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Insights into Editorial: 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.

Parliamentary Committees system in Indian Parliament:

  1. 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.
  2. Over the years, the Indian Parliament has increasingly taken recourse to the committee system.
  3. 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.
  4. Some committees such as the Estimates Committee and Public Accounts Committee have a commendable record in this regard.
  5. 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.
  6. The officialdom in India has often attempted to take cover under political masters to avoid the scrutiny of committees.
  7. 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.

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.

A gradual marginalisation of committees:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Apart from the DRSCs, the government has shown extreme reluctance to refer Bills to Select Committees of the Houses or Joint Parliamentary Committees.
  4. 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.

Setting aside a culture of Parliamentary committee:

There is no dearth of scholarly literature to suggest that the committee system has greatly enhanced the capacity of Parliament to carry out its mandate.

So, why has the ruling dispensation neglected this?

One of the reasons given at this point in time is the novel coronavirus pandemic and the urgent need to enact safety measures.

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.

If it is urgency, then the Women’s Reservation Bill, on which there was a broad consensus in the House, should have come up upfront.

Clearly, this regime is not disposed to a reflection and reconsideration of Bills proposed in the House.

Therefore, Parliamentary committee discussions should be in place with Parliament:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Given the increasing complexity in matters of economy and technological advancement there is a need for setting up new parliamentary committees.
  5. Major reports of all Committees should be discussed in Parliament especially in cases where there is disagreement between a Committee and the government.

Conclusion:

A considerable amount of legislative work gets done in these smaller units of MPs from both Houses, across political parties.

In most of the Committees, public is directly or indirectly associated when memoranda containing suggestions are received, on-the-spot studies are conducted and oral evidence is taken which helps the Committees in arriving at the conclusions.

Thus, Parliamentary Committees acts as vibrant link between the Parliament, the Executive and the general public.

Their reports are tabled in both Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha. The Houses do not hold a specific debate on the report, but it is often referred to during the discussions on the bills and the key issues.

It does not seem to believe that the primary role of Parliament is deliberation, discussion and reconsideration, the hallmarks of democratic institutions, but a platform that endorses decisions already arrived at.