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[Mission 2022] Insights into Editorial: Parliament is abdicating its oversight role

 

Context:

  1. The dormancy of the Parliament makes democracy in India as good as dead. The deterioration in Parliament’s functioning needs to be stopped to make it fulfil its constitutional mandate.
  2. The monsoon session of Parliament which ended and was a disappointment in several ways.
  3. This was the fourth straight session that ended ahead of the original schedule other than the cancelled winter 2020 session.
  4. This meant that many important issues had not been discussed such as the COVID-19 response and strategy, the Chinese incursion into Ladakh, the economic situation, rising prices of many essential items, and farmers’ problems, to name a few.
  5. And of course, the news of snooping using the Pegasus system broke out just ahead of the session.

 

Shrinking work time: Productivity goes for a toss; Lok Sabha passes 5 bills in just 44 minutes:

  1. Frequent disruptions and adjournments during the Monsoon Session have taken a toll on Parliament’s productivity.
  2. Lok Sabha’s productivity has fallen to 14 per cent, while the Raj Sabha fares slightly better at 22 per cent.
  3. But Parliament hardly functioned. Both Houses were frequently disrupted as the Government and Opposition parties could not agree on the topics to be debated.
  4. The Government pushed through 20 Bills, mostly without any discussion. Of the 18 Bills passed by the Lok Sabha, only one saw discussion over 15 minutes. While the Rajya Sabha crossed this low bar for most Bills, only two Bills were discussed for over an hour.
  5. Every Bill introduced during the session was passed within the session. This means that there was no time for any scrutiny by members.
  6. While we have seen such behaviour in State Assemblies (in 2020, 91% of all Bills in 19 Assemblies were passed within five days of introduction), this is a new development for Parliament.
  7. In the period of the Fifteenth Lok Sabha (2009-14), 18% of the Bills were passed within the same session.
  8. This rose to 33% in the Sixteenth Lok Sabha and is at 70% halfway through the current Parliament.

 

No scrutiny: Bills passed without any serious examination:

  1. None of the Bills was referred to a parliamentary committee for examination. These committees provide a forum for parliamentarians to engage with experts, stakeholders and government officials to understand the implications of Bills.
  2. They deliberate on the consequences of various provisions, and recommend amendments.
  3. In recent years, we have seen significant changes made in Bills such as the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code and Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill as a result of the recommendations made by parliamentary committees.
  4. There has been a sharp downward trend in Bills being referred to them — from 71% in the Fifteenth Lok Sabha to 27% in the Sixteenth, and 12% in the current one till date.
  5. For Example:
    1. there was an amendment moved in the Rajya Sabha to refer the Tribunals Reform Bill to a select committee of that House, and the motion was rejected by 79 votes to 44.
    2. Given that there are currently 232 members, this indicates that nearly half the members were absent during the vote.
  6. Thus, we see that Bills are being passed without any serious examination by parliamentarians.
  7. They are most often not being referred to committees, there is hardly any discussion on the floor of the House, and in most instances, Bills are passed within a few days of introduction.

 

Crucial Bills: No discussion on any policy issue:

There were some important Bills passed this session. The Constitution was amended to allow States to identify backward classes (i.e., Other Backward Classes) for the purpose of providing reservations.

  1. A recent Constitution Amendment has converted the National Commission for Backward Classes from a statutory body set up by an Act of Parliament to a constitutional body.
    1. That amendment also specified that the President of India shall specify the list of OBCs.
  2. Recently, the Supreme Court of India had interpreted this provision to imply that the State government cannot issue the list of backward classes.
    1. The Amendment passed this session clarified that States have the power to do so.
  3. In 2012, the Income Tax Act was amended with retrospective effect from 1961 to cover certain transactions.
    1. A Bill passed this session reversed this provision of retrospective taxation. Famously, Vodafone was required to pay a large sum under the now repealed provision.
  4. The Deposit Insurance and Credit Guarantee Corporation insures all bank deposits against default (currently up to ₹5 lakh).
    1. The Act was amended to require an interim pay-out within 90 days if a bank was going through a liquidation or reconstruction.
  5. The General Insurance Business (Nationalisation) Act was amended to enable the Government to bring its shareholding in general insurance companies below 51%.
  6. The Tribunals Reforms Bill was passed. The Bill replaced an ordinance which specified the process of appointment of members and their tenure and service conditions.
  7. There was no discussion in Lok Sabha on any policy issue. The Rajya Sabha had just one such discussion on the management of COVID-19 which lasted nearly five hours.

 

Course correction needed:

To sum up, Parliament appears to be quite ineffective in all its functions.

  1. The reason for having a legislature separate from the executive is to have a check on executive power.
  2. This session, the Government got every Bill that it introduced passed as an Act, without any debate, and without any scrutiny by committees. Question Hour hardly worked.
  3. There was just one debate in the Rajya Sabha and none in the Lok Sabha on policy issues.
  4. A large supplementary Budget was passed in less than 10 minutes without even one member speaking on it.
  5. Circumventing the parliamentary committees while passing legislations undermines the very spirit of the democracy.

 

Way Forward:

  1. Parliament has the central role in our democracy as the representative body that checks the work of the government. In order to fulfil its constitutional mandate, it is imperative that Parliament functions effectively.
  2. Also, proper scrutiny of the bills is an essential requirement of a quality legislation.
  3. In order to strengthen the role of the opposition, the institution of ‘Shadow Cabinet’ can be formed in India.
  4. Shadow cabinet is a unique institution of the British cabinet system formed by the opposition party to balance the ruling cabinet.
  5. Measures for the effective functioning of Department Related Standing Committees (DRSCs) like longer tenure, promoting specialization, etc are needed.
  6. Every legislative proposal must incorporate a detailed account of social, economic, environmental and administrative impact for wider awareness and subsequent legal assessment.

 

Conclusion:

To preserve the very idea of India as a democratic country, the Parliament needs to function more actively in terms of framing bills, its scrutiny and holding sessions.

Parliament must ensure sufficient scrutiny over the proposals and actions of the government.

This may include: Creating a system of research support to Members of Parliament. Providing sufficient time for MPs to examine issues.

Parliament will have its 70th anniversary next year. Parliament also plans to move to a larger building. We will see many speeches celebrating these occasions.

They will be just empty words in a brand-new building unless parliamentarians get their act together.