Popular political discourse frequently views the saga of pending Bills merely as a scoreboard of the tug of war between the party in power and the opposition, a symbol of the failure of the ruling establishment. It is that, but it is much more critical for the political economy. The cost of pendency is the price paid by the public in terms of governance and increased taxes.
Consider this case to appreciate the correlation between pending Bills and the cost to Indians. A Rajya Sabha MP asked the Ministry of Power “details of the financial burden faced by states and consumers due to transmission and distribution (T&D) loss of power by the power companies.” On January 8, 2019, R K Singh, Minister of Power, informed Parliament that at the all-India level, “energy loss in T&D for the year 2016-17 is 249,197.48 million units”, which translates to 21.42 per cent of the electricity supplied in the year. What does this loss cost India and Indians? By the government’s own estimates, a reduction of 1 per cent in T&D losses results in “a saving of `4,146.60 crore”.
The stark reality is that in 2016-17, India and Indians lost `88,820 crore—that is, `243 crore per day or over `10 crore every hour.
This could be mitigated. The Electricity (Amendment) Bill 2014, introduced in the Lok Sabha on December 19, 2014, aimed to address theft, pilferage, poor metering and billing systems by segregating carriage and content and introduction of competition. T&D losses are not a new phenomenon. Between 2007-08 and 2016-17, India lost 21, 29,129 Giga Watt Hour in T&D losses. Do the math, say at `5.20/unit to arrive at the price paid by the public. Although the Bill was vetted by the Standing Committee and sent back to Parliament by May 2015, in January 2019, the legislation required to fix the rot in the electricity economy is pending in Parliament. And the cost is being borne by the taxpayer and consumers.
Indeed, the Electricity Bill is one of the 51 Bills stranded in no man’s land. Consider another example. There has been much discussion about employment generation, and within that context the inexplicable fall of women’s participation in the workforce. The Factories (Amendment) Bill 2014, introduced in August 2014, is aimed at unclogging the regulatory cholesterol that hinders job creation, decentralising powers to states, allowing night shifts for women in certain sectors, improving safety, and inducting norms ratified by ILO.
The Select Committee which went into the details submitted its report on December 17. Two years later, in August 2016, the government introduced a new version, The Factories (Amendment) Bill 2016. By way of explanation, the 2016 avatar says, “Sincze consideration and passing of the aforesaid Bill in Parliament may take some more time, with a view to boost the manufacturing sector and to facilitate ease of doing business so as to enhance employment opportunities”. The Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, but the intent and the Bill are both pending approval of the Rajya Sabha.
Bills continue on the pending list even in the face of human tragedy. In August 2018, Jineesh Jerome, a fisherman, along with his friends saved hundreds of lives during the Kerala floods. In September 2018, he was run over by a speeding lorry and lay bleeding on the road. Nobody stopped and he died. Jerome is one of the nearly 1.5 lakh persons, almost three times the population of Greenland, who die on India’s killer roads. To get a perspective, consider the data for the past ten years. Since 2008, 13, 82,850 persons—more than the population of Estonia—have been killed in over 48 lakh accidents.
The cause of the accidents can be one or a combination of reasons, ranging from legal to behavioural.
One reason is lax provisions compounded by poor implementation of laws. The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill 2016 seeks to address some of the fault lines in the landscape, including road safety norms, licensing processes, electronic monitoring, insurance, vehicle audit and penalties. The Bill introduced in the Lok Sabha on 9 August 2016 has been reviewed by two committees and was commended to the house in February 2017. Despite the annual parade of deaths, the Bill is stuck in the pile-up in Parliament.
It could be argued that Bills that affect the federal balance or those socially disruptive need public consultation, debate and deliberation. That, however, is not always the case. Take corruption. In a country which ranks 81st among 180 countries, the delay in passing legislation drafted to tackle corruption—the Lokpal and Lokayuktas (Amendment) Bill 2014 and Whistle Blowers Protection (Amendment) Bill—is enigmatically bizarre to say the least. Similarly, legislation aimed at protecting and improving the human condition is mired in the quagmire of politics. For instance, the Surrogacy Regulation Bill of 2016 and the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill of 2018, both critical interventions, have been passed in one house and stuck in another.
Sadly, in the world’s largest democracy, it is electoral context, not content which drives legislation. The political class has institutionalised the persistence of pending Bills as the new normal. The voting class, it would seem, has internalised and normalised the perpetuation of denial. Procrastination, think about it, phonetically, has acquired a whole new connotation.
Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric
History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India