Three cheers for democracy

Published: Tuesday 31 March 2009

Important bills are better dropped than approved without parliamentary debate

THE government failed to push through Rajya Sabha three critical bills that had been cleared by the lower house of Parliament recently. The upper house rejected government bills on land acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation, and compensatory afforestation. These bills address natural resources--land and forest--as well as the rights of vulnerable people, mostly poor farmers, who end up paying the cost of the country's development with their means of subsistence.

The rejection of these bills is only propitious, for had the bills passed the upper house without any debate, as they did in the lower house, it would have undermined democracy. The 14th Lok Sabha passed the bills on land acquisition and resettlement in its last hours, before the country goes into general elections. The bill on compensatory afforestation was passed in December last, again without discussion. While there was debate on these important bills in the parliamentary standing committees--with healthy debate disappearing from the floor of the two houses, its last refuge is the standing committees, where narrow politics does not score so consistently over democratic debate--Lok Sabha never did justice to its bidding on bills that will influence greatly the country's economic growth, its natural resources, and the future of millions who are shoved out of their land in the name of public interest, without so much as a recognition of the terrible price they pay for redevelopment of their land.

At the heart of the land debate is establishing public interest. The Left parties as well as the rightwing bjp said the government's definition of public interest was nebulous. They resisted the bill to prevent the State and industry teaming up to short-change farmers. A debate would have brought out the finer textures. The government too would have got the opportunity to question the Left parties on the land acquisition fracas in Nandigram and Singur. A good debate on compensatory afforestation would have questioned the constitutionality of the Supreme Court creating an authority with hundreds of crores of rupees in its kitty--without any authorization of the legislature.

The 15th Lok Sabha would have the opportunity to ask.

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