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In this Idea Exchange moderated by Assistant Editor Maneesh Chhibber,Pawan Kumar Bansal,Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Water Resources,speaks about the upcoming Budget session and the floor coordination in Parliament.
Maneesh Chhibber: What is it like to be the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs during this period of disruptions and debates?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: The Budget session begins on March 12. Usually,it begins in February but because the assembly election results are being declared on March 6,the model code of conduct will be in operation till then. The first part of the session is up to March 30 and there will be hardly any time for legislative business then. Theres the Presidents address on March 12,then the motion of thanks,followed by the Railway Budget,Economic Survey and the General Budget. There will be discussions on all of these and the Vote on Account has to be cleared before March 30 to enable the government to transact business from April 1. Then theres the break when departmental Standing Committees meet to discuss the Demands for Grants. The second session is between April 24-May 22. There we can have some legislative businesses. There is a backlog of Bills pending in Parliament. We will try to take up and pass as many as possible. We look forward to a very productive sessionthis may be one session without difficulties. Everybody cooperates in passing financial business. Members of different parties could give their viewpoints forcefully on the motion of thanks to the President but the financial business is usually always passed without any difficulty.
Maneesh Chhibber: But there are issues such as NCTC,on which Opposition parties and some UPA allies could raise the pitch. Are you prepared for that?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: I dont foresee any difficulties in this session because no Bill is being introduced. As for NCTC (National Counter-Terrorism Centre),when the NIA Bill was introduced,every party supported it. The position is similar now: the allegation is that the Centre,by framing these laws,is impinging on the right of the states. The Centre says it is not so. We are trying to put in place important mechanisms which take care of the issues that confront the entire country. Media reports say the Prime Minister has directed the Home Minister to talk to the states. But this wont be a major issue unless they (Opposition) decide not to let the House function. I am very confident that will not be the approach of the Opposition,whatever be the differences between us.
Maneesh Chhibber: There is the impression that on the issue of China usurping river waters,the Indian government backs down.
Pawan Kumar Bansal: When we talk to any country,we never talk from a position of weakness. As far as the suggestion that China is taking away our water,it is not based on facts. The fact is,we dont have a river water treaty with China and there is no enforceable international law on river water. All that we have are conventions. I think the fears expressed about the Brahmaputra are misplaced. From time to time,there have been reports that China is undertaking construction activity on the Brahmaputra which could reduce the flow of water to India. But,China has repeatedly said they will never do anything that is against international conventions and laws. Our independent assessment is that there is no such construction activity that could divert water on a large scale.
Manoj C G: Why is the UPA government reluctant to consult Opposition parties before introducing key Bills?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: Discussion is very healthy and it is the right of all parties. But it is the right of the government to frame legislative proposals. So the Bills are prepared by the government,cleared by Cabinet and then introduced in any of the two Houses. Those are referred to the Standing Committees. Standing Committees discuss each Bill,make suggestions. Sometimes they clear the Bill,sometimes they give an opinion contrary to the Bill. Usually the government brings in amendments after the Standing Committee makes its recommendations. The Bills are taken up for discussion in the House. The Opposition may express its concerns or oppose some clauses,but ultimately,the Bills are passed. But there were instances where this process was not followed. The problem has been timetime has been taken up by many other things so we have not been able to devote enough time to legislative proposals.
Amitabh Sinha: What about the Lokpal Bill? Do you intend to pass it in this session?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: It is very much on the agenda,and it is very much our intention to take it up for discussion. But I feel it would not be possible to take it up in the first part,we have to take it up in the second part.
Amitabh Sinha: Tell us what happened on December 27 when the Bill was being discussed in the Rajya Sabha and then the session was abruptly halted.
Pawan Kumar Bansal: I should have made the statement I made at 11 p.m. earlier. The Bill wouldnt have been passed that day,going by the mood of the members. In the Rajya Sabha,as the debate proceeded,we found certain difficulties. And therefore,I should have said,It will take more time. We wont be able to pass it right now. Often,people move notices of amendments but they dont move amendments. We thought because there had been discussions and all-party meetings,despite some contrarian views,it would be passed. No piece of legislation is perfect. There would always be lacunae in any law. Law-making is not a one-time affair. You make a law,you make amendments thereafter. So,we thought that the Bill should be passed,there should be a mechanism in place,and when its working,throws up issues which call for further amendments,those could be taken up any time.
Manoj C G: That day you had said that there was a long list of amendments and that the government needed time. It has been two months since and we havent heard anything on the Bill. Have you taken a call on those amendments and have you informed the Opposition parties about it?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: It hasnt come to the Cabinet,that I can tell you. But my view is that everybody has been involved in the election campaign. Nobody had time for anything else. We havent called an all-party meeting but the time will come after the first part of this session.
Harcharan Singh: Twenty Bills from states ruled by Opposition parties are pending for approval. Dont you think there will be a hue and cry now even about the Finance Bill?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: Those bills dont come to the Parliament. Those bills go to the President. If the Opposition has a grouse,they have a right to raise it in any form in Parliament. But I personally feel that they would not stall Parliament because of that.
Coomi Kapoor: There is a general feeling that in the last few sessions,there was a lack of coordination that has shown up in different Bills. Was this due to too many voices speaking for the Congress or was it due to the obstructionist tactics of the Opposition?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: There havent been many members from the governments side speaking on any matter relating to the conduct of parliamentary business. The Finance Minister is the Leader of the House,he is the minister who has the job of talking to the Opposition. The Minister of Parliamentary Affairs is also engaged in the process. As for the lack of coordination,I am at the receiving end of that. I am aware of the composition of the House. If the Bills are prepared (to suit) the Opposition,thats not how democracy works. That right is given to the ruling party,the government. (The Opposition) should not stall Parliament. It began with the demand for a JPC on 2G. From then on,there have been difficulties. But I must also compliment and thank the Opposition. Though we have lost time,to use an old phrase,it is the sound of democracy that prevails in Parliament. Ultimately,the Opposition agrees to sit for longer to pass legislation. If they were to be totally obstructionist,they will not do that. So,they coordinate,help us.
D K Singh: How crucial are the results of the current round of assembly elections for the presidential elections? And since you are a minority in the Rajya Sabha. would you agree to a candidate suggested by the Opposition?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: On the second part,I am not competent to answer at this time. The electoral college will be clear only after the results from the different assembly elections. In the case of the President,all the members of Parliament and all members of state legislative assemblies vote. For the vice-president,the electoral college is Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. There,agreement on a candidate becomes important because we dont have a majority. But the main Opposition party has fewer MPs than the Congress.
Maneesh Chhibber: In the last session,the Home Minister was boycotted by the Opposition and they demanded his resignation. Now that he has been cleared by the lower court,do you think that they will take back their demand?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: I think they should. They say they are law-respecting citizens,they say they have faith in the judiciary. You cant lose sight of the fact that on many issues,the present Home Minister is in charge and he has done very well. But somehow,those issues have not been discussed in Parliament.
D K Singh: Is UPA convinced of the Supreme Courts judgement on the technical feasibility and viability of the river-interlinking project?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: Let us consider Mullaperiyar. Thats also interlinking in one senseits the transfer of water from one basin to another which you did over a 100 years ago. So,its nothing new. The new thing is that all the rivers,wherever possible,we should interlink so that water is not wasted.
Coomi Kapoor: Has Tamil Nadu or Kerala approached you on the Mullaperiyar dam dispute?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: Both states have approached us and the matter is in the Supreme Court. The court had directed us to set up a committee. It is chaired by former Chief Justice of India,A S Anand. They are looking at the strength of the dam. They were supposed to give their report on February 29. They have asked for a two-month extension.
Manoj C G: How do you view Keralas demand for a new dam?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: The matter is sub judice before the highest court. I would appeal to everyone that in matters relating to water,politics should not colour our decisions.
Sumaira (student,Delhi Public School): Eighty-eight per cent of the water in the Farakka Barrage,which was to be diverted to our rivers,went to Bangladesh. There was a lot of conflict with the people of West Bengal on this issue. Why did the government take so much time to react?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: Farakka Barrage was constructed in 1975 essentially to provide water for navigational purposes for the Calcutta Port. Thereafter,in 1996,there was a treaty with Bangladesh on the sharing of Ganga waters. That treaty is implemented by the Farakka Barrage project. It is not impacting our other river systems. If the water is in excess of 75,000 cusecs,the excess has to go to Bangladesh. In June,one gate failed,which led to more water downstream,to Bangladesh. They got more water than what they were entitled to. It was an accident. One gate has been put in place now,one gate still remains.
* Jahnvi Sreedhar: What about the displacement of people by dams? The Renuka dam is displacing people in Himachal Pradesh just so that Delhi gets water.
Pawan Kumar Bansal: Besides giving very high rates of compensation,the new Land Acquisition Act,which is before the Standing Committee,will give displaced people the right to future benefits thereof. So those deprived of their land will be equally compensated.
* Kaushal Shroff: Is the Congress seeking to give some sort of statutory backing to the model code of conduct?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: As far as I know,there is nothing at this moment. Different people have expressed their viewpoints. The intention is that elections should be conducted smoothly without any malpractices. One must acknowledge the stellar role played by the EC in ensuring smooth and fair elections. But think this over: in Punjab and Uttarakhand,elections were held a month ago. Till today,the model code of conduct remains in place. Which means that the state government in Punjab cannot announce anything even today. What is the idea of having an election code up to this day?
D K Singh: What happened with Mamata Bannerjee on the Teesta water agreement?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: On Teesta,there was a little over-enthusiasm on my part in presuming that she was on board. What has been happening all these years is that our water goes unmeasured. We had agreed to work out about 75 per cent of the water,but about 25 per cent of the water was left. And for that,the treaty was to be worked out. For the first time,we were putting into the treaty that the regeneration of water in their portion would also be treated as water from the river. The topography of the area is such that there is huge regeneration of water in a certain stretch of the river which falls on the other side after the water leaves our last barrage. They were not agreeable to take that into account. We thought that it was acceptable to them.
D K Singh: What gave you the impression that they were on board?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: That was a little misjudgement. There were discussions with them. Our view was that its acceptable. Without that,we wouldnt have included that in the treaty,PM wouldnt have asked (Mamata Banerjee) to go to Bangladesh.
Coomi Kapoor: Are you content with the way Parliament is being conducted? Bills are passed,but with little discussioneither there is an uproar,or everything is just hustled through.
Pawan Kumar Bansal: At times,yes,but not generally so. I must also admit that because of some disruptions,the quality of debate on the Bills is not what it should be.
Sumaira (student,Delhi Public School): On the misconduct in Parliament,would you say the whips have failed because of the lack of cooperation from the Opposition or members of your own party?
Pawan Kumar Bansal: Whips are not the people who wield the whip,they are the ones to be whipped. Decisions are taken at a different level by every party,many at higher levels. What can the poor whip do?
Transcribed by Deepu Sebastian Edmond
* Students of Express Institute of Media Studies