Laws by consent

The Central government’s decision to make pre-legislative consultation with the people mandatory before bills are introduced in the legislature can make law-making more meaningful and participatory. It has instructed all ministries and departments to involve all stake-holders in discussions on legislations when they are formulated and take their views before finalising the provisions. This will open up a wider area of public discussion on laws. The consultations will not be limited to legislations but will also extend to the rules and regulations which give effect to the laws after they are passed by parliament. These are framed by civil servants and have sometimes been at variance with the intent of the legislations. Scrutiny by the public at the formative stage of legislations will give them greater legitimacy and make the process more transparent.

There is a practice of such consultation even now but it depends on the discretion of ministries. There is also an institutional mechanism of standing committees which study legislative proposals when they are mooted. Though experts and stake-holders like those who are affected by the legislation are invited for discussions, these are closed door affairs. Sometimes laws have emerged from public discussions, like the  right to information act. There have also been public discussion and consideration of inputs from the public and from committees set up for the purpose, as in the case of the law against sexual harassment. Bills have sometimes been made public and suggestions have been invited but this has not been the norm. But now the consultations will become an essential part of the process.

Such a consultative process becomes all the more important because many bills are passed without discussion and debates in legislatures. Because of frequent disruptions and adjournments, bills are passed in a hurry. Many members may not even be aware of some of their provisions and the public often get to know them after they have become the law. There is scope for consideration of diverse views and grievances about the laws and for working out a better consensus on them if the public is taken into confidence. Many other countries have such a system which makes laws more acceptable. There is resistance to the idea from the bureaucracy on the ground that it will pose many practical difficulties. But it deserves to be given a sincere try.

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