New Delhi: Parliament on Thursday night approved the NDA government’s first major economic reform measure as the long-pending bill providing for raising foreign investment cap to 49 percent in insurance was passed by Rajya Sabha after main opposition Congress and some other parties came on board.
The controversial Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2015, which replaced an ordinance promulgated in December last, was passed by voice vote after walkout by Trinamool Congress and DMK.
The smooth sailing of the bill in the Upper House, where the ruling NDA is in a minority, was possible with the help of opposition parties like Congress, AIADMK, NCP and BJD besides allies Shiv Sena and Akali Dal.
The bill was introduced on Wednesday evening after a heated debate and adjournments over technicalities as a similar legislation was pending in the House.
The original bill, which was brought by Congress in 2008, was withdrawn and the new bill was passed after a debate of about two-and-a-half hours.
Trinamool Congress and Left parties strongly opposed the measure. While Trinamool, DMK as also SP, BSP and JD(U) staged a walkout, Left members moved amendments which were negated.
The bill, which was passed by Lok Sabha on 4 March, provides for raising the foreign investment cap in insurance sector from 26 per cent 49 percent and is expected to bring in funds to the tune of thousands of crores.
The bill was introduced after Deputy Chairman PJ Kurien ruled that the new legislation, as passed by Lok Sabha, could be taken up as it was a “unique and unprecedented” situation.
Moving the bill for consideration and passage, Minister of State for Finance Jayant Sinha said the measure was necessary for expanding the penetration of insurance in the country which is very low at present.
He said the measure would help go beyond life insurance to cover other aspects of like health and crop besides providing more funds for development of infrastructure.
Seeking to allay apprehensions, Sinha said the premium will not flow out of the country but will remain within the country and the interests of policy holders will be protected by the IRDA.
The bill provides for imprisonment of up to 10 years for selling policies without registration with the regulator IRDA.
The legislation will also allow PSU general insurers to raise funds from the capital market and provides for increased penalty to deter multilevel marketing of insurance products.
He said more and more FDI is required in the sector to provide more coverage to people of India.
Sinha also sought to allay apprehensions that state-run LIC would be hurt if foreign companies come in, saying it was a very competitive body and match global players.
At the same time, he said the country needs not one, but five to 10 LICs.
The government agreed to incorporate suggestions made by Congress leader Anand Sharma for infusing capital in General Insurance Corporation (GIC) and strengthening it.
“You need capital to pay out claims. We do not have a developed insurance market… Capital is required for provisioning… (Insurance Companies should) have enough capital in hand… If we do not have capital we cannot grow the industry,” the MoS Finance said.
He said capital will flow after raising the cap as large insurance companies want legislation and clarity.
The recent Rs 1.5 lakh crore MoU between LIC and Railways shows that insurance sector could play an important role in the country’s infrastructure development, Sinha said.
The Minister said large insurance companies would benefit citizens “twice” as they will be protected and also avail of better infrastructure.
The law provides that 15 percent of the premium should be invested in building infrastructure.
Allaying concerns of members about investment by FIIs, he said investment will remain with the company irrespective of what happens in the secondary market.
He also said that the Insurance regulator IRDA is being equipped to deal with complaints and claims and will also have Ombudsman.
While supporting the bill, Shiv Sena member Anil Desai said LIC employees foresee “onslaught” on their hard earned business.
Akali Dal member Naresh Gujral also supported the measure but wanted the government to ensure that foreign investments should not go to select individuals.
Government got signals of relief yesterday when main opposition Congress indicated willingness to support the insurance bill.
The issue came up for discussion in a meeting held by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley with leaders of all parties in Rajya Sabha on Wednesday morning.
The meeting saw Congress indicating willingness to support insurance bill after government agreeed to opposition demand for referring the Coal and Mines bill and the Mines and Minerals bill to Select Committee.
“Insurance bill is different. It has gone through Select Committee. There could be a unanimity on insurance,” said a senior leader from the Opposition block on Wednesday.
The support of Congress and other opposition parties was critical for the NDA government in Rajya Sabha because of its less numbers there.
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