The country is passing through a deepening and alarming COVID crisis caused by failure of the Union Government to deal with it through robust public policy measures. This crisis has been preceded by a more lingering crisis manifested in NDA regime's calculated denial of scrutiny of legislative proposals in Parliament on a non partisan basis. It is being intensified for the last six years by employing crude majority strength in the Lok Sabha.
The stubborn stand taken by the regime in the Rajya Sabha on 21st September 2020 against the initiative of opposition parties including Biju Janata Dal to refer the farm Bills- Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 and the Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020- to a Select Committee of the House for better scrutiny and examination is reflective of its unwillingness to subject those Bills to deeper levels of deliberation and consultation eschewing party perspectives.
It is well accepted proposition in a parliamentary democracy that law making is a deliberative and consultative process. When the NDA regime willfully went against the parliamentary convention of referring Bills to Department related Parliamentary Standing Committees of Parliament for scrutiny and examination right after it assumed office in 2014 it harshly struck at the root of deliberative and consultative process. Neither the farm bills nor the earlier Bills such as the Constitution Amendment Bill abrogating special status for Jammu and Kashmir and Bills concerning CItizenship Amendment , Triple Talaq and Unlawful Activities Prevention Bill were referred to any of Committees of Parliament for in-depth deliberation on a non partisan basis by taking into account inputs from a variety of stake holders. In the absence of such in-depth deliberation free from party perspectives the Bills or legislative proposals suffers from deficit of legislative scrutiny.
The crude majority of the ruling party in the Lok Sabha and the cobbling up of numbers in the Rajya Sabha enables it to pass legislations without thread bare discussion and critical analysis of their provisions. As a result of serious deficiency of scrutiny such Bills when become Acts lack sufficient reasoning and rationale for meriting wider public acceptance.
On 16th January 1948 Mahatma Gandhi had thoughtfully said, "No Cabinet worthy of being representative of a large mass of mankind can afford to take any step merely because it is likely to win the hasty applause of an unthinking public. In the midst of insanity, should not our best representatives retain sanity and bravely prevent a wreck of the ship of State under their management?"
The lack of sanity reflected in pushing numerous legislations in the Parliament by the NDA regime from 2014 onwards by avoiding parliamentary scrutiny on a bipartisan basis in parliamentary committees has become a new normal negating the very basis of parliamentary democracy. Sanity demands that before legislations on sensitive subjects are taken up in the Parliament for discussion and passage the ruling regime should necessarily mobilize public opinion in their favour so that people would accept them willingly and conducive atmosphere would be created for their effective implementation. That is why it is said that better scrutiny leads to better governance.
The farm bills were neither referred to the concerned Department related parliamentary standing committees nor were they referred to the Select Committee of the Rajya Sabha as suggested by the opposition parties for scrutiny and examination. The statement of Agriculture Minister who piloted these Bills in the Rajya Sabha that there was no need to refer these bills to Select Committee of the House because these are small Bills sounds so hollow. In the absence of scrutiny and examination of Bills at the Committee level the vital ingredients involving wider deliberation and consultation are completely absent. Therefore, the protests by farmers in many parts of India against these Bills even before these were taken up in the Parliament clearly indicated public resentment against the Government neglecting scrutiny and examination of legislations which aim at deeply impacting their ways of disposal of their agricultural products. It means that these Bills passed by the Parliament lack support from the public because its views and opinion were never factored while formulating them. It clearly establishes the point that law making process when dictated by crude majority of the ruling regime would fail to command the willing support of people.
It is instructive that in pre independent India there were occasions when the colonial authorities used to refer Bills to committees of legislatures for nuanced discussion and deliberation before it became the law of the land. The most glaring instance was the Champaran Agrarian Bill of 1917 which was framed by the British authorities after Mahatma Gandhi launched his historic Champaran Satyagraha in 1917 to abolish forcible cultivation of indigo on the land of farmers at the dictation of British planters. At the heart of that momentous Satyagraha remained the deliberation and consultation on the part of Mahatma Gandhi with farmers, British planters, colonial bureaucracy, police and ordinary people. It is instructive that Champaran Stayagraha which began with Gandhi breaking the law ended with the framing of law to put an end to forcible plantation of indigo. And when the framing of law began and Champaran Agrarian Bill was formulated and introduced in the Bihar-Odisha Legislative Assembly many members of the Assembly demanded for its reference to the Select Committee of the House for scrutiny and examination. The British Government conceded it and even Mahatma Gandhi was requested to examine the Bill.
It is indeed tragic that hundred and three years after Champaran Satyagraha the NDA Government is sabotaging legislative scrutiny of farm Bills and using its crude majority to pass them disregarding the principles of parliamentary oversight which is indispensable for fine tuning Bills and improving its depth and content.
The passage of the farm Bills in the Rajya Sabha by voice vote and the request of the opposition to the Deputy Chairman to put the Bills to voting and failure of the Deputy Chairman to do so clearly prove the point that procedure for passage of the Bills have been violated. Such procedural lapse is subversion of democracy. The need of the hour is to restore the culture of deliberative and consultative process of law making and salvage the democratic process in the Parliament - the apex representative body in the constitutional scheme of Governance.
.The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity.