It’s a Private Member Affair

Did you know that all parliamentarians aren’t made equal? There’s a new law being proposed that hopes to chip at this inequality

ByMeghnad S
It’s a Private Member Affair
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DISCLAIMER: The author is the Chief of Staff at the Office of Member of Parliament Tathagata Satpathy and leading the #SpeechBill campaign at present.

For us human beings operating according to the gregorian calendar, Friday is the bestest of days. That isn’t just true for those of us focused on happy hours, but also for our elected representatives. Because on Friday, when the clock strikes 1530 hours, the speaker calls for the commencement of the Private Members’ Business and Private Members Bills have their time in Parliament. It’s usually cue for Parliamentarians to leave.

Private Members Bills (PMB) are easily one of the most ignored aspects of our democracy. Bills presented by the government get all the spotlight and attention. Some of this has to do with the fact that Ministers are just a little more equal than other elected members of Parliament by virtue of being, well, Ministers. But more on that later.

Since I’m presently working with an MP who wants to present his own PMB, that we are lovingly calling #SpeechBill, I thought it would be a good idea to explain why and how we intend to make this particular piece of legislation matter. Also, let’s just get one thing straight right now: we’re the good guys.

Take out the Trash Day

There is a popular episode in The West Wing called “Take out the Trash Day”. In that show, the last day of the US parliamentary year is shown as when the government disposes off a lot of seemingly-nonsense, legislative business in one go. Within the bulky legislative businesses are hidden some oh-so-controversial things that the government doesn’t want to drive attention towards.

We have something similar.

It’s called the Private Member’s Business days, which happen every Friday (#TGIF).

On PMB days, Members of Parliament (from both houses) are allowed to bring in their own bills to their respective house and talk about what their personal concerns are. But that’s not all. Bills that need to be pushed through are sometimes suddenly brought in on Fridays. A very recent example: the Aadhaar Bill was passed on a Friday during Private Member’s Business hours. There were just 68 members present in the Lok Sabha that day during voting (I was there and I counted). Here’s the revised list of Business for Friday, March 11 (scroll to the very bottom of the document).

Take a look at the revised list of business for Friday, May 6. Just look at the number of rules and documents that were laid on the table of the house on that day. Some excerpts (because that document looks so complicated and unfriendly. Complex Language Alert!):

  • Something something Food Security & Safety Standards Authority annual report… say what?
  • Give it up for Annual reports & Accounts for Regional Banks! It just entered the house!!
  • Imposition of Anti-dumping duty on imports of Normal Butanol Alcohol… from specific countries. Fascinating stuff, isn’t it?

Things like these ideally should raise some concerns. At the very least, they should be read and scrutinised. But nobody does. Believe you me, I have tried to go through a lot of these documents, but it’s a painful task to find the interesting things within all the legal language and terminologies.

The majority of the MPs usually go back to their constituencies on Thursday evenings itself and come back on Monday. Only the MPs who have presented their own PMBs are motivated enough to be present.

Three day weekends boyz and grillz! #TGIF

Even those present, sit in the house with the assumption that their bills are not going to be passed.

What’s a Private Member’s Bill?

Simply put, Members of Parliament who are not ministers are called… just… members. And the bills they bring into the house are called “Private Member’s Bills”. The government bills are presented by ministers of the respective ministry under which the legislation falls (except in some extraordinary cases. cough FDI in Politics cough).

Two and a half hours are to be set aside every Friday during session to introduce, consider and pass (???) PMBs. The biggest reason why nobody pays attention to them is because the bills are never passed.

Last year, on a historic occasion, the Transgender Rights Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha. Before this, the last PMB passed by parliament was the Supreme Court (Enlargement of Criminal Appellate Jurisdiction) Bill, 1968, which became an act on August 9, 1970.

1970 to 2015! It took 45 years for a PMB to pass even one house of Parliament!

Here’s a complete list of the PMBs that have made it through the Parliament. #Nerdout

Fun Fact: In 1964, Raghunath Singh introduced the Salaries and Allowances of Members of Parliament (Amendment) Bill in the Lok Sabha. It was passed in the same year. The bill aimed to raise the salaries and allowances of members of parliament in order to meet the high cost of living. Also, to provide free air travel facilities. This is relevant because our MPs still avail the same air travel facilities.

If PMBs don’t get passed, why put in the effort?

Apart from the obvious one – to show an increase in their performance in Parliament – there’s a another very weird reason behind why MPs put in PMBs. Let me illustrate this through an example:

MP Devji Patel wants cows to be protected and their species to advance further, so he drafts a bill and brings it in the house. The bill gets introduced on a Friday and he gets to speak about it for a few minutes. If the speaker allows it, there will be a full-blown discussion in the Lok Sabha on this bill where other members can pitch in and express their ‘lou’ for the ‘gou‘. During the discussion, the concerned Ministers will be present. In this case, it would be the Agriculture Minister since Animal Husbandry falls under his portfolio.

Now I’m entering a little speculative territory. From what I understand, the singular reason why this bill won’t pass is because it would give out the impression that the government is sort of incompetent. That it needs a singular MP to draft a bill to protect cows. Government has, for the longest time, treated law-making as their own fiefdom. They like to run a tight ship when it comes to drafting and proposing bills. So when an MP speaks about his PMB, the concerned minister might not even do anything about it. But there is a teensy-weensy chance s/he might take notice and move towards a government bill on the subject.

Like in the case of Mr Patel, you never know, we might see a cow protection board law soon *because* of the PMB that he presented on a sleepy Friday!

I know. It’s a long shot. It all depends on how receptive the Minister is and how much attention he/she pays attention to PMBs, but that is exactly the hope that an MP clings to. There is always hope.

Dire warning: If the Government doesn’t do anything about the ‘gou’, the Cows shall Rise.

So last PMB was passed 45 years ago. Check

Nobody in Parliament seems to be interested in them. Check.
And despite all of this, the #SpeechBill is being presented as a Private Member’s Bill. Check.

The questions: Why?

The #SpeechBill

The #SpeechBill is a law that is being drafted by MP Tathagata Satpathy that will focus on three things:

  1. Decriminalise defamation
  2. Protect freedom of speech by strengthening civil defamation laws
  3. Balance Free Speech with Right to Reputation

Defamation is an issue that affects everyone from authors, to journalists, to politicians (all parties), to comedians and even neighbours of irritated elected representatives. Simply put, the Parliament will be interested if the people are interested. The Parliament reflects us, the citizens, and our thoughts through our elected representatives. If people care about a lynching in Dadri, it is raised in Parliament. If people care about Sri Lankan fishermen, it is raised in Parliament. If people care about decriminalization of homosexuality, by all means, it shall become an issue in Parliament.

So we thought: what better way to push for reform in defamation law, which is in public interest, than through a Private Members Bill?

PMBs are strictly apolitical by nature, since they are presented by a single MP through his/her own personal effort. It allows everyone to rally behind it, regardless of their political affiliation.

The #SpeechBill team, including Mr Satpathy, is very much aware about the realities of PMBs and how they are an ignored part of democracy in India. But we also think this needs to change. If an MP – any MP – is putting in the effort to draft a bill and present it in Parliament, it should be given a chance. It should, at the very least, be discussed in the House.

As an MPs office, we thought that we would like to explore this rather unexplored avenue of lawmaking and create a campaign around it. The objective is to push for something that concerns all of us: The Right to Free Speech & the Right to personal Reputation.

#SpeechBill is also trying to come up with a law that everyone agrees with – Left-wingers, Right-wingers, Centrists, commies, libtards, bhakts and every other category you can think of. That is the very reason why a two-week consultation is underway on the ten principles behind the bill.

The #SpeechBill is being treated like a Government bill

In our minds, there is no difference between a Private Member’s Bill and a Government Bill. They are both legislations which are presented by representatives for the consideration of Parliament. So the Office of Tathagata Satpathy is doing everything that should be done before a legislation is filed in Parliament.

The only difference between the #SpeechBill and a government bill is that we can’t put out the actual bill in public (Rule 334A of Parliamentary Procedures prevents it), while the Government can.

But other than that, we have sent a letter to the law minister & law commission, requesting a review of defamation laws. We have done consultations with lawyers, journalists, public policy professionals and politicians too. We are constantly taking feedback to make the bill stronger and better.

Our idea is to offer this bill for the consideration of Parliament, after the ten principles behind the #SpeechBill are vetted by everyone and anyone. We will be reaching out to stakeholders till September 27, 2016. If the Government finds it worthy, they *might* want to bring it in as their own bill. Which we are absolutely fine with.

Simultaneously and consciously, we hope to revive the importance of Private Members Bills in our legislative process. PMBs can become a way for common citizens like you and me to participate in actual law making. It would also allow MPs to present bills without any sort of political compulsion and party pressure involved.

The hope is, due to the #SpeechBill Campaign, our MPs go:

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