Bhopal: The controversial 'Madhya Pradesh Recovery of Damages to Public and Private Property Bill 2021' passed with a voice vote without debate on the fourth day of the winter session of Vidhan Sabha on Thursday. The new law enables double recovery of public and private properties which were damaged during the riots, protests and rallies by individuals or groups in 15 days of the verdict of the tribunal.
In the following five minutes, aimed Congress' walkout over the OBC reservation row in the Panchayat Polls, the Assembly passed three other bills, including MP Land Revenue Code (Amendment) Bill - 2021, without any debate. Over 10 bills passed in a similar faction in the winter session. The Assembly concluded on December 24, 2021.
This is not just one instance. The Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled (BJP) Madhya Pradesh government has passed over 74 bills and ordinances in just 89 hours of functioning of the Assembly from March 2020 to August 2021, as per the MP Vidhan Sabha records. In 2020, the Assembly passed 33 bills and ordinances in just 113 minutes of proceedings. Whereas in 2021, the house passed 41 bills and ordinances in 62 hours of proceedings until August.
Many of the important laws that have life imprisonment provisions, fine up to 20 lakh, and capital punishment were passed without any debate. "The recent trend of passing laws without debate in the Assembly seems unhealthy for democracy," said Sitasharan Sharma, former speaker of Madhya Pradesh Assembly and sitting BJP MLA from Itarsi.
"A healthy debate in the Assembly over the proposed bill puts a light on pros and cons of the upcoming law then the concerned department fixes it. But, it's not happening."
For instance, the Excise (Amendment) Bill - 2021 was passed in less than two minutes in the Assembly on August 10, 2021, with a voice vote. The new law has provisions of awarding life imprisonment, a fine of up to 20 lakh, and capital punishment if one is found guilty of selling and manufacturing illicit liquor, which caused the death of the consumer. The government proposed the excise bill after the reports of deaths of over 40 people in Ujjain, Morena and Mandsaur districts owing to consumption hooch.
According to Vidhan Sabha, the Assembly passed four other bills along with the Excise bill on August 10, 2021, in less than five minutes, including Madhya Pradesh GST (Amendment) Bill - 2021.
Similarly, the Dand Vidhi (Madhya Pradesh Amendment) Bill - 2021 of the Commercial Tax Department passed with a voice vote without any debate on March 16, 2021, in the eighth session of the 15th Vidhan Sabha. Under this bill, the government proposed to amend seven sections of the Indian Penal Code - 1860 and Criminal Procedure Code - 1974, which deals with food adulteration. The new law has provisions of life imprisonment to fine up to 2 lakh if found guilty. Shockingly, on the same day, 12 bills and ordinances were cleared by the Assembly, and on March 1, 2021, five bills and ordinances got Assembly's nod without any debate.
"There are a total three stages of passing any law, introduce, debate and implement. But, the essential part of the entire process in the state Assembly is "debate", which is completely missing. The err law causes trouble to the commoners and the enforcement agencies," said Bhagwandev Israni, former principal secretary of Madhya Pradesh Vidhan Sabha.
Israni has also served in the Chhattisgarh Assembly as Principal secretary for years.
"We don't have a mechanism like Parliament has, referring important bills to parliamentary committees for scrutiny," argues Israni adding that many of the bills were referred to the parliamentary committees by the Parliament for review, and they fix the loopholes. But in the state Assembly, the debate is the only way to highlight and fix the loopholes of any upcoming law- sadly, it is not happening.
More so, important bills such as the Moneylenders (Amendment) Bill - 2020 and Janjati Rin Vimut Adhiniyam - 2020 and six other bills passed without a debate in Assembly in just a single day, September 21, 2020. The Assembly worked less than two hours in 2020.
The controversial Freedom of Religion Act - 2021, which is also referred to as the Love-Jihad law and hit the national and international headlines over allegations of targeting Muslims and Christians under the shadow of this law, was passed in just two hours of debate amid slogans of 'Jai Shri Ram' in the Assembly. The law has provisions like annulling marriages conducted by unfair means. It also makes conversion a non-bailable offence, entails punishment up to 10 years, empowers Sessions court to hear cases, and puts the onus of proving innocence on the accused. Further, it has a provision to penalise the organisation and NGOs organising and funding unlawful marriages.
"The opposition Congress has an important role to play in the Assembly, especially in the framing and passing of important laws and budgets. Instead of holding the government accountable and criticising them, Congress remained silent. Either Congress supports the bill or walks out from the Assembly on other issues. The same happened on December 23, when the debate over supplementary budget and Madhya Pradesh Recovery of Damages to Public and Private Property Bill 2021 was due. Congress walked out over the OBC reservation in the panchayat polls. The Assembly, in their absence, passes it without any hindrance," pointed out Sharma.
Blaming the BJP, Congress claimed that it's the government's responsibility to keep the house in order and fulfil the rightful demands of the opposition. But they were choosing otherwise, forcing the Congress to walk out. Besides, the BJP ministers' race to pass more laws and take credit also makes things difficult.
"The BJP and its leaders don't like to be criticised, and if someone does so, they threaten them inside the Assembly. The Congress MLAs debating against the Freedom of Religion Bill in the March session of the Assembly were threatened by Home Minister Narottam Mishra," alleged KK Mishra, senior Congress spokesperson.
When the issue was raised before the Assembly speaker Gautam during a press conference on the last day of the house, he replied, "I always vouch for the debate over the proposed bill. Those laws passed without debate do not get public acceptance. But, we should understand who don't want to debate, who is creating hindrance."
He further clarified, "During the oath-taking ceremony, MLAs always say that the Assembly is our temple and he is the priest. But they hardly act as priests in running the Assembly and conducting debates."
Drop in the Number of Assembly Sessions
The analysis of Madhya Pradesh Vidhan Sabha data indicates that the major reason for the decline in the debate is a drop in the house's functioning. From 2017 to August 2021, the Assembly has only functioned for 391 hours.
Year-wise functioning of Madhya Pradesh Assembly
Showing concern over the less functioning of the Assembly, the speaker Girish Gautam pointed out in the ongoing Assembly session, "The Assembly should work at least 90 days a year, and we all should think about it."
Requesting anonymity, a senior official of Vidhan Sabha said, "If we look at the data, the Assembly worked more properly during the Congress regime than the BJP. When BJP's Sunderlal Patwa was in opposition in the late 80s, he demanded more sessions, but when he became chief minister in 1990, he cut the Assembly proceedings short. The same happened when Congress Digvijay Singh was chief minister. He held more sessions in 10 years of the rule rather than 17 years of rule of Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The major reason is; BJP leaders neither healthily take criticism nor like to be held accountable."