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Home > India > News > Columnists > Rup Narayan Das

The UPA'S Ten Commandments

May 20, 2008

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When the government introduced the elusive Women's Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha on May 6, it fulfilled, at least notionally, its commitment to reservation of seats to women in the Parliament and state legislatures. The bill has dodged parliamentary passage due to lack of consensus in the political spectrum with regard to reservation for women belonging to Scheduled Castes and Tribes. The compromise formula was that the differences could be ironed out at the committee stage where the bill stands referred to. Since Rajya Sabha is the permanent House, unlike the Lok Sabha, it is hoped that the bill will continue to be afloat even if the Lok Sabha is dissolved paving for elections.

Commenting on the chequered passage of the bill, on editorial in the Mail Today tabloid said, 'It is unfortunate that men cannot see the wisdom of allowing equal participation of women in governance. The success stories of panchayats being headed by women are there for everyone to see. Today, there are nearly 10 lakh women panchayat leaders in the country. This was possible because of reservation at the grassroots level. However, in Parliament, less than 10 per cent of Lok Sabha members are women (45 MPs out of 542)'. It is argued that women who represent half the country have a right to half the seats in democratic India's Parliament and anything less than that amounts to cheating them.

While, it is still premature to say if the bill will be enacted into an act, the government has fulfilled its pledge and reiterated its commitment.

Yet another bill which the government has pledge to enact is the Right to Education Bill envisaging free and compulsory education to children between 6 and 14 years. It may be mentioned that through the Constitution (86th Amendment) Act, 2002, it has been provided that the state should provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen in such manner as the states may, by law, determine. This amendment has introduced a new article 21 A in the Constitution under the chapter on fundamental rights and Article 45 under the Directive Principles of State Policy has been substituted with the provision that the state should endeavour to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of six years.

A major issue relating to the bill is the financial commitment resulting in the event of its implementation. The National Knowledge Commission is of the view that the central government must provide the bulk of the additional funds required to ensure the right to education. Therefore there must be financial provision in the central legislation, requiring the central government to share the revenues of the Prarambhik Shiksha Kosh with state governments and to provide additional resources as required to meet the requirement of ensuring the right to all children. Estimates for the additional resources required to achieve the goal of universal elementary education currently range from 0.8 per cent to 2.5 per cent of GDP, depending on the criteria used.

However, the required financial resources are likely to be at the lower end of these estimates, since there is already close to universal provision in several states and there has been recent progress in providing more access through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in other states.

Be that as it may, the UPA Government which will demit office early next year will leave behind its stamp in the realm of a number of important legislations. The most important piece of legislation that the government enacted is the Right to Information Act, 2004. While the provisions of the act has been misused by some vested interest individuals and groups, there is no second opinion that the act has gone a long way in ensuring accountability and transparency in the democratic body-polity, so much so that there has been argument that judiciary should also be subjected to the ambit of RTI. The act's wide reach covers the central and state governments, panchayati raj institutions, local bodies as well as recipients of government grants. Even security agencies are subject to disclosure now in cases of allegations of corruption or violation of human rights.

The year 2005 witnessed a number of legislations which has impacted the society and the polity in a meaningful way. The government will be remembered for enacting the controversial Special Economic Zones Act, 2005 which created a lot of heat and dust both within and outside the Parliament. While the concept has worked in states like Gujarat, there has been widespread popular protest in states like West Bengal, Orissa and elsewhere. The major problem relating to the SEZ is that in most cases wherever SEZs have been set up, these SEZs have taken away the fertile agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes depriving farmers of their livelihood. Consequently there has been a rethinking and government is having a relook at some of its provisions. In fact, the centre had already amended the SEZ rules to make developers responsible for the relief and rehabilitation exercise.

One more important legislation is the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 which provides for enhancement of livelihood security of the households in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in every financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer for unskilled manual work. A social net of this dimension has not been understand even before anywhere in the world. Although initially, the provisions of the act was applicable to select districts in the country, it has now been applicable to all the districts of the country with effect from April 1. The implementation of the act in some poverty pockets has already reduced rural poverty and distress considerably.

As far as welfare of women is concerned, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 provides for more effective protection of the rights of women guaranteed under the Constitution who are victims of violence of any kind occurring within the family. At a time where has been increasing instances of domestic violence against women, such a law is a potent deterrent for perpetrators of such violence. It is worth mentioning that courts have held that the provisions of the act could also be applicable in cases of live-in relationship.

The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005, amended the Hindu Succession Act, 1955, which provides that in a joint Hindu family government by Mitakshara law, the daughter of a coparcener share have the same right, liabilities and disabilities in respect of coparcenary property as she would have had, if she had been a son, is another progressive legislation of the government.

To engage the Diaspora, the government enacted the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in August 2005. The act expands the scope of overseas citizenship of India to persons of Indian origin of all countries except Pakistan and Bangladesh and reduces the period of residence in India from two years to one year for the persons registered as overseas citizens of India to acquire Indian citizenship. The scheme is operational since December 2005. The OCI has been introduced by a statute as a new category of citizenship to facilitate life-long visa, free travel to India and certain economic, educational and cultural benefits. This is not be construed as dual citizenship since it does not confer political rights.

Yet another important and yet emotive legislation which the government enacted was the Central Education Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Bill, 2006 which sought inter alia to provide for reservation in admission of the students belonging to the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and other backward classes, in certain educational institutions, maintained or aided by the central government. In the meanwhile, the Supreme Court has upheld the provisions of the act while maintaining that reservation can not be passed on to the creamy-layer.

One more historic legislation for which government will be remembered is the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 which is committed to recognise and vest the forest rights and occupation in forest land in the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded. The provisions of the act are aimed at improving the lives of members belonging to the Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers living in forests since generation by vesting various rights such as right over forest land occupied by them for generation, rights relating to the security of their tenure, livelihood in terms of subsistence agriculture and ownership of minor forest products, including the right to collect, use and dispose of such produce, and certain traditional and other customary rights. It will remove the threat of eviction from forest land under their occupation. This writer is not aware if there have been similar legislations elsewhere, but the Australian government can certainly take a cue from this legislation for their aboriginals.

The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizen Act, 2007 sought to provide better medical facilities, need based maintenance and protection of life and property of parents and senior citizens and for the setting up of old age homes in every district of the country. According to the provisions of the law stipulated in the act people who abandon parents or neglect their basic needs or otherwise ill-treat them in their twilight years will have to face three months of imprisonment and a penalty of upto Rs 5,000. Though the parents can claim maintenance under the existing law, the procedure is both time consuming and expensive. The new legislation on the other hand, has made simple, inexpensive and speedy provisions for claiming maintenance which include food, clothing, residence and medical attendance and treatment. The act also provides for setting up of a tribunal in each district for helping the old in distress. The tribunal may also taken suo motu cognizance of matter if it finds that senior citizens are being neglected by their adult children or legal heirs including grandson and grand-daughter or whosoever inherits the property.

These legislative measures, excepting Right to Education Bill, which is yet to be introduced are like Ten Commandments which have impacted the polity and society in a significant way and will go a long way in ushering an inclusive society.

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