When ruling on the petition filed by Jairam Ramesh challenging passing the Aadhaar Act as a money Bill, the court has differing precedents to look at.
In an earlier article, I had argued that the characterisation of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, as a money Bill by Sumitra Mahajan, speaker of the Lok Sabha, was erroneous. Specifically, I had argued that upon perusal of Article 110 (1) of the constitution, the Aadhaar Act does not satisfy the conditions required of a money Bill. For a legislation to be classified as a money Bill, it must comprise of ‘only’ provisions dealing with the following matters: (a) imposition, regulation and abolition of any tax, (b) borrowing or other financial obligations of the government of India, (c) custody, withdrawal from or payment into the Consolidated Fund of India (CFI) or Contingent Fund of India, (d) appropriation of money out of CFI, (e) expenditure charged on the CFI or (f) receipt or custody or audit of money into CFI or public account of India; or (g) any matter incidental to any of the matters specified in sub-clauses (a) to (f).
Article 110 is modelled on Section 1(2) of the UK’s Parliament Act, 1911, which also defines money Bills as those only dealing with certain enumerated matters. The use of the word ‘only’ was brought up by Ghanshyam Singh Gupta during the constituent assembly debates. He pointed out that the use of the word ‘only’ limits the scope money Bills to only those legislations which did not deal with other matters. His amendment to delete the word ‘only’ was rejected, clearly establishing the intent of the framers of the constitution to keep the ambit of money Bills extremely narrow. G.V. Mavalankar, the first speaker of Lok Sabha, had stated that the word ‘only’ must not be construed so as to give an overly restrictive meaning. For instance, a Bill which deals with taxation could have provisions which deal with the administration of the tax. The finance minister, Arun Jaitley, referred to these words by Mavalankar, justifying the classification of the Aadhaar Act as a money Bill.
While the Aadhaar Bill does makes references to benefits, subsidies and services funded by the CFI, even a cursory reading of the Bill reveals its main objectives as creating a right to obtain a unique identification number and providing for a statutory apparatus to regulate the entire process. Any reasonable reading of the legislation would be hard pressed to view all provisions in the Aadhaar Act, aside from the one creating a charge on the CFI, as merely administrative provisions incidental to the creation such charge. The mere fact of establishing the Aadhaar number as the identification mechanism for benefits and subsidies funded by the CFI does not give it the character of a money Bill. The Bill merely speaks of facilitating access to unspecified subsidies and benefits rather than their creation and provision being the primary object of the legislation. Erskine May’s seminal textbook, Parliamentary Practice, is instructive in this respect and makes it clear that a legislation which simply makes a charge on the consolidated fund does not becomes a money Bill if otherwise its character is not that of one. Further, the subordinate regulations notified under the Aadhaar Act deal almost entirely with matters to do with enrolment, updation, authentication of the Aadhaar number and related matters such as data security regulations and sharing of information collected, rather than the provision of benefits or subsidies or disbursal of funds otherwise from the CFI.
However, in the context of the petition filed by former Union minister Jairam Ramesh challenging the passage of the law on Aadhaar as a money Bill, the more important question is whether the judiciary has a right to question the speaker’s decision in such a matter. If not, any other questions about whether the legislation is a money Bill will remain merely academic in nature.
Irregularity vs illegality
Article 110 (3) clearly states that with regard to the question whether a legislation is a money Bill or not, the decision of the speaker is final and binding. The question is whether such a clause completely excludes any judicial review. Further, Article 122 prohibits the courts from questioning the validity of any proceedings in parliament on the ground of any alleged irregularity of procedure.
During the arguments in the court, the attorney general questioned the locus standi of Ramesh. The petition has been made under Article 32 of the constitution and the government argued that no fundamental rights of Ramesh were violated. However, the court has asked Ramesh to make his submission and adjourned the hearing to July. The petition by Ramesh would hinge largely on the powers of the judiciary to question the decision of the speaker of the Lok Sabha.
The powers of privilege that parliamentarians enjoy are integral to the principle of separation of powers. The rationale behind parliamentary privilege is to prevent interference in the lawmakers’ powers to perform essential functions. The ability to speak and vote inside the legislature without the fear of punishment is certainly essential to the role of a lawmaker. However, the extent of this protection lies at the centre of this discussion. During the constituent assembly debates, H.V. Kamath and others had argued for a schedule to exhaustively codify the existing privileges. However, B.R. Ambedkar pointed to the difficulty of doing so and parliamentary privilege on the lines of the British parliamentary practice was retained in the constitution. In the last few decades, a judicial position has emerged that courts could exercise a limited degree of scrutiny over privileges, as they are primarily responsible for interpreting the constitution.
In the matter of Raja Ram Pal vs The Hon’ble Speaker, Lok Sabha, it had been clarified that proceedings of the legislature were immune from questioning by courts in the case of procedural irregularity but not in the case of illegality. In this case, the Supreme Court while dealing with Article 122 stated that it does not oust review by the judiciary in cases of “gross illegality, irrationality, violation of constitutional mandate, mala fides, non-compliance with rules of natural justice and perversity.”
In 1968, the speaker of the Punjab legislative assembly adjourned the proceedings for a period of two months following rowdy behaviour. Subsequently, an ordinance preventing such a suspension was promulgated and the legislature was summoned by the governor to consider some expedient financial matters. The speaker disagreed with the decision and after some confusion, the deputy speaker passed a few Bills as money Bills. While looking into the question of what was protected from judicial review, the court stated that the protection did not extend to breaches of mandatory provisions of the constitution, only to directory provisions. By that logic, if Article 110 (1) is seen as a mandatory provision, a breach of its provisions could lead to an interpretation that the Supreme Court may well question an erroneous decision by the speaker of the Lok Sabha to certify a legislation as a money Bill. The use of the word “shall” in Article 110 (1), the nature and design of the provision, its overriding impact on the other constitutional provisions granting the Rajya Sabha powers are ample evidence of its mandatory nature. Based on the above, Anup Surendranath has argued that the passage of the Aadhaar Act as a money Bill when it does not satisfy the constitutional conditions for it does amount to a gross illegality.
The judicial precedent in Mohd. Saeed Siddiqui vs State of Uttar Pradesh where the matter of the court’s power to question the decision of a speaker was considered, though, leans in the other direction. In 2012, the Uttar Pradesh Lokayukta and Up-Lokayuktas (Amendment) Act, 2012 was passed as money Bill by the Uttar Pradesh state legislature. Subsequently, a writ petition was filed challenging its constitutional validity. A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court looked into the application of Article 212. It is the provision corresponding to Article 122, dealing with the power of the courts to inquire into the proceedings of the state legislature. The court held that Article 212 makes “it clear that the finality of the decision of the Speaker and the proceedings of the State Legislature being important privilege of the State Legislature, viz., freedom of speech, debate and proceedings are not to be inquired by the Courts.” Importantly, ‘proceedings of the legislature’ were deemed to include within its scope everything done in transacting parliamentary business, including the passage of the Bill. While the court did acknowledge the limitations of parliamentary privilege as established in the Raja Ram Pal case, it did not adequately take into account the reasoning in it.
The Aadhaar Act is a legislation which makes it mandatory of all residents to enrol for a biometric identification system in order to avail certain subsidies, benefits and services. It has huge potential risks for individual privacy and national security and has been the subject of an extremely high profile Public Interest Litigation. Its passage as a money Bill, without any oversight from the Rajya Sabha and an opportunity for substantial debate and discussion, is a fraud on the Constitution. Whether or not the court chooses to see it that way remains to be seen.
Amber Sinha is a policy researcher at the Centre for Internet and Society.