Farm, Labour Bills Passed: Is This ‘End’ of Parliamentary Debate?

Maybe the question is irrelevant given the way farm & labour bills were approved by Parliament, writes Arati Jerath.

Published
Opinion
4 min read
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Parliament may never be the same again. The monsoon session has seen to it by pulverising constitutional and democratic norms. Relations between the ruling BJP and the Opposition are in tatters. And new areas of conflict – that could further disrupt the economy – have opened up after contentious bills with far-reaching consequences for the country’s agricultural and labour workforce were passed without discussion in either House or consultation with stakeholders.

The just-concluded monsoon session stands out as a landmark in the steady erosion of institutional safeguards to ensure government accountability. 

For the first time, the Constitution itself came under attack by the very body that is mandated to preserve it. It’s a new low in parliamentary history and begs the question: can Parliament as we know it survive after the body blows it received?

What Makes Monsoon Session 2020 An Inflection Point?

The session was unusual enough. Strict COVID protocols robbed it of the buzz that ripples through Parliament’s stately corridors whenever it meets. MPs were separated by six feet and plastic shields. Media entry was severely curtailed. And the usual crowds that make Parliament a beehive of activity were banished.

But what makes this session an inflection point in our parliamentary system of democracy is the manner in which the Constitution was flouted when the three controversial farm bills were being put to vote in the Rajya Sabha.

Not only was the Opposition demand to send the bills to a select committee rejected by voice vote, its request for a division was also denied. (Division means individual voting by MPs so that a majority vote in numbers becomes a matter of record.)

This has never happened before. According to former Lok Sabha secretary general PDT Acharya, refusing permission for division is a gross violation of Article 100 of the Constitution under which the Parliament conducts business.

“It was a horrendous mistake. Procedural irregularities do occur but this is the first time there has been a constitutional irregularity,’’ he said.

It is ironic that after decades of railing against the Congress for steamrollering Parliament on many questionable issues (the declaration of Emergency in June 1975 stands out as a black mark), the BJP seems to have outperformed the grand old party in ‘mauling’ the system.

Acharya recalls that previous governments stopped short of going against the Constitution. The present dispensation seems to have ‘no such qualms’. “What happened this time in the Rajya Sabha has weakened the systems of Parliament,’’ he said.

“If The Govt Won’t Follow The Rules, Then Nor Will We”

The Opposition cannot escape its share of blame. By climbing on the tables and waving the rule book in the Chairperson’s face, Opposition MPs plunged the Rajya Sabha into the kind of chaos seen only in state assemblies. The Parliament usually tries to maintain a semblance of dignity, but not this time.

The die has been cast after the ugly scenes in the Rajya Sabha. A belligerent Opposition has decided to extract an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth in future.

“If the government won’t follow the rules, then nor will we,’’ declared one Opposition MP who did not want to be identified.

Does this mean the end of parliamentary debate and discussion?

Perhaps the question is irrelevant given the way in which the farm and labour bills were approved by Parliament. There was no discussion and all were passed by voice vote. In fact, the labour bills were approved without a single Opposition MP present because they had decided to boycott what was left of the curtailed session.

One of the main functions of Parliament is to scrutinise proposed legislation and call for wide consultations. Bills, particularly those over which there is no consensus, are sent either to a select committee or to a standing committee which then seeks opinions from stakeholders and experts.

It was vital that the farm and labour bills were put through this scrutiny.

They are particularly contentious because of the implications for small and marginal farmers and workers in small and medium enterprises. These farmers and workers have now lost the protection they used to have, and are at the mercy of market forces.

‘A Season Of Discontent Stares At The Govt’

The bills are ostensibly part of the reforms process, but those who will be affected by them have no clue of the impact on their lives. There was no consultation with stakeholders or the larger public before they were drafted. Even the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Kisan Sangh has criticised the Modi government for bypassing the usual process of inviting opinions and comments. “The bills were drafted by people who are not aware of reality at the grassroots,’’ a BKS spokesperson said.

Acharya says in his 40 years in Parliament, he has realised the importance of sending bills to parliamentary committees for scrutiny.

“Our experience has been that bills are improved, and come back in better shape after they have been vetted by a committee,’’ he said.

The government doesn’t seem unusually perturbed by the dark clouds looming on the horizon after the Monsoon Session. It has lost one of its oldest allies after Akali Dal MP Harsimrat Kaur resigned from the Modi government in protest over the passage of the farm bills.

The Opposition is on the warpath. It doesn’t bode well for future sessions of Parliament.

Farmers are out on the streets to oppose the farm bills. They are threatening to block roads and highways. RSS farmer and labour organisations are also upset. They have desisted from street protests but making no bones about their anger.

A season of discontent stares at the government. But does it really care?

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