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Parliament session gives government chance to further reform agenda

Wednesday, November 18, 2009 12:42:18 PM, M.R. Madhavan, IANS

New Delhi: The month-long winter session of parliament begins this Thursday, presenting the government with an opportunity to further its reform agenda. There has been much talk of reforms in higher education and judiciary and second generation reforms in the financial sector. The government would need to introduce bills to address these issues.


The government has indicated some items on its legislative agenda. The Equal Opportunities Bill was recommended by the Sachar Commission to enforce affirmative action -- in both the public and private sectors. The law minister has indicated that he may introduce bills to codify accountability of judges and declaration of their assets and take measures to improve delivery of justice.


The human resource development minister has also indicated the possibility of legislation to reform the higher education sector, including a new regulatory structure and permission for foreign universities.


The government will introduce bills to replace four ordinances that have been promulgated since the last session. The Essential Commodities Act was amended to provide that the price fixed by the central government for sugarcane shall be taken into account while calculating the price paid to sugar mills for levy sugar. This has become a controversial issue as the minimum sugarcane price fixed by state governments is often significantly higher than the central government pricing.


The Central Universities Act was amended to bifurcate the Jammu and Kashmir University. The Competition Act was amended for immediate closure of the MRTPC; earlier a two-year time frame was fixed for the purpose. And the Jharkhand Contingency Fund (with the state being under President's rule) was enhanced from Rs.150 crore to Rs.500 crore. It is likely that the last three bills will be passed with broad agreement from most parties.


Thirty-six bills are pending in the Rajya Sabha from earlier sessions. These include the seeds bill, the communal violence bill, the women's reservation bill and amendments to the insurance act.


Some of these bills have not been taken up for discussion as they face strong opposition from some political parties. For example, the seeds bill that regulates the manufacture, distribution and sale of seeds also requires inter-farmer sale of seeds to conform to quality tests and norms. The standing committee has recommended deletion of this requirement; it will be interesting to see whether the government proposes any amendments.


The communal violence bill doubles the punishment for certain crimes if they are committed as part of communal riots. This has been criticised as ineffective on account of the low conviction rate in such cases.


The women's reservation bill has been referred again to the standing committee, as the earlier committee was not able to arrive at a consensus.


The insurance bill raises the foreign investment limit to 49 percent (currently 26 percent) and allows nationalised general insurance companies to raise funds from the capital markets. This bill is pending with the standing committee, and could see opposition from the Left parties.


Some of the bills that lapsed with the dissolution of the last Lok Sabha could be re-introduced. The president's address in June signalled urgency over the land acquisition amendment and the rehabilitation bills. However, some cabinet ministers have reportedly objected to these bills.


The bill to amend the Forward Contracts Regulation Act was stalled last year due to opposition from the Left. Given the current position of the UPA government, this bill could be revived. The case of the pension regulatory bill is similar; indeed this bill has been publicly supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party.


A set of bills could be introduced related to the State Bank of India (SBI) group -- reducing the minimum government shareholding in SBI to 51 percent (from 55 percent), merger of the State Bank of Saurashtra into SBI, and transfer of some powers regarding these banks from the Reserve Bank of India to the central government.


Of the bills introduced last session, 10 are pending. The Rubber Amendment Bill was taken up on the last day of the last session but was not discussed as the opposition objected to the absence of the ministers concerned. This bill delicenses planting and replanting of rubber, amends the powers of the Rubber Board, and enables the revocation and refund of excise on rubber manufactured for export between 1961 and 2003.


The Land Ports Authority Bill establishes an authority for managing the movement of people and goods across land borders; the bill is being scrutinised by the standing committee. The workmen's compensation amendment enhances the amount of compensation to be paid in case of death or permanent disability.


The UPA-I government was unable to conclude several of its legislative initiatives. The president's address as well as subsequent announcements by various ministers indicate the resolve to carry forward much of that agenda. It would be interesting to see to what extent the government succeeds in this regard during the winter session.


M.R. Madhavan is head of research at PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi. He can be contacted at






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