In Parliament

In the previous issue of Pragati, we discussed the various ways in which parliamentary committees can oversee the financial functioning of the government. We concluded that issues such as the spectrum allocation could have been addressed by parliamentary committees if they had functioned effectively. Now, let us look at how standing committees and select committees have an important role in the process of framing new laws.

Standing and select
Parliament has 24 standing committees, with each with jurisdiction over issues related to one or more ministries. Each committee has 21 MPs from Lok Sabha and 10 from Rajya Sabha. The Speaker of Lok Sabha or the Chairman of Rajya Sabha may refer government Bills to these committees for detailed examination; most Bills are referred, though this is not a necessary condition (unlike in the British Parliament). The committees usually invite public comments, examine witnesses, and make specific recommendations on the various provisions of the Bill.

Each House may also set up a select committee to examine any matter (including a Bill). These committees are usually formed by moving a motion on the floor of the House, and the membership is elected by the House. For example, Rajya Sabha referred the Prevention of Torture Bill to a select committee which has submitted its report.

The case of prevention of torture
This Bill was introduced by the government on April 26th, 2010, and was not referred to the Standing Committee. The Bill was passed by Lok Sabha on May 6th, 2010 with about an hour’s debate. Rajya Sabha decided that the Bill needed thorough scrutiny, and formed a 13 member select committee. The committee’s report has recommended several significant amendments to the Bill.

In brief, the Bill aimed to prosecute any public official who had tortured any person. A public servant is said to have committed torture if all the following conditions are met: the act is intentional; it causes grievous hurt or danger to life, limb or health; it is done for the purpose of obtaining confession or information. The public servant may be punished only if the offence is on the ground of religion, race, caste, place of birth, residence, caste, community or other grounds. The court may take cognisance only if (a) the complaint is made within six months of the act of torture and (b) the government has given sanction for prosecution. The maximum penalty is ten years imprisonment and fine.

The select committee expanded the definition of torture to include severe mental pain, agony or suffering caused by cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. It provided examples of acts that would constitute torture. It included any superior officer who has given consent. It removed the requirement that the offence be on grounds of identity (race, religion, community and suchlike). The punishment now ranges from three years to ten years imprisonment, and in case of death of a person due to torture, a mandatory life or death sentence. The committee requires sanction for prosecution to be given within three months, failing which it would be deemed to be given. Any refusal for prosecution requires a written reason. The complaint may be made within two years, which may be extended by the court by one year. The State shall also compensate the victims or their dependants.

A quick comparison indicates that the Committee has changed most provisions of the Bill in order to increase the rights of victims of torture. It will be interesting to see whether the government accepts these recommendations.

While this case illustrates how committees can be effective, there are occasions when they have failed to do so. For example, the committee which examined the Right to Education Bill met just twice, and did not examine any witnesses other than the ministry officials.

The bills at hand
Several Bills are pending with the respective standing committees. These include Bills for a new direct tax code and unique identity authority, pending with the committee on finance, and the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill with the committee on law.

Direct Taxes Code. In 2009, the finance ministry had issued a draft code for public feedback. The argument was that tax exemptions distort economic behaviour, often in unintended ways. Hence, they need to be withdrawn. The extra revenue collected would help lower overall tax rates. However, following public feedback, the Bill has rolled back many proposals. Most of the exemptions for individuals have been retained while those for businesses have been removed. There has been an expansion in tax slabs for individuals. Most other provisions (with some minor changes) of the current tax regime remain. The big question is the need for a new tax law if the changes are not significant and can be made by amending the current Income Tax Act and Wealth Tax Act.

The UID Bill. The Bill establishes an authority and a framework for collecting, storing and authenticating an ID number with biometrics for every resident. The stated purpose is that this will help streamline benefits and services. The big issues are related to whether there are sufficient safeguards against misuse of information, and penalties for violating privacy; whether the new system will indeed help target subsidies and welfare programmes; and whether the costs of the programme justify the benefits.

The Judges Bill. This Bill gives statutory backing to a code of conduct and requires judges to declare their assets and liabilities. It also sets up a system for removal of judges, including a process for screening complaints from any person. The issue here is that of balancing the independence of the judiciary with its accountability.

These three Bills illustrate the complexity of law making and of finding a suitable balance across conflicting objectives. Given the limited time for which parliament sits, the standing committees bear the responsibility of examining all aspects in detail.

Strengthening the system
Parliament does not have the time to examine the nuances of all proposed Bills. Parliamentary committees provide an important function through detailed scrutiny of all proposals. They also provide a channel to obtain stakeholder and expert opinions. Their systems need to be strengthened in at least two ways. First, there is a need to strengthen the capacity of the committee to frame key issues and raise relevant queries—for this they need trained research staff. Second, it must be made mandatory for the government to respond to each of the committee’s recommendations; today, the government need not give any reason for rejecting a recommendation. These two steps will help Parliament better fulfil its role of examining all provisions and making suitable amendments before passing any Bill.