Opposition demand for Bill to replace it causes concern for government

The ordinance on crimes against women may lapse as the Opposition is pressing for the Bill that will replace it to be sent to a Standing Committee of Parliament for another look at its provisions, government sources indicated on Tuesday.

Indeed, unless the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013 — that will be introduced after the ordinance is laid in Parliament — is passed within six weeks of the first sitting of Parliament (February 21), the ordinance will lapse. Given that the budget session will break for a month, starting March 22, it gives the government, in fact, exactly four rather than six weeks to pass the Bill. If the ordinance lapses, it can be re-promulgated in theory, but only after the budget session ends on May 10 and then one will have to await the monsoon session of Parliament for its passage.

For the UPA government that notified the ordinance with much fanfare as evidence of its sincerity to deal with crimes against women — an issue that had seen social protests across the country following the horrendous sexual assault of a 23-year-old paramedical student in Delhi last December — the Opposition stand is causing concern. The government, Congress sources say, sees it as yet another effort by the Opposition to block its efforts to do something positive. They point out that the Opposition parties which helped the government to pass the Lokpal Bill in the Lok Sabha inexplicably blocked it in the Rajya Sabha.

With the Parliament session commencing on Thursday, the government would like to get the Lokpal Bill passed now that the select committee to which it was sent has given its report. But government sources say the Opposition still appears to have its reservations about the bill.

Politically, the passage of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013 and the Lokpal Bill are very important for the UPA government, with a string of Assembly elections scheduled for this year and the general elections in 2014. It would help it send a message that it means business, especially to the urban electorate.

Meanwhile, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath urged all political parties to ensure that Parliament functions smoothly, assuring them that the government is prepared to discuss any issue that they want to — whether it is the controversial AgustaWestland helicopter deal, the execution of Afzal Guru the prime accused in the attack on Parliament, rising prices, the Land Acquisition Bill or the Food Security Bill.

“I urged all parties that members come not to obstruct Parliament but to ensure it works,” Mr. Kamal Nath said after a meeting on Tuesday with the Chief Whips of all the parties. “Our effort,” he said, “will be to find convergence... we have a lot of business at hand and there is time constraint... We hope to do substantial business in the session.” However, he made it clear that the government did not intend to ask Rajya Sabha Deputy chairperson P.J. Kurien to step down, following a demand from the Opposition parties: he stressed that Mr. Kurien had been exonerated by the courts in the 17-year-old Suryanelli gang rape case.

The government has listed around 71 Bills for introduction and passage, but it will focus on three ordinances, including the one on crimes against women, and the 13 items listed under financial business. The other two ordinances are the Securities and Exchange of Board of India (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013 and the Readjustment of Representation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in Parliamentary and Assembly Constituencies Ordinance, 2013. “The motion of thanks on the President's address, the general budget, the railway budget and the Jharkhand budget have to be passed on a priority basis,” Mr. Kamal Nath said.

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