The real cost of disrupting Parliament

 The 16th Lok Sabha seems to be following the pattern of the previous one. The first four sessions of the last Parliament went relatively smoothly. The fifth session was entirely washed out by demands to set up a joint committee to investigate the 2G spectrum allocations, and later sessions saw sustained disruptions on several issues, including the allocation of coal fields and the creation of the new state of Telangana. Over the five years, about one-third of allocated time was lost to disruptions. In this Parliament, too, the first sessions were productive, with the budget session working 22% more than the originally scheduled time. However, the recently concluded session was a washout with Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha losing over 50% and 90% of scheduled time, respectively. Lok Sabha passed three laws while Rajya Sabha did not pass any. One hopes that history does not repeat itself so soon, and that future sessions see productive discussions.

There have been several estimates on the cost to the exchequer due to the disruptions. These vary from a few crore rupees to a few hundred crore rupees. These calculations are based on daily cost of running Parliament, by dividing the annual budget of Parliament by the scheduled number of days (or by 365). This is a simplistic assessment. My contention is that the actual cost of a dysfunctional Parliament is significantly higher.

It is not possible to peg an exact monetary value to the harm caused by parliamentary disruptions. But even in monetary terms, there is a significant cost. Take, for instance, the delay to the goods and services tax (GST) bill. There is a broad consensus across the political spectrum on the draft law with a few points of difference. Parliamentary norms dictate that such differences be argued out on the floor of the house, and finally decided through a vote.

However, this bill, originally introduced in March 2011 and a second version was passed by Lok Sabha in May, has not been taken up for consideration by Rajya Sabha. The process requires this bill to be passed by each house of Parliament and then ratified by 15 state assemblies. Following this, other laws have to be passed by Parliament and state legislatures before rules are issued to implement the new tax. Unless there is a special session of Parliament ahead of the winter session, it looks unlikely that this process can be completed for GST to be rolled out in April 2016.

Various experts estimate the benefit of a GST regime to be between 1% and 2% of gross domestic product (GDP). This amounts to Rs.1 lakh crore to Rs.2 lakh crore benefit per year being foregone by the economy for every year of delay. Assuming 20% tax to this incremental GDP, the direct loss of government revenue is between Rs.20,000 crore and Rs.40,000 crore per year. To put things in perspective, this could fund 50% to 100% of the rural jobs guarantee scheme. Should not Parliament debate this bill and craft a good law that can help boost growth and government revenues?

Among the little business done during the session was the passage of the supplementary demand for grants amounting to Rs.40,000 crore. This was discussed by Lok Sabha for two hours and accepted by Rajya Sabha without any discussion. The allocations include Rs.800 crore equity infusion for Air India, Rs.12,000 crore for recapitalizing public sector banks, Rs.11,000 crore loan waiver to Prasar Bharati, etc. Should not Parliament assess the financial health and future plans of these organizations while making such allocations?

The lack of debate in Parliament imposes a cost on the country in various ways. For example, education is a key sector that warrants attention if India wants to use its demographic dividend to grow out of poverty. The right to education law was implemented five years ago but surveys such as the ones by ASER indicate that half the children in the fifth grade cannot still read a paragraph in any language or are able to do simple arithmetic. The higher education sector faces several challenges in terms of capacity, quality and access. Shouldn’t Parliament spend time deliberating these issues and framing appropriate policies?

India confronts challenges across sectors: public health facilities are broken, infrastructure sectors see capacity shortages, the banking sector confronts non-performing assets, the justice delivery system is very slow, there is an agrarian crisis, women’s safety is an issue in most places, children’s nutrition levels are among the worst in the world. Should not Parliament find time to discuss these and other issues of national interest?

The institution of elected legislatures is core to democracy. These institutions provide a forum to find broadly acceptable paths to complex problems through discussion and negotiation by people representing different interests, perspectives and ideologies. Our democracy rests on the belief of citizens that Parliament will perform this function.

The cost of not permitting Parliament to function can be enormous as it puts this belief at risk and thus, attacks the foundations on which our democracy is built. It is time that our MPs honour the sentiment that they expressed during the golden jubilee and diamond jubilee celebrations of Parliament—that they will use the forum for constructive debate.