Why Government Must Not Steam-roll Crucial Laws in Monsoon Session
Parliament of India. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
The unseemly hurry with which the central government pushed the three controversial farm laws through Parliament in 2020 led to a massive year-long agitation by farmers. Farmers suspended their anti-farm law movement after the government repealed these laws in late 2021. In theory, the government could have learnt an important lesson from that experience. It could have pursued more comprehensive consultations with stakeholders before introducing legislative changes in the future, especially those that impact millions of people.
However, it appears the government has not learned such a lesson, for it is preparing changes to crucial legislations without considering how the views of those they impact, particularly the vulnerable sections. The government’s attitude is reflected in how it is pursuing amendments to the Electricity Act, 2003. But there are other laws related to the environment, for example, where its tendencies are visibly similar. The All India Power Engineers Federation has critiqued the government’s amendments to the Electricity Act, yet, says the organisation, the government did not consult it or other stakeholders before deciding to go ahead with crucial changes in the Act.
According to the Federation, the revised law will hurt consumers as it could raise their bills—as has happened in cities where electric supply is in the hands of private players. It says the employees of power companies, especially in states, will also be hurt if the sector is further privatised. The amendments envisage greater private role in the power sector than ever before. Experts have drawn comparisons with what happened to cooking gas prices and state-owned telecom company BSNL to warn against the privatisation of the electricity sector. Another concern is the revised law will weaken state-owned power distributors by burdening them with infrastructure upkeep, while private players will skim the benefits.
Even the People’s Commission on Public Sector and Services has warned of the pitfalls of the government’s renewed thrust for privatisation. Quite in sync with its warnings, the amendments under the Electricity Act will also push lucrative customers, such as industrial electricity consumers, towards the private sector. Meanwhile, government companies responsible for meeting the power needs of all citizens will be weakened. Deprived of profitable customers, the government companies, who have invested heavily in distribution networks, will be placed on the path to losses.
In turn, this will have two adverse effects. First, the financial burden on state governments will grow, worsening their already strained finances. Second, the limited subsidised electricity available to priority sectors such as farming will take a hit. The regularity of electric supply will be a thing of the past for the poorest consumers. For these reasons, several farmer movements have been opposing these and other amendments for several years.
In recent years, there has been widespread concern over the tendency to sacrifice the strengths of the public sector to confer undue benefits and opportunities to private companies. This is true even for public sector units that have performed well, so the reason usually trotted out to defend privatisation—that government companies are “inefficient”—does not stand. Public sector power distribution companies, or telecoms for that matter, have not only clocked profit but been the government’s source of revenue through dividend payouts. They have fulfilled the essential public interest role that the public sector must play.
The problem exists across sectors. In the end of June, the Ministry of Environment and Forests notified new Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2022, to replace existing rules under the Forest Conservation Act or FCA, 1980. The public interest is being sidelined here by creating more profit-making opportunities for powerful private interests. On the one hand, the proposed changes will make it easier to divert forest resources for industry or mining. On the other, the rights of tribal and other communities living within or near forest land will be adversely affected.
Another under-consideration amendment is to the Biological Diversity Act, 2002. These changes were criticised for their market orientation too. The government has thankfully referred the Biological Diversity (Amendment) Bill, 2021, to a Joint Committee of Parliament. However, the changes proposed in it are on the same track as the other laws—the wish to promote narrow private interests at the expense of public interest. With the market for herbal products growing, manufacturers are unhappy with the protective clauses in the original law—especially the obligation to share benefits with local communities. The amendments are in keeping with their requirements. For example, it removes restrictions on accessing India’s bio-wealth have for foreign companies so long as they are registered in India.
A year ago, there was no opposition to the government’s decision to repeal a 125-year-old colonial law meant to deal with epidemics. However, there was controversy about what the government intends to bring in its place. The Public Health Bill, 2022, finalised by a special government panel, follows a 2017 effort to enact such a law. The 2017 bill had attracted criticism for being highly coercive and authoritarian. The severe lockdowns imposed in India, suddenly and for prolonged periods, brought unprecedented hardship to people, particularly the migrant workers and their families. The need for wide public consultation on this future legislation is essential so that objections, especially to unnecessary and excessive coercive steps can at least be debated.
Even more importantly, the public health aspects of dealing with pandemics must be of focus in any legislation related to the subject. After all, tens of millions worldwide were pushed into poverty during the pandemic simply because nations, even the developed ones, had not invested in adequate healthcare infrastructure. Since the number and wealth of billionaires grew astronomically over the same period, there are bound to be doubts about the intent behind any new law on pandemics—would it improve health care or suppress democracy?
The interests promoted by legislative changes need to be debated as much as there is a need to modernise laws to ensure the country’s resources are put to work for the greater public good. The only suitable way to get there is public debates. Otherwise, trust in governments will erode, as people will wonder about the motives for considering amendments to laws. It is time for India to shift to discussing laws in their most crucial context: their impact on people, the public interest and the environment.
The writer is honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. The views are personal.
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