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Thursday, October 01, 2020

Private hands and public matters

While civil society members cannot be lawmakers,there should be no issue with them drafting a bill.

Written by Ramaswamy R. Iyer | June 24, 2011 12:37:54 am

In response to Ashutosh Varshney’s illuminating article (‘State of civil society’,IE,June 14),I would like to offer some comments. It is indeed true that law-making is the legislature’s business,not civil society’s. We are not talking about law-making,but about drafting a bill. If civil society (whatever that may be) can raise political issues,offer comments and suggestions,advocate radical changes in policies,and so on — and I doubt if Varshney would disapprove of that — there is no reason why it cannot put forward draft laws for consideration.

I see nothing inappropriate in non-officials putting forward a draft order or bill for the government’s consideration. In fact they do not have to go the government. They can get a member of Parliament to introduce a bill. Is there not a quaint practice known as a private member’s bill? It rarely happens but theoretically I presume it is a possibility. Leaving that aside,I repeat,I see nothing improper in a private person drafting a bill and offering it to the government for consideration. If that is wrong,I plead guilty: I have just drafted a national water framework law,first for consideration by a group of which I am the chairman,then by the Planning Commission,but eventually for the government’s consideration.

Secondly,should civil society sit with government in a drafting committee? Why not? The government sets up numerous commissions and committees,very often with both official and non-official members,and both kinds of members function together in those commissions and committees and sign their reports. The reports make recommendations on all kinds of subjects,and there is no reason why those recommendations should not include a draft bill. Thereafter,it is of course for the government to accept or reject the recommendations; and of course Parliament may reject the bill.

In the present case,the government must have given due consideration to legal aspects before setting up a joint drafting committee. They did so reluctantly,and would have flat refused to do so,if any illegality or serious impropriety were involved. I have had serious misgivings about the idea of a joint drafting committee,and now those are being proved right. The question is not one of legality,but one of wisdom. Why embark on a venture that was foredoomed to failure? If both the government and the non-government members had decided to stand firm on certain issues,then the joint committee was bound to fail. The government loses nothing in this process. It is the civil society members who stand to lose.

What then should the civil society members have done? I think they should have provided their own draft to the government,put it in the public domain and carried on a campaign for it. They could not of course have compelled the government to accept their draft or Parliament to pass it,but they could have created strong public opinion in favour of their cause,as indeed Anna Hazare did with his fast. I wish this contretemps had been avoided.

Finally,a word about the NAC. Varshney has criticised it for drafting legislation. As pointed out earlier,only Parliament can pass laws,but there is nothing wrong in others outside drafting bills. My point,however,is that the NAC is not civil society. It is part of government — a government-established advisory committee or council. It has been a good channel for communication between the government and NGOs. There is room and need for such channels.

The writer is a former secretary,water resources,and is currently at the Centre for Policy Research,New Delhi

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