School teachers took to the street last week demanding that the provisions contrary to the interests of the community of teachers in the proposed Education Bill tabled in the parliament be revised and corrected. The nation-wide strike paralysed the curricular activities in the community schools sending alarm to the power corridors at Singh Durbar. The strike thus disrupted classes for millions of students across all schools in the country. The teachers were reportedly up against proposals to give local governments oversight of schools and a ban on teachers joining groups with political affiliations. Needless to say, the federal constitution enacted in 2015 shifted the governance of some public institutions, such as schools and hospitals to local governments.
A deal has been struck, the other day, between the striking teachers and the government to address the issues after both sides sat for negotiation sensing the urgency of the matter. The agreement commits to revising some of the contested provisions in the proposed law to respond to the concerns of the teachers. However, some sections of teachers have expressed their reservations contending that the interests of the different categories of teachers hired on contractual basis have not been covered and addressed in the deal. Hopefully, the issues will be settled soon and normalcy shall be restored in the schools.
Nevertheless, the question that nags the onlookers is why the stakeholders are forced to come out on to the street to oppose the legislative proposals only after they are registered in the parliament for their passage and endorsement. Why do responsible agencies fail to resort to openness and transparency for an elaborate discussion and broad-based deliberation on the provisions of the bills before submission to the parliament for scrutiny consideration and passage? Needless to say, such consultation with stakeholders and the sectors concerned is mandatory according to law.
Moreover, dialogue and deliberation form the core of any democracy. In order to produce collaborative, effective and representative rules, the procedure of law-making should embody pre-legislative consultation as fundamental democratic requirement. Legislations are said to incorporate the people’s collective will and aspirations that are consolidated by elected representatives who constitute the lawmaking organs of the government.
Nepal’s constitution vests the authority to pass laws with the parliament at the federal level, and with the Provincial Assemblies at the province level. Needless to say, consultation is the key to modern policy-making as it builds and enhances democracy when it works well and produces transparent, efficient and accountable legislations. Pre-legislative consultations aim to improve the efficacy and validate laws and regulations at their different stages.
In the United Kingdom, prior to drafting a statute, there is a practice of publishing a “Green Paper” where the stakeholders are consulted for a few months during the drafting of a new law. The UK manual of Parliamentary Procedures states that every legislative initiative must be made in consultation with the interested parties and authorities concerned. In India too, the committee of secretaries, headed by the cabinet secretary, approved a policy few years ago requiring the central government to place the plans for the new bills and modification of existing legislation on their website, inviting feedback and opinions from the people. All ministries must put any proposed legislation in the public domain, including the internet and take steps to ensure broad coverage in order to ensure access of potential stakeholders.
The fact that the access of the public to the draft of legislations allows the stakeholders and groups concerned to articulate their issues and propose amendments accordingly. In the pre-drafting process as well as in the phase before introduction, significant public commitment to the bill would hopefully go a long way in strengthening the foundation of participatory democracy. The value of participatory democracy depends on popular deliberation to ensure that the contents of the policies on the anvil are understood by the ordinary populace. It also meets partly the requirement of ground level research so that the consideration of stakeholders of the bill or those who are majorly affected by the bill are taken into account. Moreover, the legislation drawn up and enacted without consultations and deliberation lacks the social dynamics of the community involved in which legislation is meant to be applied. The rejection of Guthi bill in the past and the education bill recently can illustrate the point clearly.
Farmers' case in India
The case of farmers protesting in India a few years ago expressing their displeasure over the dismantling of “Mandi System”, to bring an end to assured procurement of crops at minimum selling price. Once there is an end of minimum selling price, there might not be any price assurance or any protection to farmers against monetary exploitation or any mechanism of price fixation. Farmers had also demanded that they should be provided with minimum selling price assurance in writing by the government as they fear that the corporate houses might have an upper hand which will lead to exploitation. The farmers of India’s states of Punjab and Haryana, where farming is one of the major occupations, had sought the government of their respective states but failed to get any response thereby leading the farmers to march towards New Delhi to mount pressure on the government of India. The discomfort expressed by farmers clearly reflects the absence of deliberation and participation in the process of making law in India.
Placing citizens closer to the affairs of government decision makers is the fundamental feature of democracy. It has always been proven to have a positive outcome in fostering trust between citizens and state. It also helps to make the proposed laws effective when it is brought into application and implementation.
(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow. email@example.com)