This Winter Session, the Parliament of India isn't just faced with a set of legislations. Rather, what lies before our lawmakers is a set of questions that will shape the way India is governed.
Â· Will India be able to finally overcome the demon of communal violence or will Indians continue to lose their lives in riots orchestrated for political ends?
Â· Will India be able to provide women an equal say in the way the country is run, or will we continue to be held hostage by the forces of retrogressive patriarchy?
Â· Will India be able to continue with the progressive policies that has made it the world's most favoured investment destination or will the process of economic expansion fall victim to political cussedness?
Â· Will India be able to continue upholding social justice by defeating the forces of petty caste-politics?
Â· How must we build on the success of the Right to Information Act and take transparency in governance to the next level?
Â· How must we reconcile competing regional aspirations?
The tug-of-war between progressive and retrogressive politics was evident even in the Monsoon Session of Parliament earlier this year.
Despite the best attempts of the Opposition to prevent Parliament from conducting any business whatsoever, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government succeeded in passing the National Food Security Act, assuring each and every Indian that they or their children would never have to worry about their next meal. It also passed the Right to Transparency and Fair Compensation in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, providing justice to every person who loses his land or livelihood in the process of land acquisition and doing away with the 1894 Land Acquisition Act, an oppressive remnant from the colonial era, in addition to other crucial legislations like the Protection of Street Vendors Act, the Wakf Act, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act and the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority Act.
Even in the Winter Session, the Opposition parties seem determined to prevent the passage of the pro-people legislations initiated by the government. Let us take a brief look at some of the Bills that are scheduled to be taken up in Parliament in the Winter Session.
1. Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill
The Bill holds the government, both centre and state, accountable in instances of communal violence. It urges them to uphold the people's right to equality before the law and provide them equal protection by the law. It instructs them to exercise their powers in a non-discriminatory manner to prevent and control targeted violence particularly against Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities.
The Bill also directs governments to ensure speedy investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators of communal violence as well as rehabilitate and compensate riot victims.
If the legislation is passed, incidents such as the recent communal violence in Muzaffarnagar (Uttar Pradesh) can be prevented. Not only did the government fail to control the riots, it hasn't made any efforts towards rehabilitating the riot victims or bringing the perpetrators to justice.
However Opposition parties which pursue a communal agenda, or which have failed to control communal violence in the past, are trying their best to scuttle the legislation.
2. Women's Reservation Bill
Political participation is the key to the empowerment of any weaker section of society. The Congress government's decision to reserve 33 per cent seats in Panchayati Raj institutions for women has unleashed a silent revolution in rural India. Not only did it provide women a say in governance, it also challenged age-old patriarchal structures. We must now expand this revolution at the national level.
According to Congress president Smt. Sonia Gandhi, 'Women's representation in Parliament has hovered between 9 and 11 per cent, a figure that is considerably lower than in many other democracies. Legislation for a 33% quota in Parliament and state assemblies has been passed by the Upper House. We shall persevere in our efforts to get it approved by the Lower House as well'.
Even though the Bill directly concerns the empowerment of 50 per cent of India's population, there are still political forces which do not want women to have a say in how the country is run. They want to prevent women from assuming a prominent role in politics, which they believe should be a domain dominated by men.
3. Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill
Under the United Progressive Alliance government, governance has become more transparent than ever. The Right to Information Act has provided every citizen the right to ask the government questions. Through the Direct Benefit Transfer system based on the Aadhar UID, the disbursement of subsidies has become transparent and efficient.
The UPA now wants to take governmental accountability to the next level by passing a legislation for creating an empowered ombudsman at the Central and state levels. The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill lays down a process for receiving and investigating corruption complaints against public officials, including even the Prime Minister (after he has relinquished office), Ministers and Members of Parliament. The Bill also provides for the prosecution of public officials accused of corruption, in a time-bound manner.
The Lok Sabha passed the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2011 on December 27, 2011. In the run up to the Budget session of Parliament, the Cabinet had decided to accept the key recommendations of the Select Committee on the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2011. The Bill, passed by the Lok Sabha in December 2011, was referred to a Select Committee by the Rajya Sabha.
4. Judicial Accountability Bill
The Judicial Accountability Bill, like the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, must be seen in consistence with the UPA's efforts to ushering in greater transparency in governance. If government officials at various levels are held accountable by the Right to Information Act and the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, the Judicial Accountability Bill will extend the same principle to the judiciary. The Bill requires judges to declare their assets, lays down judicial standards, and establishes processes for removal of judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts.
5. The Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2008
In the past one year, the UPA government had succeeded in opening up the multibrand retail sector to Foreign Direct Investment and increasing the cap for FDI in critical sectors like telecom, civil aviation, broadcasting and defence production. Propelled by these measures, India has emerged as the world's most attractive investment destination, overtaking even its eastern neighbour China.
Continuing with its effort towards boosting investment, the government will be introducing the the Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2008, which raises the limit of foreign holding in the insurance sector to 49%. It also allows the entry of foreign re-insurers and nationalised general insurance companies to raise funds from the capital market.
6. The Constitution (117th Amendment) Bill, 2012 (Reservation in promotion to SCs and STs with retrospective effect)
To address the inadequate representation of SC/STs in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy in the Rajya Sabha, the government introduced the 117th Amendment to substitute Article 16(4A) of the Constitution. The amendment aims to SC/STs reservation in government job promotions with retrospective effect. Despite opposition from certain caste-based parties, the Amendment was in the Rajya Sabha last year, and will be tabled in the Lok Sabha in this session.
In addition to these, there are many other crucial legislations that are lined up in this session such as the Land Boundary (Constitutional Amendment) Bill with Bangladesh, The Direct Tax Code (DTC) Bill and The Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill.
The government might also present a Bill for the formation of the separate state of Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh.
Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has already emphasized that though this session would be short, the government is determined to ensure that these crucial Bills are passed.
Clearly, the choice before our Parliamentarians is between constructive and destructive politics. The Winter Session will decide whether India moves towards greater peace, prosperity and governance that is more transparent and inclusive or if the cause of progress is sacrificed at the altar of political partisanship.