This week, the Centre passed two resolutions and a law in Parliament that effectively ended Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and bifurcated the state into two union territories. This was done unilaterally while the state is under President’s rule and without the concurrence of the legislature.
Crtiticising the move as an attack on federalism, former Union Home Minister P Chidambaram said in Rajya Sabha that these measures have raised the fears that the BJP will try to break other states by using its majority in Parliament.
But the Jammu and Kashmir developments are just part of a larger trend the Parliament has witnessed since Narendra Modi took over as prime minister for the second time in May. The Centre has pushed through several laws in Parliament, disregarding the demand of the Opposition parties that some of them be referred to parliamentary committees.
One of the reasons for this demand was that many of the amendments had elements that impinged on the federal balance between the Centre and the states as mandated by the Constitution. The Opposition argued that the Centre was trying to impose these changes without proper deliberation as it wants to expand its powers in the states by using its majority in the Lok Sabha.
Here are some of the laws that the Opposition has flagged as contentious.
National Investigation Agency Act
The amendments to the law governing the National Investigation Agency were passed by the Lok Sabha on July 15 and by Rajya Sabha two days later. The role of the anti-terror investigation agency has been expanded.
Apart from explicit terror cases, the agency will now have the power to investigate human trafficking, offences related to counterfeit currency, manufacture or sale of prohibited arms, cyber-terrorism and offences under the Explosive Substances Act, 1908. These offences were under the ambit of the state police until the law was amended.
Secondly, through an amendment to Section 3 of the Act, all the powers, duties, privileges and liabilities which state police officers have in connection with the investigation of offences listed under the Act will become available to the NIA as well, which means the agency can make arrests directly in the states without having to go through the state agencies.
The Congress and the DMK, the two biggest Opposition parties in Parliament, initially opposed the Bill, alleging the NIA has been used to target religious minorities, especially Muslims. By expanding the role of the NIA, they said the Centre was encroaching upon state powers to maintain law and order, which goes against the core principles of federalism.
However, both the parties finally voted in favour of the Bill, citing national security, which attracted criticism from other parties and activists.
Unlawful Activities Prevention Act
On August 2, a week after Lok Sabha cleared it, the Bill seeking to amend the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act was passed by the Rajya Sabha. One of the amendments allows the Centre to designate individuals as terrorists – earlier, only organisations could be designated as terrorist in nature.
Another amendment allows central agencies to attach the properties of terror suspects without the prior approval of the state government in writing.
Like the NIA Act amendments, the Opposition slammed the government for introducing changes that eroded state powers – in this case, not just law and order but also the state subject of land.
But the government defended the clause by claiming that many times, terror accused own properties in different states. In such cases, seeking approval of the director generals of police of different states could lead to delays which may enable the accused to transfer properties.
Right to Information
Perhaps the most contentious of the Bills passed last week in Parliament was the Right to Information Act (Amendment) Bill, 2019.
The amendments have made profound changes to the tenure and remuneration of central and state chief information commissioners and information commissioners. Previously, the chief information commissioners and information commissioners had a fixed tenure of five years or till they turned 65. This tenure will now depend on the prescription of the Centre. The change will apply not just to the chief information commissioner, but also information commissioners at the state level.
Before the amendment was passed, the terms of service and remuneration for the chief information commissioner at the central level was on par with the chief election commissioner. At the state level, they were equal to the state election commissioner. This has now been changed and the Centre will prescribe their remuneration.
Opposition parties like the Trinamool Congress argued that the changes place the officers under the RTI Act at the mercy of the Centre. The amendments are such that these officers even at the state level could be removed easily by the Centre as it will now control the terms of appointment, thereby affecting the federal aspect of the law.
Dam Safety Bill
Introduced in the Lok Sabha on July 29, the Bill has faced serious opposition from political parties in Tamil Nadu.
It was first introduced in August 2010 by the United Progressive Alliance government, which was forced to send the draft to a standing committee. A year later, after incorporating certain changes proposed by the committee, the Centre tried to pass the law in the Lok Sabha. These attempts, however, failed.
The primary dispute over the Bill is that water comes under the state list in the Constitution. It is only in certain matters of interstate rivers that the Centre has a role. The Opposition has alleged that in the garb of forming a National Committee on Dams Safety, the Centre was trying to usurp rights over water that are exclusive to the states.
The amendments propose the setting up of a National Committee on Dams Safety that will regulate the maintenance and safety of dams as well as a State Committee on Dams Safety which will manage dams within a state.
However, a provision under the proposed law states that if a dam owned and operated by one state is in the territory of another, the National Committee on Dams Safety will take over the functions of the state committee as well.
The Centre has claimed this will help resolve interstate dams dispute. However, Tamil Nadu, which controls five such dams, including the controversy-ridden Mullaiperiyar in Kerala, feels that this would eventually lead to the state losing control over the dams.