Ordinances can be justified only in emergencies, but what is a bigger emergency than a non-functioning Parliament?
The lack of an effective mechanism to deal with everyday grievances of people is amongst the biggest weaknesses of governance in India today. This was recognised and acknowledged by MPs cutting across party lines when they spoke in favour of adopting the “Sense of House” resolution in 2011, wherein Parliament collectively promised people a framework for citizens’ charters.
Despite the critical nature of The Right of Citizens to Time-bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill, the 15th Lok Sabha ended its last session in February 2014 without enacting the legislation. The bill was introduced in response to widespread public demand for a decentralised mechanism for redress of day-to-day complaints of people regarding non-delivery of essential goods and services.
According to available data, the 15th Lok Sabha has been the least productive in the history of independent India. The right and ability to disrupt Parliament has been claimed by most political parties, including members of the ruling alliance. One of the greatest casualties of the resulting parliamentary paralysis has been the grievances redressal bill that, despite enjoying the support of all major parties including the UPA and the BJP, could not be taken up for consideration and passage.
The grievances redressal bill, which is now set to lapse with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha, mandated all public authorities to develop and publish justiciable citizens’ charters. Any violation of the charter would constitute a grievance. It provided every person the right to make a complaint and created an architecture for them to receive a time-bound written reply. If the concerned officer failed to effectively redress complaints in a time-bound manner, it provided for imposition of a penalty to be paid from the officer’s pocket.
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The bill had the potential to hold both the implementing functionary and the supervisory structure accountable. It sought to make the supervisory superstructure the linchpin for the redress of grievances, by holding supervisors (grievances redressal officers) accountable for not sorting out people’s complaints. The bill had the potential to ensure the delivery of public services, rights and social sector entitlements to the people of the country.
The current proposal of the government, to promulgate an ordinance on grievances redressal, has met with a mixed response with several parties opposing it. The key concern with bringing a legislation through an ordinance is that it should only be done under special circumstances by invoking the powers given in Article 123 of the Constitution. An ordinance prevents debate and public consultation on important issues as it bypasses the normal parliamentary procedure. It prevents political parties and citizens from expressing legitimate concerns and dissent about the legislation, its provisions and impact.
These concerns are well founded and have, in fact, been the reason why citizens’ groups have opposed ordinances in the past, such as the recently proposed ordinance to amend the RTI Act. But the moot question is — what can be a greater emergency in a parliamentary democracy than the non-functioning of Parliament itself? A critical bill, supported by all major political parties, has failed to get enacted only because Parliament did not function due to disruptions. While the government failed to move the bill through Parliament, Parliament as a whole has failed in delivering on its promise made to the people in the “Sense of House” resolution.
The grievances redressal bill has gone through a detailed deliberative process. The bill, after being introduced in the Lok Sabha, was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, which had representation of MPs from across party lines. The committee held several consultations where different individuals and citizens’ groups presented oral evidence on the bill. People from different parts of the country deposed before the standing committee and sent their written suggestions to it. After rigorous debate, the committee gave a detailed report with several key recommendations for strengthening the bill.
Further, as per the provisions of the Constitution, any ordinance that is promulgated will have to be ratified by Parliament within six months of its promulgation or within six weeks of the commencement of its next session, whichever is earlier. Parliament, when it reconvenes after the elections, will have the opportunity to again discuss, debate and change the provisions of the bill.
The grievances redressal bill is a landmark legislation as it has the potential, like the RTI Act, to fundamentally transform the relationship between a citizen and the bureaucracy, which is tasked with delivering essential services to people. People should not be made to indefinitely await access to justice, which can be initiated through this law.
Bhardwaj, an RTI activist, is member, Satark Nagrik Sangathan and NCPRI. Dey works with Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.