried most of the changes recommended by the parliamentary committees to which these two Bills were referred. There was a lot of informed interest and participation by members in the matter of these Bills which have far-reaching consequences.

However, not all the Bills passed were scrutinised as much as these two. Nor did the other Bills undergo such study and changes as is possible only when legislation is referred to a parliamentary committee. In fact, these two Bills underscore the importance of putting Bills through parliamentary committees before being passed.

In the case of the Enemy Property Bill, which was also scrutinised by a parliamentary committee, the changes proposed were not incorporated before Parliament passed it. This Bill vests rights over enemy property with the Union government. The Bill bars judicial review of cases relating to enemy property, which provision may turn out to be problematic.

Similarly, some of the other important Bills passed gave rise to a controversy because they raise serious constitutional issues, including violation of fundamental rights, and preclude judicial review of government action.

Another 'problematic' legislation is the all-important Finance Bill passed during the second session. Besides amending tax rates, it allows the Union Government to lay down -- by notification instead of specifying it in the Act -- the terms of appointment of quasi-judicial bodies. This provision may not be in tune with court verdicts upholding judicial independence as the Constitution's basic feature. Under this Finance Bill, income tax officers can refuse to reveal to a court or tribunal the basis for a raid, which does not conform to the principle of executive action being subject to judicial review.

The Specified Bank Notes (Cessation of Liabilities) Bill, necessitated by demonetisation, has denotified old notes of Rs 1000 and Rs 500 notes. The Bill, which makes it an offence to hold more than 10 demonetised notes, raises constitutional issues: people who are stuck with demonetised currency because they were not given the time first promised on November 8, 2016 would be guilty of an offence for no fault of theirs. They are left holding the notes because they did not get the opportunity to change the currency. Their money is, first, appropriated by being rendered illegal and, second, possession of the currency -unavoidable in their case - becomes an offence without any intention to commit an offence on their part.

Parliamentary committees can be very useful when it comes to such problematic Bills because there would be deeper scrutiny and more deliberation before controversial provisions are retained or removed.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was right in describing the Budget Session of Parliament as a "winner" for his government - because of the passage of many Bills, particularly those cited above. However, the passage of the Bills, cannot sweep under the carpet the questions they have raised.

The author, an independent political and foreign affairs commentator, covers Lok Sabha for Kashmir Times and Dainik Kashmir.

News Updated at : Thursday, April 20, 2017
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