A democracy derives its legitimacy by functioning
through its elected institutions. Parliament plays a central role in our
democracy by performing several important functions. The Prime Minister
(and the cabinet) require the majority support in the directly-elected
lower house, Lok Sabha, at all times. Both Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha
scrutinise the work of the Government through several procedures. Both
have a role in making laws as well as the the power to amend the
Constitution. However, only Lok Sabha needs to approve any expenditure
of the Government or a tax proposal.
typically meet for about 70 days a year to conduct their business.
Beyond the visible work in the two Houses, a substantial part of the
work is carried out by committees. Parliament has recently reconstituted
the departmentally related standing committees (DRSCs), which perform
three important functions: examine Bills referred to them; select
specific topics related to the ministries and examine implementation by
the Government; and examine the budgetary outlays of the departments.
performance affects the overall effectiveness of Parliament as an
institution that makes laws, holds the Government accountable, and gives
sanction for public spending.
committees fulfil several objectives. First, they help Parliament
manage its business better. It is easier to examine a topic in depth by a
committee of 30 than by an assembly of 700. Second, they enable input
from experts and those who may be directly affected by a policy or
legislation. For example, the DRSCs often invite comments from the
public and call people to testify.
outside direct public glare allows members to discuss issues and reach
consensus without worrying about constituency pressures. A related
fourth advantage in the Indian context is that the anti-defection law
does not apply to committees — therefore, decisions are not usually made
on party lines.
Finally, these committees allow
members to focus on some specific areas and build their expertise, which
helps them scrutinise issues more thoroughly.
effective are these committees? The DRSCs were formed in 1993; prior to
that, there was no systematic process to examine Bills, and select
committees were formed from time to time for some important Bills. Other
issues and budgetary demands were not examined in committees. Each DRSC
focusses on a set of ministries and, therefore, helps its members build
sector knowledge. Currently, there are 24 DRSCs such as the Committee
on Finance or the Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture. Each has
21 members from Lok Sabha and ten from Rajya Sabha.
Bills and more
DRSC usually invites experts while scrutinising Bills. However, this is
not always the case, even for Bills with wide ramifications. For
example, the DRSC that examined the Right to Education Bill, 2008 did
not invite any expert witness; this Bill guarantees free education to
all children ages six to 14.
Second, all Bills are
not referred to committees. Whereas during the period of the last two
parliaments, 60 percent and 71 percent of all Bills were referred to
committees, just 27 percent of Bills introduced in the current
Parliament have been so referred.
mention that the Speaker of Lok Sabha or Chairman of Rajya Sabha refers
the Bill, this is usually done on the recommendation of the relevant
minister. The composition of Rajya Sabha has helped improve scrutiny in
some cases. The current government is in a minority in that House, and
Rajya Sabha has, in a number of instances, formed a select committee to
examine a Bill that has been passed by Lok Sabha. Even a Bill as
important as the Constitution Amendment to enable the GST was passed by
Lok Sabha without reference to the DRSC; Rajya Sabha formed a Select
Committee and several of its recommendations were incorporated into the
Bill that was passed.
Third, the recommendation of
committees are not binding. It is for the Government or any other member
to move the relevant amendments, which may then be voted upon by the
House. The idea is, committees are a small part of Parliament which make
recommendations, and the full House has the authority and
responsibility to make the final decision.
It may be
relevant to highlight a new trend. Several Bills piloted by the Finance
Ministry have been referred to specially-formed joint committees of the
two Houses rather than the DRSCs. Though one does not know the actual
reason for this, one cannot but fail to notice that the DRSC is chaired
by a member from the Congress while the joint committees were chaired by
a BJP member.
As explained earlier, the DRSCs also
examine other subjects and demand for grants. The Government reports
back on the recommendations and the committees publish an action taken
report. In the five-year period of the last Parliament, the Government
accepted 54 per cent of the recommendations, the DRSC was satisfied by
its response in 13 percent cases; it rejected 21 per cent of the
responses, and did not get responses for 12 per cent of the
One major weakness of these
committees is the lack of standing research support. They are backed by
the general support staff of Parliament and do not have a dedicated set
of researchers associated with them. While they can (and often do) reach
out to outside experts, there is no internal expertise that can finesse
such opinion. A related issue is the high churn in parliamentary
membership. In each of the last three Lok Sabhas, over 50 per cent of
the members elected were first time MPs. As several of the experienced
members become ministers, only a small pool of MPs gain subject
knowledge by being in a committee for long.
final issue relates to the transparency of the work of committees. All
committees meet behind closed doors and only the final report is
published, with summary minutes. There have been arguments that the
meetings should be televised or at least the full transcripts be
published. The counter-argument is committees work as discussion forums
and often reach consensus, as there is no pressure on members to posture
for their support base.
This would be lost if
detailed proceedings were made public. A middle path would be to publish
the submissions and evidence given by various experts and members of
the public so that any advocacy is made more transparent while keeping
the members free from constituency pressures.
The DRSC system has been a fairly successful experiment. It is
important to further strengthen its ability for detailed scrutiny of
issues so that it helps parliament work better in its lawmaking and
accountability roles. These would include mandatory examination of all
Bills, creating research teams, and improving the transparency of input
from advocacy groups.
Many MPs call these committees
“mini-parliaments” and strengthening their working will improve
Parliament’s overall effectiveness.