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The listening state

Public participation in the early life of the law is a welcome step forward.

February 18, 2014 12:54:52 am

Public participation in the early life of the law is a welcome step forward.

The government has ordered all ministries and departments to open up pre-legislative scrutiny to a diverse set of stakeholders. This will apply not only to legislation, but also the rules and regulations that will govern the act, the administrative working manuals usually framed by civil servants, which affect how the law plays out in people’s lives. Now, there will be a mandatory 30-day period in which ministries will have to lay out the details of the proposed legislation, in simple language and with clear explanations, to seek citizens’ reactions.

While most democracies incorporate active listening in one form or another, there have been varying levels of public participation in Indian law-making. In rare instances like the Right to Information Act, the law has been largely led by civil society groups. Sometimes, ministries solicit other views when they draft a bill — the sexual harassment at the workplace bill, the model police act and the land acquisition bill being recent examples.

More often, standing committees invite stakeholders and experts to depose in closed-door sessions, as happened with, among others, the Forest Rights Act and the Food Safety and Standards Act. Sometimes, public opinion is sought when the rules are drafted. But in this new framework, citizen participation will be widely and proactively sought, rather than left to the whim of a particular government department.

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This process promises to imbue decisions with greater information, expertise and legitimacy, and allow public agencies to figure out levels of resistance, and specific grievances, to a bill. The drafters can then craft a more considered consensus, weighing interests carefully. Parliament is not doing a stellar job of legislative scrutiny right now — apart from the distractions and adjournments, about a third of the bills in this Lok Sabha skipped the standing committee.

Of course, this exercise will not smooth the genuine disagreements in law-making or resolve competing needs, and it is not meant to undercut the role of legislators — but it forces a useful public justification. Despite the rhetorical appeal to the “common man”, special interests, whether NGOs or corporates, will inevitably try to dominate this process. But given that this reality already exists, a transparent and formal system for unrestricted public feedback is a step forward.

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First published on: 18-02-2014 at 12:54:52 am
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