- What has recently happened?
- Background of parliamentary working
- Committee system
- What are Parliamentary Committees?
Losing sight of Parliament’s primary role
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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: While 60% of the Bills in the 14th Lok Sabha and 71% in the 15th Lok Sabha were wetted by the Departmentally-related Standing Committees (DRSCs) concerned, this proportion came down to 27% in the 16th Lok Sabha.
What has recently happened?
- 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.
- But the government used its majority in both the Houses of Parliament and steamrolled the Bills (with hardly any discussion), amid the predictable din and noise that a fragmented Opposition could mount.
Background of parliamentary working:
- There were some people 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.
- At the same time, there were others who defended the appropriateness of parliamentary democracy for India on grounds of representativeness, responsiveness and accountability.
- They argued that the wielders of power have to continuously demonstrate their responsiveness to public interest on a day-to-day basis in this dispensation; that even a small minority can play a significant role, and that those who wield public power would be subject to a close audit of their actions at the level of their constituencies.
- There is a running thread across the Constituent Assembly Debates that Parliament at the Centre and legislatures in the States would be the key institutions around which parliamentary democracy in India would revolve.
- While the State legislatures in India have tended to largely imitate Parliament, without evolving an institutional culture of their own to this end, much rested on Parliament to provide a lead in this regard. While there were a few buds of hope in this regard at times, they seem to be withering far too early.
- Over the years, the Indian Parliament has increasingly taken recourse to the committee system. This was not merely meant for house-keeping, 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.
- 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.
- They were guardians of the autonomy of the House: the committees of scrutiny and oversight, as the case with other committees of the House, are not divided on party lines, 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.
- In the discharge of their mandate, they can solicit expert advice and elicit public opinion. The officialdom in India has often attempted to take cover under political masters to avoid the scrutiny of 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.
What are Parliamentary Committees?
- Parliamentary Committee works under the direction of the Speaker/Chairman.
- Draw their authority from Article 105 (on privileges of Parliament members) & Article 118 (on Parliament’s authority to make rules for regulating its procedure and conduct of business).
- Permanent regular committees which are constituted from time to time.
- Broadly classified as Standing Committees of the House and Department- related Parliamentary Standing Committees.
- Work of these Committees is of continuous nature.
- Standing Committees are of the 3 kinds:
- Financial Standing Committees
- Department Related Standing Committees and
- Other Standing Committees
- There are 24 Department-related Standing Committees.
- Each committees have 31 members – 21 from Lok Sabha and 10 from Rajya Sabha.
- Functioning of all Standing Committees, except the Committee on Provision of Computer Equipment to Members of Rajya Sabha and the Committee on Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS), are governed by the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States.
Ad hoc Committees:
- Appointed for a specific purpose and cease to exist when they finish the task assigned to them and submit a report.
- Such Committees may be divided into two categories:
- Select/Joint Committees on Bills (these committees are distinguished from other ad hoc committees as they are concerned with Bills).
- Committees which are constituted from time to time either by the House on motions moved and adopted or by the Chairman to enquire into and report on specific subjects.
- While there is much to commend about the routine working of the parliamentary committee system in India, it has not been creative or imaginative.
- The presiding officers of the Houses who had to give up leadership in this regard have tended to imitate changes and innovations done elsewhere (such as in Britain).
- The chairman of the Rajya Sabha, being the Vice-President of India, cannot probably distance himself much from the stance of the Cabinet.
- When it comes to the Lok Sabha, very few Speakers, with exceptions such as G.V. Mavalankar, P.A. Sangma and Somnath Chatterjee, have taken cudgels with their party leaders to uphold the autonomy of the House.
- However, ground was broken in 1993 when 17 Committees (later increased to 24) of Parliament, the Departmentally-related Standing Committees (DRSCs), drawing members from both Houses roughly in proportion to the strength of the political parties in the Houses, were set up.
- They were envisaged to be the face of Parliament in a set of inter-related departments and ministries. They were 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.
- The government has shown extreme reluctance to refer Bills 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.
- Overhaul of Article 370 that revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir were not processed by any House 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. But in current time, 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.