By Alisha Sud —
With India’s Parliament beginning its winter session on November 16, domestic political attention is largely focused on bills that will be introduced and considered during the session. Overall, the government’s legislative agenda seems to dispel the popular notion that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party represents a sharp break with the left-wing populism of the Congress Party. Of the ten bills currently listed for consideration and passing this session, seven introduce new social welfare measures, spanning healthcare and labor laws.
If recent history serves as a guide, sizeable progress could be made on the government’s legislative agenda over the next few weeks, despite Prime Minister Modi’s lack of a majority in the Rajya Sabha (India’s upper house of Parliament). During the monsoon session, Parliament not only passed the long-stalled “Goods and Services Tax” (GST) Amendment, but also thirteen additional bills. The passage of the GST Amendment brought the country one step closer to a national market, clearing the way to create a harmonized system of taxation by subsuming all indirect taxes on goods and services into a single tax. However, in order to bring the tax into being, Parliament — in consultation with the individual states — will need to hammer out the details of a host of GST-related laws introducing the central GST (CGST) and integrated GST (IGST). State and central officials have yet to agree on all the details of these laws, but the administration hopes they will be ironed out before the end of the year. Passage will be critical if the GST is to come into effect on April 1, 2017 as planned.
In addition to the several bills related to GST, a number of bills addressing a spectrum of pressing social and health issues will be reviewed. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Prevention and Control) Bill, 2014 and The Mental Health Care Bill, 2013 are up for consideration and passage, having already been introduced in the Rajya Sabha. If the HIV bill is passed, India – a country with the third largest HIV/AIDS epidemic in the world – will adopt stronger efforts to end discrimination against the 2.1 million citizens affected by HIV/AIDS and focus on better preventative measures. The Mental Health Care Bill is lauded by health experts as a measure that will create better health infrastructure and reverse the extreme shortage of mental health professionals available to care for the vast number of Indians suffering from mental illness.
In an encouraging development affecting India’s labor laws, Parliament will review several bills focused on workers’ rights. The Employee’s Compensation (Amendment) Bill, 2016 requires employers to inform employees of their right to compensation and imposes a penalty for failure to do so. A bill to help working mothers – The Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Bill, 2016 – is also being watched closely, as it increases maternity leave to 26 weeks, grants leave to adopting and commissioning mothers, and requires establishments with 50 or more employees to provide day-care facilities.
In all, ten bills are listed to be discussed, while any number of additional ones could be introduced throughout the session. Blockbuster legislation is not always on the docket before the session commences. Speculation is rife that the government will also introduce a highly controversial proposal to replace current personal laws that are based on the scriptures and customs of each major religious community in the country with a common law governing every citizen – known as a Uniform Civil Code.
While it is to be hoped that key pieces of legislation will pass this session, intense political turmoil over the recent demonetization and unrest in Kashmir may overshadow the first few days of proceedings. In addition, parties will be looking to best position themselves — whether as dealmakers or as a staunch opposition — to contest the Uttar Pradesh elections in spring 2017. With a total of 22 sittings between November 16 and December 16, 2016, Parliament should seek to leverage the cooperation and momentum seen during the monsoon session in order to shelve political differences and reach consensus on the crucial reforms laid out in this session’s agenda.