Parliament had full attendance and passed many bills this session – but that is not enough

The monsoon session of Parliament ends today. Statistics suggest that both houses of Parliament worked to their full capacity in this session. The lower house worked for 103% and the upper house for 99% of its scheduled time. Both houses sat beyond their working hours to make up for any time lost and also worked late in the evening to complete their business.

In terms of legislative business, Parliament approved key legislation such as the constitutional amendment on goods and services tax, compensatory afforestation bill, Lokpal and Lokayukta amendment bill. Debate on bills like GST, child labour amendment, enforcement of security interest amendment was analytical, incisive and engaging.

Parliament passed 10 bills (excluding bills to replace ordinances) over the last four weeks. However, numbers are only one of the ways in which the work of Parliament can be measured. Recently at a public event, Tathagat Satpathy, the chief whip of the Biju Janata Dal in Lok Sabha, stated that Parliament is not a factory whose work and effectiveness can be gauged purely by numbers.

Statistics are important but they only tell part of the story. When it comes to the highest law making body in the country, we should examine these numbers closely. More bills passed does not mean that Parliament is doing its job well. In this session, some bills were passed by compromising on legislative scrutiny. Out of the 10 bills passed by Parliament in the session, six were not examined by a parliamentary standing committee.

Bypassing standing committees

Parliament has established departmentally related standing committees. These committees conduct detailed examination of bills referred to them. While scrutinising a bill, they invite feedback from a range of stakeholders including the government. The members of both houses are part of these committees. Debate inside these committees is on the merits of the bill rather than on political party lines. Their report on bills identifies issues, makes recommendations and leads to an informed debate in Parliament. Bypassing committees to pass bills results in inadequate scrutiny of bills and weakens public participation in the legislative process.

In the last two and a half years, the role of standing committees in examining legislation has become limited. In some cases bills have not been referred to them and in others bills are referred to a joint committee. These joint committees are ad hoc committees created especially for the purpose of examining a particular bill.

In this session, the Citizenship Amendment Bill piloted by the Home Ministry was referred to a joint committee rather than the committee on home affairs which usually examines all bills related to the ministry. MPs in this committee follow the working of the home ministry closely. Their experience and expertise developed over a year remains unutilised when a bill related to the ministry is not referred to their committee for examination.

The standing committee on home affairs gave its reports on budget allocations of the ministry and other issues but it last examined a bill in 2013. Similarly in the sixteenth Lok Sabha the committee on finance chaired by Veerappa Moily has got the opportunity to examine only one bill that was referred to it earlier this year. Bills like GST and bankruptcy code which could have been examined by the committee on finance were referred to a joint select committee.

No debate

Another area of concern in this session was the understanding reached between political parties to pass bills with limited debate. The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Amendment Bill, which makes changes relating to disclosures by public servants, and the Central Agricultural University Amendment Bill, which expands the jurisdiction of the agriculture university to Nagaland, were passed in one house without any debate and in the other with inadequate debate. This is problematic because debate in Parliament is indicative of the intent with which the legislature enacts a law. In the absence of parliamentary debate, courts will have nothing to rely on to understand the rationale behind a provision of law being contested before them.

This session also saw the law making ability of members of parliament stretched to its limits. Rajya Sabha MPs had the difficult task of reconciling more than 134 amendments to the Mental Health Bill which had 134 clauses. A similar situation was averted in Lok Sabha when the government tried to pass Motor Vehicles Amendment Bill. This technical bill containing 88 clauses spread over 42 pages was introduced in the session. It amends the Motor Vehicles Act to provide for online learners licences, protection of good samaritans, increases in fines etc. Even though the government attempted to bring it up for debate and passage, MPs in the lower house prevailed and had the bill referred to a standing committee.

Parliament is a forum for debate. Efficiency in its functioning should not be at the cost of deliberation. Its work should be measured by quality of debate and adherence to processes. The responsibility lies on the treasury and opposition benches to ensure that Parliament remains true to its constitutional responsibilities and does not become a rubber stamp for government’s legislative agenda.