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Parliamentary scrutiny on the back burner

  • 29 September, 2020

  • 8 Min Read

Parliamentary scrutiny on the back burner

Introduction:

  • There must be triumphant laughter in the resting places of those who argued in the 1940s that India is not suited for parliamentary democracy.
  • Their reasons varied from the political culture to the proverbial social diversity of India, or even the Gandhian idea of swaraj that were construed as not easily amenable to forge representative institutions characteristic of parliamentary democracy.
  • Given their large-scale implications and the popular protests against them, the three Bills related to agricultural produce and the three labour Bills that overhauled conditions of work, terms of employment, grievance redress and social security in the monsoon session of Parliament were cases that definitely deserved to be scrutinised by Select Committees of the Houses.

About Parliamentary Committees:

  • Indian Constitution mentions two kinds of Parliamentary Committees – Standing Committees and Ad Hoc Committees. Any subject related to these committees is dealt with Article 118 (1) of the Indian Constitution.
  • Over the years, the Indian Parliament has increasingly taken recourse to the committee system.
  • This was not merely meant for housekeeping, to enhance the efficacy of the House to cope with the technical issues confronting it and to feel the public pulse, but also to guard its turf and keep it abreast to exercise accountability on the government.
  • Some committees such as the Estimates Committee and Public Accounts Committee have a commendable record in this regard.
  • The executive in independent India, irrespective of the parties in power, was not very disposed to committees of scrutiny and oversight, sometimes on the specious plea that they usurped the powers of Parliament.
  • The officialdom in India has often attempted to take cover under political masters to avoid the scrutiny of committees.
  • Besides the standing committees, the Houses of Parliament set up, from time to time, ad hoc committees to enquire and report on specific subjects which include Select Committees of a House or Joint Select committees of both the Houses that are assigned the task of studying a Bill closely and reporting back to the House.
  • The Committees aid and assist the Legislature in discharging its duties and regulating its functions effectively, expeditiously and efficiently. Through Committees, Parliament exercises its control and influence over administration.
  • Parliamentary Committees have a salutary effect on the Executive. The Committees are not meant to weaken the administration, instead they prevent misuse of power exercisable by the Executive.

Importance of Parliamentary committees:

  • Parliamentary Committees are smaller units of MPs from both Houses, across political parties and they function throughout the year.
  • They are assigned the task of looking into the demands for grants of the ministries/departments concerned, to examine Bills pertaining to them, to consider their annual reports, and to look into their long-term plans and report to Parliament.
  • Parliamentary committees are not bound by the populistic demands that generally act as hindrance in working of parliament.
  • As committee meetings are ‘closed door’ and members are not bound by party whips, the parliamentary committee work on the ethos of debate and discussions.
  • Moreover, they work away from the public glare, remain informal compared to the codes that govern parliamentary proceedings, and are great training schools for new and young members of the House.

Marginalisation of committees:

  • It is important to point out that committees of scrutiny and advice, both standing and ad hoc, have been confined to the margins or left in the lurch in the last few years.
  • Data by PRS India brings this out eloquently. While 60% of the Bills in the 14th Lok Sabha and 71% in the 15th Lok Sabha were wetted by the DRSCs concerned, this proportion came down to 27% in the 16th Lok Sabha.
  • Apart from the DRSCs, the government has shown extreme reluctance to refer Bills to Select Committees of the Houses or Joint Parliamentary Committees.
  • Some of the most momentous Acts of Parliament in recent years such as the radical overhaul of Article 370 that revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and divided the State into two Union Territories were not processed by any House committee.
  • The argument of urgency seems spurious given the fact that some of the most controversial Bills introduced in the House, such as relating to labour and the farm sector, were vehemently opposed by the groups concerned and clearly aimed at market reforms.

Way Forward

  • According to the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC), DRSCs should be periodically reviewed so that the committees which have outlived their utility can be replaced with new ones.
  • Given the increasing complexity in matters of economy and technological advancement there is a need for setting up new parliamentary committees.
  • Major reports of all Committees should be discussed in Parliament especially in cases where there is disagreement between a Committee and the government.

 

Source: TH

Parliamentary scrutiny on the back burner

  • 26 September, 2020

  • 8 Min Read

“Parliamentary scrutiny on the back burner”

Introduction:

  • Parliament is the embodiment of the people’s will and parliamentary committees are an instrument of Parliament for its own effective functioning.
  • Over the years, the Indian Parliament has increasingly taken recourse to the parliamentary committee system. However, data and several other instances show that in the last few years there has been a gradual marginalisation of the committee system.

Pillars of Parliamentary democracy:

  • Representativeness, Responsiveness and Accountability are the foundational pillars of Parliamentary democracy.
  • In India, Parliament has broadly two functions, which are lawmaking and oversight of the executive branch of the government.
  • Hence, for the sake of upholding the Parliament’s primary role i.e debate, discussion and deliberation, there is need to take necessary reforms in the parliamentary committee system.

Origin of Parliamentary Committee

  • As is the case with several other practices of Indian parliamentary democracy, the institution of Parliamentary Committees also has its origins in the British Parliament
  • In independent India, the first Public Accounts Committee was constituted in April 1950.
  • Constitutional Provisions: Parliamentary committees draw their authority from Article 105 (on privileges of Parliament members) and Article 118 (on Parliament’s authority to make rules for regulating its procedure and conduct of business).

Types of Parliamentary Committee

  • Most committees are ‘standing’ as their existence is uninterrupted and usually reconstituted on an annual basis; some are ‘select’ committees formed for a specific purpose, for instance, to deliberate on a particular bill.
  • In 1993, 17 Departmentally-related Standing Committees (DRSCs), later increased to 24, were constituted in the Parliament.
  • These committees drew members from both Houses roughly in proportion to the strength of the political parties in the Houses..

Allocation of Business:

  • The chair uses her discretion to refer a matter to a parliamentary committee but this is usually done in consultation with leaders of parties in the House.
  • The practice of regularly referring bills to committees began in 1989 after government departments started forming their own standing committees.
  • Prior to that, select committees or joint committees of the houses were only set up to scrutinise in detail some very important bills.

Financial Committees:

  • Financial control is a critical tool for Parliament’s authority over the executive; hence finance committees are considered to be particularly powerful.
  • The three financial committees are the Public Accounts Committee, the Estimates Committee and the Committee on Public Undertakings.

Significance of Parliamentary Committee System

  • Inter-Ministerial Coordination: They are envisaged to be the face of Parliament in a set of inter- related departments and ministries.
    • They are assigned the task of looking into the demands for grants of the ministries/departments concerned, to examine Bills pertaining to them, to consider their annual reports, and to look into their long-term plans and report to Parliament.
  • Instrument For Detailed Scrutiny: Committee reports are usually exhaustive and provide authentic information on matters related to governance.
    • Bills that are referred to committees are returned to the House with significant value addition.
    • Besides the standing committees, the Houses of Parliament set up ad hoc committees to enquire and report on specific subjects that are assigned the task of studying a Bill closely and reporting back to the House.
    • Also, in the discharge of their mandate, they can solicit expert advice and elicit public opinion.
  • Acting As Mini-Parliament: These Committees are smaller units of MPs from both Houses, across political parties and they function throughout the year.
    • Also, Parliamentary committees are not bound by the populistic demands that generally act as hindrance in working of parliament.
    • As committee meetings are ‘closed door’ and members are not bound by party whips, the parliamentary committee work on the ethos of debate and discussions.
    • Moreover, they work away from the public glare, remain informal compared to the codes that govern parliamentary proceedings, and are great training schools for new and young members of the House.

A Gradual Marginalisation

  • Decline in Matters Referred: According to data by PRS Legislative Research, while 60% of the Bills in the 14th Lok Sabha and 71% in the 15th Lok Sabha were referred to DRSCs concerned, this proportion came down to 27% in the 16th Lok Sabha.
  • Apart from the DRSCs, there are negligible bills referred to Select Committees of the Houses or Joint Parliamentary Committees.
  • The last Bill referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee was The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Second Amendment) Bill, in 2015.
  • Neglected in The Matters of Great Public Importance: Some of the most momentous Acts of Parliament in recent years such as the overhaul of Article 370 that revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and divided the State into two Union Territories were not processed by any House committee.
  • Recently, even after popular protests against the three Bills related to agricultural produce and the three labour Bills, that definitely deserved to be scrutinised by Select Committees of the Houses, were passed by the government only by using the majority.
  • Other Shortcomings: Other issues affecting the functioning of the committees are low attendance of MPs at meetings; too many ministries under a committee; norms not followed by most political parties while nominating MPs to committees; and the constitution of DRSCs for a year leaves very little time for specialisations.

Way Forward

  • Setting Up New Committees: Given the increasing complexity in matters of economy and technological advancement there is a need for setting up new parliamentary committees.
  • For example:
  1. Standing Committee on National Economy to provide analysis of the national economy with resources for advisory expertise, data gathering and research facilities.
  2. Standing Constitution Committee to scrutinise Constitutional Amendment Bills before they are introduced in Parliament.
  • Mandatory Discussion: Major reports of all Committees should be discussed in Parliament especially in cases where there is disagreement between a Committee and the government.
  • The recommendations of the PACs should be accorded greater weight and they must be treated as the “conscience-keepers of the nation in financial matters”.
  • Periodic Review: According to the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC), DRSCs should be periodically reviewed so that the committees which have outlived their utility can be replaced with new ones.
  • Amending Rules of Business: Apart from these, there is need to amend rules of procedure in both Lok sabha and Rajya sabha, so that all major Bills should be referred to DRSCs so that DRSCs may finalise the second reading stage in the Committee.

 

Source: TH

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