UPA to make reform push

UPA to make reform push

New Delhi: In what could be an indication of fresh reformist intent from an embattled government, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) plans to push forward with a package of legislation in the budget session of Parliament, due to start on Monday.

Among the key economic Bills to be tabled before lawmakers is one to pave the way for the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST), three separate Bills on the financial sector, the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill and the Women’s Reservation Bill.

However, there are no indications of progress on the contentious legislation on food security or on anti-corruption legislation such as the Lokpal Bill and a whistle-blower protection Bill.

The legislative proposals come amid criticism about a drift in governance and mounting scandals that brought Parliament to a virtual standstill in its winter session.

Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee will present the Union budget on 28 February, the railway budget will be presented on 25 February and the economic survey will be tabled on the same day, said parliamentary affairs minister Pawan Kumar Bansal. The three-month budget session will have a three-week break from 17 March to 4 April, and will end on 21 April.

Added Sandeep Dikshit, deputy whip of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha: “There is an attempt to get back to doing business in Parliament and make it more productive and useful."

Some investors had expressed fears that the image of a corrupt government would discourage foreign investors.

“From the government’s side, it’s clear that it wants to create a business-as-usual atmosphere. The Prime Minister has also indicated that he wants to carry forward his reform agenda," said Balveer Arora, former head of the political science department at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “The government is conveying this message to both the opposition and the world at large, including investors. Whether it will be able to deliver depends on the opposition’s decision to cooperate with the government."

In an interaction with editors of television channels on Wednesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had promised a fresh wave of reforms and indicated that the Union budget could offer some measures to encourage growth.

The UPA, whose stance against a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) to investigate the 2G telecom scam led to the stalling of proceedings by the opposition in the winter session, has finally agreed to a parliamentary investigation into the issue.

However, Bansal indicated that the government would not favour a JPC on other corruption controversies such as Commonwealth Games preparations and the allotment of flats in the Adarsh Housing Cooperative Society in Mumbai meant for war widows. The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has demanded that the JPC should investigate all corruption charges.

“Under parliamentary rules, a motion for JPC can be on one particular issue," Bansal told reporters in Parliament House. A senior Congress leader said the Prime Minister will move a suo moto motion in the Lok Sabha next Tuesday requesting speaker Meira Kumar to constitute a committee, on which there could be a discussion. Once the Lok Sabha passes it, the resolution will be moved in the Rajya Sabha for its concurrence.

During the budget session, which is expected to have 29 sittings, the government is planning to introduce 32 new Bills, including several reform-oriented Bills such as the Banking Laws (Amendment) Bill, the Securitization and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest (Amendment) Bill, the Constitution (Amendment Bill)—Goods and Services Tax, the Mines (Amendment) Bill, the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill and the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill.

Among the 31 Bills that are listed to be considered and to be passed are the long-pending Seeds Bill to regulate the production, distribution and sale of seeds; the Pesticides Management Bill to regulate the manufacture, inspection, testing and distribution of pesticides; the Companies (Amendment) Bill; the Educational Tribunals Bill to help establish tribunals for effective resolution of disputes in higher educational institutions and other stakeholders; the Commercial Division of High Courts Bill to set up a commercial division in the high courts for adjudicating on commercial disputes; and the Women’s Reservation Bill to provide 33% reservation for women in Parliament and legislative assemblies.

Bansal said the government has resolved all the differences among the ruling coalition partners over the Land Acquisition Bill, a legislation to govern acquisition of land for mining and industrial purposes. The Bill had been cleared during the 14th Lok Sabha and lapsed with it following objections from the UPA ally Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, also the railway minister.

Although the government is moving forward to bring in the path-breaking GST Bill, negotiations with the state governments are still on to finalize the shape of the tax system.

The proposed items of legislation don’t seem to reflect the ruling party’s pledge for an anti-corruption drive. In the party plenary held in December, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi had put forth a five-point clean-up plan, including fresh legislation, for ensuring full transparency in public procurement and contracts.

The BJP said it will raise the issue in Parliament. “It is most unfortunate that the government has not seriously applied its mind to it (bringing in laws to deal with corruption) and is not politically ready to introduce Bills to tackle corruption. In the first meeting of the business advisory committee itself we will raise the issue and ask the government to bring in anti-corruption Bills," said Prakash Javadekar, a BJP spokesperson.

Ruhi Tewari contributed to this story.