Last week, both houses of parliament witnessed disruptions. While no business could be transacted in the Rajya Sabha, a few Bills were passed in Lok Sabha amidst the din. Of the 11 Bills listed for passage in both houses this week, four Bills were passed in at least one house. These include Bills dealing with the re-haul of consumer protection laws, regulation of surrogacy and recognition of transgender persons. In this article, we discuss the key features of these Bills.
Enhancing rights of consumers
The Consumer Protection Bill, 2018 replaces the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. It was introduced in view of the significant changes in the consumer market landscape since the 1986 Act. It introduces several new provisions such as enabling consumers to make product liability claims for an injury or harm caused to them, nullifying unfair contracts which impact consumer interests (such as contracts which charge excessive security deposits) and imposing penalties for false and misleading advertisements on manufacturers, as well as on the endorsers of such advertisements.
The Bill also sets up Consumer Dispute Redressal Commissions (or courts) at the district, state and national level, to hear complaints on matters related to deficiencies in services or defects in goods. While these commissions are also present under the 1986 Act, the Bill increases their pecuniary jurisdiction: district commissions will hear complaints with a value of up to Rs 1 crore; state commissions between Rs 1 crore and Rs 10 crore; and national commission above Rs 10 crore. The Bill also sets up a regulatory body known as the Central Consumer Protection Authority. This authority can take certain actions to protect the rights of consumers as a class, such as passing orders to recall defective goods from the market, and imposing penalties for false and misleading advertisements.
Recognising transgender persons and their rights
This week, Lok Sabha also passed the Transgender Bill, 2018. This Bill seeks to recognise transgender persons, confers certain rights and entitlements on them related to education, employment and health, and carves out welfare measures for their benefit. The Bill defines a transgender person as one whose gender does not match the gender assigned at birth. It includes trans-men and trans-women, persons with intersex variations, gender-queers and persons having socio-cultural identities such as kinnar, hijra, aravani and jogta. The Bill requires every establishment to designate one person as a complaint officer to act on complaints received under the Bill.
The Bill provides that a transgender person will have the right to self-perceived gender identity. Further, it also provides for a screening process to obtain a Certificate of Identity, certifying the person as ‘transgender’. This implies that a transgender person may be allowed to self-identify as transgender individual, but at the same time they must also undergo the screening process to get certified as a transgender. Therefore, it is unclear how these two provisions of self-identification and an external screening process will reconcile with each other.
Regulating surrogacy and overhauling the Medical Council of India
The Surrogacy Bill, 2017 which regulates altruistic surrogacy and prohibits commercial surrogacy was also passed in Lok Sabha. Surrogacy is a process where an intending couple commissions an eligible woman to carry their child. In an altruistic surrogacy, the surrogate mother is not given any monetary benefit or reward, and the arrangement only covers her medical expenses and health insurance. The Bill sets out certain conditions for both the intending couple and the surrogate mother to be eligible for surrogacy. The intending couple must be Indian citizens, be married for at least five years, and at least one of them must be infertile. The surrogate mother must be a close relative of the couple, must be married and must have had a child of her own. Further, a surrogate mother cannot provide her own gametes for surrogacy.
The surrogate mother has been given certain rights with regard to the procedure of surrogacy. These include requiring her written consent to abort the surrogate child, and allowing her to withdraw from the surrogacy at any time before the embryo is implanted in her womb.
Another key Bill which was listed for passage in Lok Sabha this session but could not be taken up is the National Medical Commission Bill, 2017 (NMC Bill). Several amendments to this Bill were introduced in Lok Sabha this week. The NMC Bill seeks to replace the Medical Council of India with a National Medical Commission. It introduces a common final year undergraduate medical examination called the National Exit Test which will also grant the license to practice medicine. Only medical students graduating from a medical institute which is an ‘institute of national importance’ will be exempted from qualifying this National Exit Test.
The Bill also gives the NMC the power to frame guidelines to decide the fees of up to 50% of seats in private medical colleges and deemed universities. The NMC may also grant limited license to certain mid-level practitioners connected with the medical profession to practice medicine. The qualifying criteria for such mid-level practitioners will be determined through regulations, and they may prescribe specified medicines in primary and preventive healthcare.
So far, the winter session has seen poor productivity with Lok Sabha working for 14% of its scheduled time, and Rajya Sabha for 5%. Both Houses will meet next on Thursday after breaking for Christmas. This is one of the least productive sessions of the 16th Lok Sabha. At the beginning of the session, 23 Bills were listed for passage, and 20 were listed for introduction. So far, one Bill has been passed by both Houses, and three others by Lok Sabha. Six Bills have been introduced. This is the last major session before the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha. With a limited number of sitting days available in the ongoing session, it remains to be seen if parliament will be able to achieve its legislative agenda.