A strong and vocal Parliament is imperative for a functional democracy. Our founding fathers envisaged Parliament as a place where Members not only debate government policies or support/ oppose laws put forward by Ministers, but also use their wisdom and understanding to suggest laws to deal with pressing issues in the country. Unfortunately, this has not panned out as expected and today Private Members’ Bills have been relegated to the sidelines of the functioning of the Indian Parliament. Read on to find more…
A Member of the Parliament who is not a Minister (i.e. not a member of the Government) is regarded as a Private Member. A Bill introduced in either house of Parliament by any such Member of Parliament is called a Private Members’ Bill; Bills introduced by Ministers are called Government Bills. In India, usually, alternate Friday afternoons during session time (generally between 2 pm and 6 pm) are reserved for discussions on Private Members’ Bills. PMBs are drafted by MPs themselves, or their offices, and are checked for legal consistency by the Parliament Secretariat.
Only 14 PMBs have become law since India’s independence, the last being passed in 1970. More recently, The Rights of Transgender Persons Bill, 2014 introduced by Mr. Tiruchi Siva was passed in the Rajya Sabha after a gap of 45 years since the passing of the last PMB.
In terms of the scope and treatment of Bills in Parliament, there is no material difference between a Government Bill and a Private Members’ Bill. PMBs can deal with any issue; they can also be Constitutional Amendment Bills or Money Bills. The only difference is in terms of the process followed outside Parliament. Government Bills are often deliberated upon and approved by the Council of Ministers before being introduced. This is not done for PMBs.
A Private Members’ Bill is introduced in the Parliament by giving prior notice of one month along with a copy of the ‘Statement of Objects and Reasons’ wherein the Private Member explains her/ his rationale for the introduction of the Bill. The final order of introduction is decided by a ballot system to ensure fairness. On the day allotted for such Bills, the Speaker/ Chairman of the Lok Sabha/ Rajya Sabha calls out to individual Members who then introduce their Bills.
There is also a Parliamentary Committee on Private Members’ Bills and Resolutions which allots time to different PMBs and goes through all of them (particularly those seeking to amend the Constitution). It also helps in classifying these Bills based on their nature, urgency, and importance. This classification, in turn, determines which of the introduced Bills are discussed first.
In recent years, governments have tended to view PMBs as an intrusion by non-Ministers into their domain. A perception also seems to have been built that the passage of such a Bill would mean that the government is incompetent and far removed from the needs of the people. As a result, the passage (and even discussion) of PMBs is not encouraged. This has led to an unofficial convention where, if a PMB finds support in the House, the Government usually requests the Private Member to withdraw her/ his Bill with the assurance that the Government will introduce a Bill on the same issue. Most recently, this happened in the case of The Rights of Transgender Persons Bill introduced by Mr. Tiruchi Siva.
Earlier governments often displayed features of bipartisanship, with the Cabinet Ministers themselves holding opposing views. This resulted in healthy debates and respect towards viewpoints held by others and therefore, a greater acceptance of Private Member legislation. Subsequent governments have not upheld this trait as much, and this shows in the way PMBs are treated.
According to PRS Legislative Research, over 370 PMBs were introduced in the 15th Lok Sabha. None were passed; barely 3% were discussed and 97% lapsed without any deliberations.
PMBs were designed to empower MPs to bring attention to issues that were willingly or unwillingly ignored by the party at the helm. In the past, MPs have used PMBs to put forward important issues. For instance, in 1957, Subhadra Joshi, a noted Indian freedom activist, politician and Parliamentarian, introduced a Bill in the Lok Sabha to extend financial support to women looking to fight cases of bigamy against their husbands. Mr. Tiruchi Siva’s PMB on the rights of transgender people is another great example. These Bills speak volumes of the significance of PMBs in a democracy.
Various countries across the world effectively empower their Private Members and respect their initiative in the lawmaking process. For instance, in the UK, since 1948, as many as 775 Private Members’ Bills have received Royal Assent and the Canadian Parliament has passed 290 Private Members’ Bills till date.
India’s lawmaking process appears to be broken due to a distorted balance of power between the government and other Members of Parliament, including the opposition. Over the years, there have been multiple proposals to improve procedures in Parliament to give PMBs more importance, which include more allocation of time, and more power to other MPs to set the agenda of discussion. However, none of these proposals have gotten the attention they deserve. This is partly due to the way in which rules and procedures are changed in Parliament. The Rules Committee, chaired by the Speaker/ Chairman of the house, is tasked with deciding any changes in functioning. However, this Committee is usually dominated by the ruling party itself. Secondly, there is little or no pressure from the electorate to introduce reform in the functioning of the Parliament. This means that there is no incentive for the Speaker/ Chairman of either House or the government to enact the necessary reforms.
As citizens, it is our collective responsibility to put pressure on the Parliament and the government to reform the existing procedures to recognise the importance of Private Members inside Parliament.
Founded by Harvard and Oxford alumni in 2016, Young Leaders for Active Citizenship (YLAC) aims to increase the participation of young people in the democratic process and build their capacity to lead change. YLAC currently runs its interventions across five major cities in India, in addition to undertaking projects in public policy research and advocacy. For more details, visit ylacindia.com