The Indian Parliament building stands in New Delhi, India (Photographer: Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg News)  

Six Controversial Bills Up For Discussion In The Monsoon Session

After a washout Budget Session, the Narendra Modi government is keen on fast-tracking the passage of a number of controversial laws in the Monsoon Session beginning today.

Bills for criminalising triple talaq, prohibiting discrimination to transgenders and amendments to the Right to Information Act are among the ones to be considered, according to bulletins published by Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. The Monsoon session is scheduled to continue till Aug. 10.

Here are some of the issues which could be hotly contested and may have significant legal consequences:

1. Triple Talaq

Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill 2017 .

Proposed Legislation: The Bill makes any declaration of talaq-e-biddat (or any other instant form of talaq) in Muslim marriage void and illegal. Doing so will also be a cognisable and non-bailable offence, punishable with up to three years’ imprisonment. The woman will be entitled to get maintenance from her husband for herself and her children, and get custody of the children.

Why is this controversial?: The criminalisation of triple talaq has been criticised by social activists, women’s groups and Muslim groups since it means imprisonment of the husband. This runs counter to the practical reasoning behind making triple talaq illegal – to prevent separation of families and ensuring that the wife and children are not left destitute.

Status: The ‘Triple Talaq Bill’ was passed in the Lok Sabha in the previous session, but the Opposition demanded in the Rajya Sabha that it be referred to a Select Committee. The Upper House will take the issue up again in the Monsoon Session.

2. Transgender Rights

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016

Proposed Legislation: The Bill defines transgender persons, and prohibits discrimination against them in relation to education, employment, healthcare, public goods and services, right of movement, and occupation of property. The Bill also directs the central and state governments to provide welfare schemes in these areas. It is also a criminal offence to (a) force transgenders to beg; (b) deny them access to public places; (c) force them out of their residence; or (d) harm or endanger their life, safety or well-being.

Why is this controversial?: The Supreme Court’s NALSA judgment in 2014, which set the ball rolling on transgender rights in India, specifically recognises their right to self-identify. The Bill claims that it recognises the right to self-identify, but requires a certificate of identity as transgender to be obtained from the District Magistrate after assessment by a Screening Committee – which has been strongly criticised by rights activists and the transgender community.

The definition of transgender in the Bill has also been criticised, including by a Parliamentary Standing Committee, for being too rigid, going against global norms and violating the right to self-identification. It also fails to provide for any reservations in education or offices, and provides no grievance redressal mechanism. In this, it compares unfavourably to Tiruchi Siva’s 2014 private member’s bill which had been passed in the Rajya Sabha.

Status: The Lok Sabha will consider the Parliamentary Standing Committee’s recommendations to amend the Government’s Bill, and whether to pass it or not.

3. Revamping Of OBC Commission

The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Third Amendment) Bill, 2017

Proposed Legislation: The National Commission for Backward Classes is currently a statutory body that recommends which communities should be included in the Centre’s list of Other Backward Classes. The government wants to change this into a constitutional body like the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, allowing the NCBC to hear grievances of OBCs, which are currently heard by the NCSC. This requires an amendment to the Constitution.

Why is this controversial?: There is a dispute between the government and Opposition on the composition of the NCBC. The government’s version of the amendment, passed in the Lok Sabha, says the commission will have three members. The Opposition insisted in the Rajya Sabha that it needs to have two additional members – one woman, and one from a minority community.

Besides, the amendment seeks to change the way in which states decide which communities should be considered OBCs for state-level reservations. Currently, states decide for themselves, but if the amendment goes through in its current form, the Centre will make the decision in consultation with the states.

Status: Due to the special procedure for passing constitutional amendments, the Bill is back in the Lok Sabha to debate the Rajya Sabha’s amendments. Both Houses have to agree on a draft, pass it by special majority, and get the state legislative assemblies to then agree to it.

4. National Medical Commission

The National Medical Commission Bill 2017

Proposed Legislation: Under this Bill, the government would scrap the existing Medical Council of India run by doctors and replace it with a government-run National Medical Commission to regulate medical education and practices.

Key regulations include (1) determining fees for up to 40 percent of seats in private medical colleges and deemed universities; (2) a National Licentiate Examination for doctors after their MBBS to obtain a licence to practice.

Why is this controversial? The Cabinet had to remove provisions for a bridge course to allow AYUSH doctors to prescribe allopathic medicines after severe criticism. Doctors were strongly against the idea, saying it would require a lot of training and could pose severe risks to patients. Several state governments expressed their opposition to the Parliamentary Standing Committee that was looking into this Bill, leading to the Cabinet’s decision. However, the official draft without this modification has not yet been released.

Status: The Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha in December 2017, and the Parliamentary Standing Committee submitted its report in March 2018. The Lower House is scheduled to review the report and debate the Bill during the Monsoon Session.

5. Amendments To RTI Act

The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill 2018

Proposed Legislation: The amendments are yet unknown. All that has been disclosed so far is that the government has a new Bill it wishes to introduce in Parliament to amend the RTI Act.

Why is this controversial?: The RTI Act is the most extensively-used transparency legislation in the world, and has been a key tool in the fight against corruption, and to obtain much-needed information on government programmes including Aadhaar. The Modi government had previously sought to amend the RTI framework in ways that were criticised by activists for making it tougher for common people to obtain information, and even expose them to threat to their lives. The government has refused RTI applications asking for information about the amendments, leading to further worries among RTI activists like the National Campaign for People’s’ Right to Information.

Status: The Bill is yet to be introduced.

6. DNA Profiling

DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill 2018

Proposed Legislation: The Bill seeks to regulate the use of DNA technology for establishing identity of victims, offenders, suspects, undertrials, missing persons and unknown deceased persons. There will be a DNA Regulatory Board which will certify which labs are authorised to carry out DNA testing, and establish DNA data banks. The Bill also proposes the establishment of national and regional DNA data banks to maintain indices for crime scenes, suspects, undertrials, offenders and missing persons.

Why is this controversial?: This is the third iteration of the Bill, and follows recommendations from the Law Commission to amend previous proposals which had come under severe criticism. Serious privacy concerns over the legislation remain, as does the risk of profiling without sufficient safeguards. The maintenance of an index for suspects is concerning because this could lead to violations of the right to life and liberty, and it is also worrying that the framework allows for “voluntarily” submitting one’s DNA, which raises the spectre of another Aadhaar.

Status: The Bill is yet to be introduced.