A Flurry of Ordinances in India

By Kanan Shah

Even though it holds the first parliamentary majority in India in over three decades, PM Modi’s government has been continuously bypassing Parliament by issuing ordinances, or temporary legislation, in an attempt to use executive orders to set wheels in motion after the previous government, run by PM Manmohan Singh, was accused of stalling the economy by failing to implement change efficiently The BJP-led cabinet, since coming to power in May, has issued 8 ordinances- that’s almost one a month! This parliament already ranks 6 out of 16 for the greatest use of ordinances.

This contrasts greatly with the views of India’s first Lok Sabha Speaker G.V. Mavalankar and first PM Nehru, on the use of ordinances – Mavalankar felt ordinances were undemocratic, and Nehru saw them as a last resort. In 1950, Mavalankar wrote that ordinances are “inherently undemocratic.” “Whether an ordinance is justifiable or not, the issue of a large number of ordinances has, psychologically, a bad effect. The people carry an impression that government is carried on by ordinances.” A month later, Nehru supported this claim, stating, “I think all of my colleagues will agree with you that the issue of ordinances is normally not desirable and should be avoided except on special and urgent occasions” (The Hindu).

This view against ordinances was endorsed by the 1986 Supreme Court judgment in D.C Wadha versus State of Bihar. The Bihari government continued issuing ordinances on a massive scale without provisions being enacted into acts of Legislature, leading to the Supreme Court ruling that “[t]he power to promulgate an ordinance is essentially a power to be used to meet an extraordinary situation and it cannot be allowed to be perverted to serve political ends… it is contrary to all democratic norms that the Executive should have the power to make a law.”

Impatient for change, many Indians argue that they prefer a bossy executive to one that has been checked-and balanced to a standstill. Ordinances are meant to be used when parliament is not sitting but urgent business is required, and PM Modi could claim there was pressing need in some instances, such as many large power and steel plants laying idle as they wait for a license to mine the coal needed to power them. However, ordinances are temporary and lapse if Parliament does not ratify them within six weeks of a new session. This limits their effectiveness as few businesses will commit themselves to big investments on such shaky grounds.

Modi’s latest ordinance, the Land Acquisition Bill, makes land acquisition easier by exempting it from certain procedural requirements when it is carried out for the development of industrial corridors, social infrastructure (education), rural infrastructure (roads and power), housing for the poor (The Economist). The projects will no longer need the consent of 80% of landowners during the acquisition. The ordinance also expands the current law to increase the probability of landowners being compensated in the projects. Thus, the ordinance aims to achieve a balance in which the procedure for acquisition is loosened but higher compensation continues. This change aims to support Modi’s “Make in India” campaign, since it encourages companies to build plants in India; ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steelmaker, earlier dropped its plan to build a plant in Orissa due to delays in acquiring land.

Courtesy of Creative Commons
Courtesy of Creative Commons

This ordinance has not gone without opposition. Social activist Anna Hazare cites this as an “anti-farmer” bill. On February 24, Anna Hazare launched a two-day protest that is to be followed by a three to four month ‘padyatra’ across the country to make the public aware of the provisions of the ordinance (Times of India). Hazare is hoping the farmers, once aware of the ordinance, will gather in opposition to demand withdrawal of the amendment to the Land Ordinance Bill. Congress leader Kharge stated, “it is extremely unfortunate that the BJP-led government issued the land acquisition ordinance without consulting anybody. This shows that the Centre is trying to please the corporates.” Kharge is to soon decide whether or not his party would like to extend support to Hazare.

Anna Hazare's Protest: Courtesy of Creative Commons
Anna Hazare’s Protest: Courtesy of Creative Commons
Mass gathering in support of Anna's protest: Courtesy of Creative Commons
Mass gathering in support of Anna’s protest: Courtesy of Creative Commons

Kanan Shah ’18 is in Davenport College. Contact her at kanan.shah@yale.edu.