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Monsoon Session 2018: What to Expect

July 17th, 2018 No comments

The Monsoon Session of Parliament begins tomorrow and will continue till August 10, 2018.  It is scheduled to have 18 sittings during this period.  This post outlines what is in store in the upcoming session.

The session has a packed legislative agenda.  Presently, there are 68 Bills pending in Parliament.  Of these, 25 have been listed for consideration and passage.  In addition, 18 new Bills have been listed for introduction, consideration, and passage.  This implies that Parliament has the task of discussing and deliberating 43 Bills listed for passage in an 18-day sitting period.  Key among them include the Bills that are going to replace the six Ordinances currently in force.  The government is going to prioritize the passage of these six Bills to ensure that the Ordinances do not lapse.

Besides the heavy legislative agenda, the session will also witness the election of a new Deputy Chairman for the Upper House.  Former Deputy Chairman, P.J. Kurien’s term ended on July 1, 2018.  The upcoming election has generated keen interest, and will be closely watched.  The role of the Deputy Chairman is significant, as he quite frequently oversees the proceedings of the House.  The Deputy Chairman is responsible for maintaining order in the house and ensuring its smooth functioning.  The preceding Budget Session was the least productive since 2000 due to disruptions.  Rajya Sabha spent only 2 hours and 31 minutes discussing legislative business, of which 3 minutes were spent on government Bills.  In this context, the role of the Deputy Chairman is important in ensuring productivity of the house.

Another key player in ensuring productivity of Parliament is the Speaker of the Lower House.  In Budget Session 2018, the Speaker was unable to admit a no confidence motion.  This failure was based on her inability to bring the house in order.  Repeated disruptions led to the passage of only two Bills in Lok Sabha.  The same session also saw disruptions by certain MPs demanding special category status for Andhra Pradesh.  Between the last session and the upcoming session, a key development includes the resignation of five YRSC members, reducing the strength of MPs from Andhra Pradesh to 20.  In light of this, one has to wait to see whether the demand for special category status for Andhra Pradesh will be raised again.

Coming to the legislative agenda, of the six Bills that aim to replace Ordinances, key include: (i) the Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill, 2018, (ii) the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2018, (iii) the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Bill, 2018, and (iv) the Commercial Courts (Amendment) Bill, 2018.  The Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill aims to confiscate the properties of people who have absconded the country in order to avoid facing prosecution for economic offences.  The Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill, 2018 was introduced in Lok Sabha in March 2018.  Subsequently, an Ordinance was promulgated on April 21, 2018.  The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill increases the punishment for rape of women, and introduces death penalty for rape of minor girls below the age of 12.  The Insolvency and Bankruptcy (Amendment) Bill aims to address existing challenges in the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code.  It amends the Code to include homebuyers as financial creditors in the insolvency resolution process.

There are some Bills that have been passed by one house but are pending in the other, and some that are pending in both the houses.  These cut across various sectors, including social reform, education, health, consumer affairs, and transport.  Some key reformative legislation currently pending include the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016, and the Triple Talaq Bill.  The Triple Talaq Bill, passed on the day of introduction in Lok Sabha, is pending in Rajya Sabha.  When introduced in Rajya Sabha, the opposition introduced a motion to refer the Bill to a Select Committee.  In the forthcoming session, it remains to be seen whether the Bill will be sent to a Select Committee for detailed scrutiny or will be passed without reference to a Committee.  Other pending legislation include the the National Medical Commission Bill, 2017, the RTE (Second Amendment) Bill, 2017, the Consumer Protection Bill, 2018 and the Specific Relief (Amendment) Bill, 2017.

Of the 18 new Bills listed for introduction, all have been listed for consideration and passage as well.  These include the Trafficking of Persons Bill, 2018, the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, and amendments to the RTI Act.  Since they have been listed for passage, it remains to be seen whether these Bills are scheduled to be scrutinized by a Parliamentary Committee.  In the 16th Lok Sabha, only 28% of the Bills introduced in Lok Sabha have been referred to Committees.  This number is low in comparison to 60% and 71% of the introduced Bills being referred to Committees in the 14th and 15th Lok Sabha, respectively.  Committees ensure that Bills are closely examined.  This facilitates informed deliberation on the Bill, and strengthens the legislative process.

Besides taking up the legislative agenda, an important function of Parliament is to discuss issues of national importance and hold the government accountable.  In the previous session, the issue of irregularities in the banking sector was repeatedly listed for discussion.  However, due to disruptions, it was not taken up.  Budget Session 2018 saw the lowest number of non- legislative debates since the beginning of the 16th Lok Sabha.  In the upcoming session, it is likely that members will raise various issues for discussion.  It remains to be seen whether Parliament will function smoothly in order to power through its agenda, and fulfil its obligation to hold the government accountable.

 

Examining the National Medical Commission Bill, 2017

May 3rd, 2018 3 comments

The National Medical Commission (NMC) Bill, 2017 was introduced in Lok Sabha in December, 2017.  It was examined by the Standing Committee on Health, which submitted its report during Budget Session 2018.  The Bill seeks to regulate medical education and practice in India.  In this post, we analyse the Bill in its current form.

How is medical education and practice regulated currently?

The Medical Council of India (MCI) is responsible for regulating medical education and practice.  Over the years, there have been several issues with the functioning of the MCI with respect to its regulatory role, composition, allegations of corruption, and lack of accountability.   For example, MCI is an elected body where its members are elected by medical practitioners themselves, i.e. the regulator is elected by the regulated.  In light of such issues, experts recommended nomination based constitution of the MCI instead of election, and separating the regulation of medical education and medical practice.  They suggested that legislative changes should be brought in to overhaul the functioning of the MCI.

To meet this objective, the Bill repeals the Indian Medical Council Act, 1956 and dissolves the current Medical Council of India (MCI) which regulates medical education and practice.

Who will be a part of the NMC?

The NMC will consist of 25 members, of which at least 17 (68%) will be medical practitioners.  The Standing Committee has noted that the current MCI is non-diverse and consists mostly of doctors who look out for their own self-interest over larger public interest.   In order to reduce the monopoly of doctors, it recommended that the MCI should include diverse stakeholders such as public health experts, social scientists, and health economists.  In other countries, such as the United Kingdom, the General Medical Council (GMC) responsible for regulating medical education and practice consists of 12 medical practitioners and 12 lay members (such as community health members, and administrators from the local government).

How will the issues of medical misconduct be addressed?

The State Medical Council will receive complaints relating to professional or ethical misconduct against a registered doctor.  If the doctor is aggrieved by the decision of the State Medical Council, he may appeal to the Ethics and Medical Registration Board, and further before the NMC.  Appeals against the decision of the NMC will lie before the central government.  It is unclear why the central government is an appellate authority with regard to such matters.

It may be argued that disputes related to ethics and misconduct in medical practice may require judicial expertise.  For example, in the UK, the GMC receives complaints with regard to ethical misconduct and is required to do an initial documentary investigation.  It then forwards the complaint to a Tribunal, which is a judicial body independent of the GMC.  The adjudication and final disciplinary action is decided by the Tribunal.

What will the NMC’s role be in fee regulation of private medical colleges?

In India, the Supreme Court has held that private providers of education have to operate as charitable and not for profit institutions.   Despite this, many private education institutions continue to charge exorbitant fees which makes medical education unaffordable and inaccessible to meritorious students.  Currently, for private unaided medical colleges, the fee structure is decided by a committee set up by state governments under the chairmanship of a retired High Court judge.  The Bill allows the NMC to frame guidelines for determination of fees for up to 40% of seats in private medical colleges and deemed universities.  The question is whether the NMC as a regulator should regulate fees charged by private medical colleges.

A NITI Aayog Committee (2016) was of the opinion that a fee cap would discourage the entry of private colleges, therefore, limiting the expansion of medical education.  It also observed that it is difficult to enforce such a fee cap and could lead medical colleges to continue charging high fees under other pretexts.

Note that the Parliamentary Standing Committee (2018) which examined the Bill has recommended continuing the current system of fee structures being decided by the Committee under the chairmanship of a retired High Court judge.  However, for those private medical colleges and deemed universities, unregulated under the existing mechanism, fee must be regulated for at least 50% of the seats.  The Union Cabinet has approved an Amendment to increase the regulation of fees to 50% of seats.

How will doctors become eligible to practice?

The Bill introduces a National Licentiate Examination for students graduating from medical institutions in order to obtain a licence to practice as a medical professional.

However, the NMC may permit a medical practitioner to perform surgery or practice medicine without qualifying the National Licentiate Examination, in such circumstances and for such period as may be specified by regulations.  The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has clarified that this exemption is not meant to allow doctors failing the National Licentiate Examination to practice but is intended to allow medical professionals like nurse practitioners and dentists to practice.  It is unclear from the Bill that the term ‘medical practitioner’ includes medical professionals (like nurses) other than MBBS doctors.

Further, the Bill does not specify the validity period of this licence to practice.  In other countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia, a licence to practice needs to be periodically renewed.  For example, in the UK the licence has to be renewed every five years, and in Australia it has to renewed annually.

What are the issues around the bridge course for AYUSH practitioners to prescribe modern medicine?

The debate around AYUSH practitioners prescribing modern medicine

There is a provision in the Bill which states that there may be a bridge course which AYUSH practitioners (practicing Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) can undertake in order to prescribe certain kinds of modern medicine.  There are differing views on whether AYUSH practitioners should prescribe modern medicines.

Over the years, various committees have recommended a functional integration among various systems of medicine i.e. Ayurveda, modern medicine, and others.  On the other hand, experts state that the bridge course may promote the positioning of AYUSH practitioners as stand-ins for allopathic doctors owing to the shortage of doctors across the country.  This in turn may affect the development of AYUSH systems of medicine as independent systems of medicine.

Moreover, AYUSH doctors do not have to go through any licentiate examination to be registered by the NMC, unlike the other doctors.  Recently, the Union Cabinet has approved an Amendment to remove the provision of the bridge course.

Status of other kinds of medical personnel

As of January 2018, the doctor to population ratio in India was 1:1655 compared to the World Health Organisation standard of 1:1000.  The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare stated that the introduction of the bridge course for AYUSH practitioners under the Bill will help fill in the gaps of availability of medical professionals.

If the purpose of the bridge course is to address shortage of medical professionals, it is unclear why the option to take the bridge course does not apply to other cadres of allopathic medical professionals such as nurses, and dentists.  There are other countries where medical professionals other than doctors are allowed to prescribe allopathic medicine.  For example, Nurse Practitioners in the USA provide a full range of primary, acute, and specialty health care services, including ordering and performing diagnostic tests, and prescribing medications.  For this purpose, Nurse Practitioners must complete a master’s or doctoral degree program, advanced clinical training, and obtain a national certification.

Explainer: Removal of Judges from Office

April 20th, 2018 3 comments

Today, some Members of Parliament initiated proceedings for the removal of the current Chief Justice of India by submitting a notice to the Chairman of Rajya Sabha.  A judge may be removed from office through a motion adopted by Parliament on grounds of ‘proven misbehaviour or incapacity’.  While the Constitution does not use the word ‘impeachment’, it is colloquially used to refer to the proceedings under Article 124 (for the removal of a Supreme Court judge) and Article 218 (for the removal of a High Court judge).

The Constitution provides that a judge can be removed only by an order of the President, based on a motion passed by both Houses of Parliament.  The procedure for removal of judges is elaborated in the Judges Inquiry Act, 1968.  The Act sets out the following steps for removal from office:

  • Under the Act, an impeachment motion may originate in either House of Parliament. To initiate proceedings: (i) at least 100 members of Lok Sabha may give a signed notice to the Speaker, or (ii) at least 50 members of Rajya Sabha may give a signed notice to the Chairman.  The Speaker or Chairman may consult individuals and examine relevant material related to the notice.  Based on this, he or she may decide to either admit the motion or refuse to admit it.
  • If the motion is admitted, the Speaker or Chairman (who receives it) will constitute a three-member committee to investigate the complaint. It will comprise: (i) a Supreme Court judge; (ii) Chief Justice of a High Court; and (iii) a distinguished jurist.  The committee will frame charges based on which the investigation will be conducted.  A copy of the charges will be forwarded to the judge who can present a written defence.
  • After concluding its investigation, the Committee will submit its report to the Speaker or Chairman, who will then lay the report before the relevant House of Parliament. If the report records a finding of misbehaviour or incapacity, the motion for removal will be taken up for consideration and debated.
  • Once the motion is adopted in both Houses, it is sent to the President, who will issue an order for the removal of the judge.

Status of Drinking Water and Sanitation in rural India

April 2nd, 2018 No comments

In Budget Session 2018, Rajya Sabha has planned to examine the working of four ministries.  The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation is one of the ministries listed for discussion.  In this post, we look at the key schemes being implemented by the Ministry and their status.

What are the key functions of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation?

As per the Constitution, supply of water and sanitation are state subjects which means that states regulate and provide these services.  The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation is primarily responsible for policy planning, funding, and coordination of programs for: (i) safe drinking water; and (ii) sanitation, in rural areas.  From 1999 till 2011, the Ministry operated as a Department under the Ministry of Rural Development.  In 2011, the Department was made an independent Ministry.  Presently, the Ministry oversees the implementation of two key schemes of the government: (i) Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin (SBM-G), and (ii) National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP).

How have the finances and spending priorities of the Ministry changed over time?

In the Union Budget 2018-19, the Ministry has been allocated Rs 22,357 crore.  This is a decrease of Rs 1,654 crore (7%) over the revised expenditure of 2017-18.  In 2015-16, the Ministry over-shot its budget by 178%.  Consequently, the allocation in 2016-17 was more than doubled (124%) to Rs 14,009 crore.

In recent years, the priorities of the Ministry have seen a shift (see Figure 1).  The focus has been on providing sanitation facilities in rural areas, mobilising behavioural change to increase usage of toilets, and consequently eliminating open defecation.  However, this has translated into a decrease in the share of allocation towards drinking water (from 87% in 2009-10 to 31% in 2018-19).  In the same period, the share of allocation to rural sanitation has increased from 13% to 69%.Figure 1

What has been the progress under Swacch Bharat Mission- Gramin?

The Swachh Bharat Mission was launched on October 2, 2014 with an aim to achieve universal sanitation coverage, improve cleanliness, and eliminate open defecation in the country by October 2, 2019.

Expenditure on SBM-G:  In 2018-19, Rs 15,343 crore has been allocated towards SBM-G.  The central government allocation to SBM-G for the five year period from 2014-15 to 2018-19 has been estimated to be Rs 1,00,447 crore.  Of this, up to 2018-19, Rs 52,166 crore (52%) has been allocated to the scheme.  This implies that 48% of the funds are still left to be released before October 2019.  Figure 2

Construction of Individual Household Latrines (IHHLs):  For construction of IHHLs, funds are shared between the centre and states in the 60:40 ratio.  Construction of IHHLs account for the largest share of total expenditure under the scheme (97%-98%).  Although the number of toilets constructed each year has increased, the pace of annual growth of constructing these toilets has come down.  In 2015-16, the number of toilets constructed was 156% higher than the previous year.  This could be due to the fact that 2015-16 was the first full year of implementation of the scheme.  The growth in construction of new toilets reduced to 74% in 2016-17, and further to 4% in 2017-18.Table 1

As of February 2018, 78.8% of households in India had a toilet.  This implies that 15 crore toilets have been constructed so far.  However, four crore more toilets need to be construced in the next 20 months for the scheme to achieve its target by 2019.

Open Defecation Free (ODF) villages:  Under SBM-G, a village is ODF when: (i) there are no visible faeces in the village, and (ii) every household as well as public/community institution uses safe technology options for faecal disposal.  After a village declares itself ODF, states are required to carry out verification of the ODF status of such a village.  This includes access to a toilet facility and its usage, and safe disposal of faecal matter through septic tanks.  So far, out of all villages in the country, 72% have been verified as ODF.  This implies that 28% villages are left to be verified as ODF for the scheme to achieve its target by 2019.Table 2

Information, Education and Communication (IEC) activities:  As per the SBM-G guidelines, 8% of funds earmarked for SBM-G in a year should be utilised for IEC activities.  These activities primarily aim to mobilise behavioural change towards the use of toilets among people.  However, allocation towards this component has remained in the 1%-4% range.  In 2017-18, Rs 229 crore is expected to be spent, amounting to 2% of total expenditure.

What is the implementation status of the National Rural Drinking Water Programme?

The National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) aims at assisting states in providing adequate and safe drinking water to the rural population in the country.  In 2018-19, the scheme has been allocated Rs 7,000 crore, accounting for 31% of the Ministry’s finances.Figure 3

Coverage under the scheme:  As of August 2017, 96% of rural habitations have access to safe drinking water.  In 2011, the Ministry came out with a strategic plan for the period 2011-22.  The plan identified certain standards for coverage of habitations with water supply, including targets for per day supply of drinking water.  As of February 2018, 74% habitations are fully covered (receiving 55 litres per capita per day), and 22% habitations are partially covered (receiving less than 55 litres per capita per day).  The Ministry aims to cover 90% rural households with piped water supply and 80% rural households with tap connections by 2022.  The Estimates Committee of Parliament (2015) observed that piped water supply was available to only 47% of rural habitations, out of which only 15% had household tap connections.

Contamination of drinking water:  It has been noted that NRDWP is over-dependant on ground water.  However, ground water is contaminated in over 20 states.  For instance, high arsenic contamination has been found in 68 districts of 10 states.  These states are Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Assam, Manipur, and Karnataka.Table 3

Chemical contamination of ground water has also been reported due to deeper drilling for drinking water sources.  It has been recommended that out of the total funds for NRDWP, allocation for water quality monitoring and surveillance should not be less than 5%.  Presently, it is 3% of the total funds.  It has also been suggested that water quality laboratories for water testing should be set up throughout the country.

Internal Security: Examining the Working of the Home Ministry

March 20th, 2018 3 comments

Each year during the Budget Session, Rajya Sabha examines the working of certain ministries.  This year it has identified four ministries for discussion, which includes the Ministry of Home Affairs.  In light of this, we analyse some key functions of the Ministry and the challenges in carrying out these functions.

What are the key functions of Ministry of Home Affairs?  

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is primarily responsible for: (i) maintenance of internal security, (ii) governance issues between the centre and states, and (iii) disaster management.  It also discharges several other key functions that include: (i) border management, (ii) administration of union territories, (iii) implementation of provisions relating to the official languages, and (iv) conducting the population census every ten years.

Under the Constitution, ‘public order’ and ‘police’ are state list subjects.  The MHA assists the state governments by providing them: (i) central armed police forces, and (ii) financial assistance for modernising state police forces, communication equipment, weaponry, mobility, training and other police infrastructure.

What is the role of the central armed police forces?

Table 1The MHA manages seven central police forces: (i) Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) which assists in internal security and law and order, (ii) Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) which protects vital installations (like airports) and public sector undertakings, (iii) National Security Guards which is a special counter-terrorism force, and (iv) four border guarding forces, namely, Border Security Force (BSF), Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) and Assam Rifles (AR).

As of January 2017, the total sanctioned strength of the seven CAPFs was 10. 8 lakhs.  However, 15% of these posts (i.e., about 1.6 lakhs posts) were lying vacant.  The vacancy in the CAPFs has remained above 7% for the last five years (see Table 1).  In 2017, the Sashastra Seema Bal had the highest vacancy (57%).  The CRPF, which accounts for 30% of the total sanctioned strength of the seven CAPFs, had a vacancy of 8%.

How does MHA assist the police forces?

In Union Budget 2018-19, Rs 1,07,573 crore has been allocated to the Ministry of Home Affairs.  The Ministry has estimated to spend 82% of this amount on police.  The remaining allocation is towards grants to Union Territories, and other items including disaster management, rehabilitation of refugees and migrants, and the Union Cabinet.

The MHA has been implementing Modernisation of Police Forces (MPF) scheme since 1969 to supplement the resources of states for modernising their police forces.  Funds from the MPF scheme are utilised for improving police infrastructure through construction of police stations, and provision of modern weaponry, surveillance, and communication equipment.  Some other important objectives under the scheme include upgradation of training infrastructure, police housing, and computerisation.

The scheme has undergone revision over the years.  A total allocation of Rs 11,946 crore was approved for the MPF scheme, for a five-year period between 2012-13 to 2016-17.  Following the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission (to increase the share of central taxes to states), it was decided that the MPF scheme would be delinked from central government funding from 2015-16 onwards. However, in September 2017, the Union Cabinet approved an outlay of Rs 25,060 crore under the scheme, for the period 2017-18 to 2019-20.  The central government will provide about 75% of this amount, and the states will provide the remaining 25%.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has found that weaponry in several state police forces is outdated, and there is a shortage of arms and ammunitions.  An audit of Rajasthan police force (2009-14) found that there was a shortage of 75% in the availability of modern weapons against the state’s requirements.  In case of West Bengal and Gujarat police forces, CAG found a shortage of 71% and 36% respectively.  Further, there has been a persistent problem of underutilisation of modernisation funds by the states.  Figure 1 shows the level of utilisation of modernisation funds by states between 2010-11 and 2016-17.

Figure 1

What are the major internal security challenges in India?

Maintaining internal security of the country is one of the key functions of the MHA.  The major internal security challenges that India faces are: (i) terrorist activities in the country, (ii) cross-border terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, (iii) Left Wing Extremism in certain areas, and (iv) insurgency in the North-Eastern states.

Between 2015 and 2016, the number of cross-border infiltrations in Jammu and Kashmir increased by almost three times, from 121 to 364.   On the other hand, incidents of insurgency in Left Wing Extremism areas have decreased from 1,048 in 2016 to 908 in 2017.

The Standing Committee on Home Affairs noted in 2017-18 that security forces in Jammu and Kashmir are occupied with law and order incidents, such as stone pelting, which gives militants the time to reorganise and perpetrate terror attacks.  The Committee recommended that the MHA should adopt a multi-pronged strategy that prevents youth from joining militancy, curbs their financing, and simultaneously launch counter-insurgency operations.

In relation to Left Wing Extremism, the Standing Committee (2017) observed that police and paramilitary personnel were getting killed because of mine blasts and ambushes.  It recommended that the MHA should make efforts to procure mine-resistant vehicles.  This could be done through import or domestic manufacturing under the ‘Make in India’ programme.

What is the MHA’s role in border management?

India has a land border of over 15,000 kms, which it shares with seven countries (Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Afghanistan).  Further, it has a coastline of over 7,500 kms.  The MHA is responsible for: (i) management of international lands and coastal borders, (ii) strengthening of border guarding, and (iii) creation of infrastructure such as roads, fencing, and lighting of borders.

Construction of border outposts is one of the components of infrastructure at border areas.  The Standing Committee on Home Affairs (2017) noted that the proposal to construct 509 outposts along the India-Bangladesh, and India-Pakistan borders had been reduced to 422 outposts in 2016.  It recommended that such a reduction should be reconsidered since 509 outposts would reduce the inter-border outpost distance to 3.5 kms, which is important for the security of the country.

How is coastal security carried out?

Coastal security is jointly carried out by the Indian Navy, Indian Coast Guard, and marine police of coastal states and Union Territories.  The MHA is implementing the Coastal Security Scheme to strengthen the marine police of nine coastal states and four Union Territories by enhancing surveillance, and improve patrolling in coastal areas.  Under this scheme, the Ministry sought to construct coastal police stations, purchase boats, and acquire vehicles for patrolling on land, among other objectives.

The Standing Committee on Home Affairs (2017) observed that the implementation of Phase-II of this scheme within the set time-frame has not been possible.  It also noted that there was lack of coordination between the Indian Navy, the Indian Coast Guard, and the coastal police.  In this context, the Committee recommended that the Director General, Indian Coast Guard, should be the nodal authority for coordinating operations related to coastal security.

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Explained: Law on holding an ‘Office of Profit’

February 22nd, 2018 1 comment

Following the recommendation of the Election Commission (EC), the President disqualified 20 MLAs of the Delhi Legislative Assembly last month for holding an ‘office of profit’. The legislators in question were appointed as parliamentary secretaries to various ministries in the Delhi government. The Delhi High Court is currently hearing a petition filed by the disqualified MLAs against the EC’s recommendation. There have been reports of parliamentary secretaries being appointed in 20 states in the past with court judgments striking down these appointments in several cases. In this context, we discuss the law on holding an ‘office of profit’.

What is the concept of ‘office of profit’?

MPs and MLAs, as members of the legislature, hold the government accountable for its work. The essence of disqualification under the office of profit law is if legislators holds an ‘office of profit’ under the government, they might be susceptible to government influence, and may not discharge their constitutional mandate fairly. The intent is that there should be no conflict between the duties and interests of an elected member. Hence, the office of profit law simply seeks to enforce a basic feature of the Constitution- the principle of separation of power between the legislature and the executive.

According to the definition, what constitutes an ‘office of profit’?

The law does not clearly define what constitutes an office of profit but the definition has evolved over the years with interpretations made in various court judgments. An office of profit has been interpreted to be a position that brings to the office-holder some financial gain, or advantage, or benefit. The amount of such profit is immaterial.

In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that the test for determining whether a person holds an office of profit is the test of appointment. Several factors are considered in this determination including factors such as: (i) whether the government is the appointing authority, (ii) whether the government has the power to terminate the appointment, (iii) whether the government determines the remuneration, (iv) what is the source of remuneration, and (v) the power that comes with the position.

What does the Constitution say about holding an ‘office of profit’? Can exemptions be granted under the law?

Under the provisions of Article 102 (1) and Article 191 (1) of the Constitution, an MP or an MLA (or an MLC) is barred from holding any office of profit under the central or state government. The articles clarify that “a person shall not be deemed to hold an office of profit under the government of India or the government of any state by reason only that he is a minister”. The Constitution specifies that the number of ministers including the Chief Minister has to be within 15% of the total number of members of the assembly (10% in the case of Delhi, which is a union territory with legislature).

Provisions of Articles 102 and 191 also protect a legislator occupying a government position if the office in question has been made immune to disqualification by law. In the recent past, several state legislatures have enacted laws exempting certain offices from the purview of office of profit.  Parliament has also enacted the Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Act, 1959, which has been amended several times to expand the exempted list.

Is there a bar on how many offices can be exempted from the purview of the law?

There is no bar on how many offices can be exempted from the purview of the law.

It was reported in 2015 that all 60 MLAs of the Nagaland Assembly had joined the ruling alliance. The Nagaland Chief Minister appointed 26 legislators as parliamentary secretaries in July 2017. Goa, an assembly of 40 MLAs, exempted more than 50 offices by means of an ordinance issued in June last year. Puducherry, an assembly of 33 MLAs, exempted more than 60 offices by passing an amendment bill in 2009.  In Delhi, the 21 parliamentary secretaries added to the seven ministerial posts would constitute 40% of the 70-member legislature.  In all, 20 states have similar provisions.

This raises an important concern. If a large number of legislators are appointed to such offices, their role in scrutinising the work of the government may be impaired. Thus, this could contravene the spirit of Articles 102 and 191 of the Constitution.

What is the debate around making appointments to the office of parliamentary secretaries?

Interestingly, the appointment of legislators as parliamentary secretaries, in spite of the office being exempted from purview of the office of profit law, has been struck down by courts in several states.

Why has the appointment as a parliamentary secretary been struck down while other offices are allowed to be exempt from the purview of the law? If legislators can be accommodated in positions other than ‘parliamentary secretary’, why do state governments continue to appoint legislators as parliamentary secretaries instead of appointing them to other offices?

These questions have been answered in a Calcutta High Court judgment in 2015 which held that since the position may confer the rank of a junior minister on the legislator, the appointment of MLAs as parliamentary secretaries was an attempt by state governments to bypass the constitutional ceiling on the number of ministers. In 2009, the Bombay High Court also held that appointing parliamentary secretaries of the rank and status of a Cabinet Minister is in violation of Article 164 (1A) of the Constitution.  The Article specifies that the number of ministers including the Chief Minister should not exceed 15% of the total number of members in the assembly.

Explained: The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016

December 15th, 2017 No comments

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 has been listed for passage during the ongoing Winter Session of Parliament.  This Bill was introduced in the Monsoon Session last year and referred to the Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment, which tabled its report earlier this year.  The Bill seeks to recognise transgender persons, and confer anti-discriminatory rights and entitlements related to education, employment, health, and welfare measures.  This post explains key provisions of the Bill and certain issues for consideration.

Self-identification and obtaining a Certificate of Identity

The Bill provides for ‘self-perceived gender identity’ i.e. persons can determine their gender on their own.  This is in line with a Supreme Court judgement (2014) which held that the self determination of one’s gender is part of the fundamental right to dignity, freedom and personal autonomy guaranteed under the Constitution.[1]

Along with the provision on ‘self-perceived gender identity’, the Bill also provides for a screening process to obtain a Certificate of Identity.  This Certificate will certify the person as ‘transgender’.  An application for obtaining such a Certificate will be referred to a District Screening Committee which will comprise five members including a medical officer, psychologist or psychiatrist, and a representative of the transgender community.

The Bill therefore allows individuals to self-identify their gender, but at the same time they must also undergo the screening process to get certified, and as a result be identified as a ‘transgender’.  In this context, it is unclear how these two provisions of self-perceived gender identity and an external screening process will reconcile with each other.  The Standing Committee has also upheld both these processes of self-identification and the external screening process to get certified.  In addition, the Committee recommended that the Bill should provide for a mechanism for appeal against the decisions of the District Screening Committee.

Since, the Bill provides certain entitlements to transgender persons for their inclusion and participation in society, it can be argued that there must be an objective criteria to verify the eligibility of these applicants for them to receive benefits targeted for transgender persons.

Status of transgender persons under existing laws

Currently, several criminal and civil laws recognise two categories of gender i.e. man and woman.  These include laws such as Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (NREGA) and Hindu Succession Act, 1956.  Now, the Bill seeks to recognise a third gender i.e. ‘transgender’.  However, the Bill does not clarify how transgender persons will be treated under certain existing laws.

For example, under NREGA, priority is given to women workers (at least one-third of the beneficiaries are to be women) if they have registered and requested for work under the Act. Similarly, under the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956, there are different eligibility criteria for males and females to adopt a girl child.  In this context, the applicability of such laws to a ‘transgender’ person is not stated in the Bill.  The Standing Committee has recommended recognising transgender persons’ right to marriage, partnership, divorce and adoption, as governed by their personal laws or other relevant legislation.

In addition, the penalties for similar offences may also vary because of the application of different laws based on gender identity.  For example, under the IPC, sexual offences related to women attract a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, which is higher than that specified for sexual abuse against a transgender person under the Bill (up to two years).[2]

Who is a transgender person?

As per international standards, ‘transgender’ is an umbrella term that includes persons whose sense of gender does not match with the gender assigned to them at birth.[3], [4]   For example, a person born as a man may identify with the opposite gender, i.e., as a woman.[5]  In addition to this sense of mismatch, the definition provided under the Bill also lists further criteria to be defined as a transgender person.  These additional criteria include being (i) ‘neither wholly male nor female’, or (ii) ‘a combination of male or female’, or (iii) ‘neither male nor female’.

The Supreme Court, the Expert Committee of the Ministry of Social Justice and Welfare, and the recent Standing Committee report all define ‘transgender persons’ based on the mismatch only.1,[5],[6]  Therefore, the definition provided under the Bill does not clarify if simply proving a mismatch is enough (as is the norm internationally) or whether the additional listed criteria ought to be fulfilled as well.

Offences and penalties

The Bill specifies certain offences which include: (i) compelling transgender persons to beg or do forced or bonded labour, and (ii) physical, sexual, verbal, emotional or economic abuse.  These offences will attract imprisonment between six months and two years, in addition to a fine.

The Standing Committee recommended graded punishment for different offences, and suggested that those involving physical and sexual assault should attract higher punishment.   It further stated that the Bill must also specifically recognise and provide appropriate penalties for violence faced by transgender persons from officials in educational institutions, healthcare institutions, police stations, etc.

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[1]. National Legal Services Authority vs. Union of India [(2014) 5 SCC 438]; Article 21, Constitution of India.

[2].  Sections 354, 354A, 354B, 375, Indian Penal Code, 1860.

[3].  Guidelines related to Transgender persons, American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/practice/guidelines/transgender.pdf.

[4].  Standards of Care, 7th Version, The World Professional Association for Transgender Health, https://s3.amazonaws.com/amo_hub_content/Association140/files/Standards%20of%20Care%20V7%20-%202011%20WPATH%20(2)(1).pdf.

[5].  Report of the Expert Committee on the Issues relating to Transgender Persons, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, January 27, 2014, http://socialjustice.nic.in/writereaddata/UploadFile/Binder2.pdf.

[6]. Report no.43, The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016, Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment, July 21, 2017, http://164.100.47.193/lsscommittee/Social%20Justice%20&%20Empowerment/16_Social_Justice_And_Empowerment_43.pdf.

The FRDI Bill: Bail-In provisions explained

December 7th, 2017 4 comments

The Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance Bill, 2017 was introduced in Lok Sabha during Monsoon Session 2017.  The Bill is currently being examined by a Joint Committee of the two Houses of Parliament.  It seeks to establish a Resolution Corporation which will monitor the risk faced by financial firms such as banks and insurance companies, and resolve them in case of failure.  For FAQs explaining the regulatory framework under the Bill, please see here.

Over the last few days, there has been some discussion around provisions of the Bill which allow for cancellation or writing down of liabilities of a financial firm (known as bail-in).[1],[2]  There are concerns that these provisions may put depositors in an unfavourable position in case a bank fails. In this context, we explain the bail-in process below.

What is bail-in?

The Bill specifies various tools to resolve a failing financial firm which include transferring its assets and liabilities, merging it with another firm, or liquidating it.  One of these methods allows for a financial firm on the verge of failure to be rescued by internally restructuring its debt.  This method is known as bail-in.

Bail-in differs from a bail-out which involves funds being infused by external sources to resolve a firm.  This includes a failing firm being rescued by the government.

How does it work?

Under bail-in, the Resolution Corporation can internally restructure the firm’s debt by: (i) cancelling liabilities that the firm owes to its creditors, or (ii) converting its liabilities into any other instrument (e.g., converting debt into equity), among others.[3]

Bail-in may be used in cases where it is necessary to continue the services of the firm, but the option of selling it is not feasible.[4]  This method allows for losses to be absorbed and consequently enables the firm to carry on business for a reasonable time period while maintaining market confidence.3  The Bill allows the Resolution Corporation to either resolve a firm by only using bail-in, or use bail-in as part of a larger resolution scheme in combination with other resolution methods like a merger or acquisition.

Do the current laws in India allow for bail-in? What happens to bank deposits in case of failure?

Current laws governing resolution of financial firms do not contain provisions for a bail in.  If a bank fails, it may either be merged with another bank or liquidated.

In case of bank deposits, amounts up to one lakh rupees are insured by the Deposit Insurance and Credit Guarantee Corporation (DICGC).  In the absence of the bank having sufficient resources to repay deposits above this amount, depositors will lose their money.  The DICGC Act, 1961 originally insured deposits up to Rs 1,500 and permitted the DICGC to increase this amount with the approval of the central government.  The current insured amount of one lakh rupees was fixed in May 1993.[5]  The Bill has a similar provision which allows the Resolution Corporation to set the insured amount in consultation with the RBI.

Does the Bill specify safeguards for creditors, including depositors?

The Bill specifies that the power of the Corporation while using bail-in to resolve a firm will be limited.  There are certain safeguards which seek to protect creditors and ensure continuity of critical functions of the firm. Order of priority under liquidation

When resolving a firm through bail-in, the Corporation will have to ensure that none of the creditors (including bank depositors) receive less than what they would have been entitled to receive if the firm was to be liquidated.[6],[7]

Further, the Bill allows a liability to be cancelled or converted under bail-in only if the creditor has given his consent to do so in the contract governing such debt.  The terms and conditions of bank deposits will determine whether the bail-in clause can be applied to them.

Do other countries contain similar provisions?

After the global financial crisis in 2008, several countries such as the US and those across Europe developed specialised resolution capabilities.  This was aimed at preventing another crisis and sought to strengthen mechanisms for monitoring and resolving sick financial firms.

The Financial Stability Board, an international body comprising G20 countries (including India), recommended that countries should allow resolution of firms by bail-in under their jurisdiction.  The European Union also issued a directive proposing a structure for member countries to follow while framing their respective resolution laws.  This directive suggested that countries should include bail-in among their resolution tools.  Countries such as UK and Germany have provided for bail-in under their laws.  However, this method has rarely been used.7,[8]  One of the rare instances was in 2013, when bail-in was used to resolve a bank in Cyprus.

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[1] ‘Modi government’s FRDI bill may take away all your hard-earned money’, India Today, December  5, 2017, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/frdi-bill-banking-reforms-modi-government-india-parliament/1/1103422.html.

[2] ‘Bail-in doubts — on financial resolution legislation’, The Hindu, December 5, 2017, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/bail-in-doubts/article21261606.ece.

[3] Section 52, The Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance Bill, 2017.

[4] Report of the Committee to Draft Code on Resolution of Financial Firms, September 2016, http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/Financial%20Resolution%20Bill,%202017/FRDI%20Bill%20Drafting%20Committee%20Report.pdf.

[5] The Deposit Insurance and Credit Guarantee Corporation Act, 1961, https://rbidocs.rbi.org.in/rdocs/Publications/PDFs/dicgc_act.pdf.  s

[6] Section 55, The Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance Bill, 2017.

[7] The Bank of England’s approach to resolution, October 2014, Bank of England.

[8] Recovery and resolution, BaFin, Federal Financial Supervisory Authority of Germany, https://www.bafin.de/EN/Aufsicht/BankenFinanzdienstleister/Massnahmen/SanierungAbwicklung/sanierung_abwicklung_artikel_en.html.

The Anti-Defection Law Explained

December 6th, 2017 No comments

On Monday, December 4, the Chairman of Rajya Sabha disqualified two Members of Parliament (MPs) from the House under the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution (better known as the anti-defection law) for having defected from their party.[1] These members were elected on a Janata Dal (United) ticket.  The Madras High Court is also hearing petitions filed by 18 MLAs who were disqualified by the Speaker of the Tamil Nadu Assembly in September 2017 under the anti-defection law.  Allegations of legislators defecting in violation of the law have been made in several other states including Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Manipur, Nagaland, Telangana and Uttarakhand in recent years.[2]  In this context, we explain the anti-defection law.

What is the anti-defection law?

Aaya Ram Gaya Ram was a phrase that became popular in Indian politics after a Haryana MLA Gaya Lal changed his party thrice within the same day in 1967.  The anti-defection law sought to prevent such political defections which may be due to reward of office or other similar considerations.[3]

The Tenth Schedule was inserted in the Constitution in 1985. It lays down the process by which legislators may be disqualified on grounds of defection by the Presiding Officer of a legislature based on a petition by any other member of the House. A legislator is deemed to have defected if he either voluntarily gives up the membership of his party or disobeys the directives of the party leadership on a vote. This implies that a legislator defying (abstaining or voting against) the party whip on any issue can lose his membership of the House.  The law applies to both Parliament and state assemblies.

Are there any exceptions under the law?

Yes, legislators may change their party without the risk of disqualification in certain circumstances. The law allows a party to merge with or into another party provided that at least two-thirds of its legislators are in favour of the merger. In such a scenario, neither the members who decide to merge, nor the ones who stay with the original party will face disqualification.

Various expert committees have recommended that rather than the Presiding Officer, the decision to disqualify a member should be made by the President (in case of MPs) or the Governor (in case of MLAs) on the advice of the Election Commission.[4] This would be similar to the process followed for disqualification in case the person holds an office of profit (i.e. the person holds an office under the central or state government which carries a remuneration, and has not been excluded in a list made by the legislature).

How has the law been interpreted by the Courts while deciding on related matters?

The Supreme Court has interpreted different provisions of the law.  We discuss some of these below.

The phrase ‘Voluntarily gives up his membership’ has a wider connotation than resignation

The law provides for a member to be disqualified if he ‘voluntarily gives up his membership’. However, the Supreme Court has interpreted that in the absence of a formal resignation by the member, the giving up of membership can be inferred by his conduct.[5] In other judgments, members who have publicly expressed opposition to their party or support for another party were deemed to have resigned.[6]

In the case of the two JD(U) MPs who were disqualified from Rajya Sabha on Monday, they were deemed to have ‘voluntarily given up their membership’ by engaging in anti-party activities which included criticizing the party on public forums on multiple occasions, and attending rallies organised by opposition parties in Bihar.[7]

Decision of the Presiding Officer is subject to judicial review 

The law initially stated that the decision of the Presiding Officer is not subject to judicial review. This condition was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1992, thereby allowing appeals against the Presiding Officer’s decision in the High Court and Supreme Court.[8] However, it held that there may not be any judicial intervention until the Presiding Officer gives his order.

In 2015, the Hyderabad High Court, refused to intervene after hearing a petition which alleged that there had been delay by the Telangana Assembly Speaker in acting against a member under the anti-defection law.[9]

Is there a time limit within which the Presiding Officer has to decide?

The law does not specify a time-period for the Presiding Officer to decide on a disqualification plea. Given that courts can intervene only after the Presiding Officer has decided on the matter, the petitioner seeking disqualification has no option but to wait for this decision to be made.

There have been several cases where the Courts have expressed concern about the unnecessary delay in deciding such petitions.[10] In some cases this delay in decision making has resulted in members, who have defected from their parties, continuing to be members of the House. There have also been instances where opposition members have been appointed ministers in the government while still retaining the membership of their original parties in the legislature.[11]

In recent years, opposition MLAs in some states, such as Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, have broken away in small groups gradually to join the ruling party. In some of these cases, more than 2/3rd of the opposition has defected to the ruling party.

In these scenarios, the MLAs were subject to disqualification while defecting to the ruling party in smaller groups.  However, it is not clear if they will still face disqualification if the Presiding Officer makes a decision after more than 2/3rd of the opposition has defected to the ruling party. The Telangana Speaker in March 2016 allowed the merger of the TDP Legislature Party in Telangana with the ruling TRS, citing that in total, 80% of the TDP MLAs (12 out of 15) had joined the TRS at the time of taking the decision.[12]

In Andhra Pradesh, legislators of the main opposition party recently boycotted the entire 12-day assembly session.  This boycott was in protest against the delay of over 18 months in action being taken against legislators of their party who have allegedly defected to the ruling party.[13] The Vice President, in his recent order disqualifying two JD(U) members stated that all such petitions should be decided by the Presiding Officers within a period of around three months.

Does the anti-defection law affect the ability of legislators to make decisions?

The anti-defection law seeks to provide a stable government by ensuring the legislators do not switch sides. However, this law also restricts a legislator from voting in line with his conscience, judgement and interests of his electorate. Such a situation impedes the oversight function of the legislature over the government, by ensuring that members vote based on the decisions taken by the party leadership, and not what their constituents would like them to vote for.

Political parties issue a direction to MPs on how to vote on most issues, irrespective of the nature of the issue. Several experts have suggested that the law should be valid only for those votes that determine the stability of the government (passage of the annual budget or no-confidence motions).[14]

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[1] Parliamentary Bulletin-II, December 4, 2017, http://164.100.47.5/newsite/bulletin2/Bull_No.aspx?number=57066 and http://164.100.47.5/newsite/bulletin2/Bull_No.aspx?number=57067.

[2] MLA Defection Politics Not New, Firstpost, March 13, 2017, http://www.firstpost.com/politics/bjp-forms-govt-in-goa-manipur-mla-defection-politics-not-new-telangana-ap-perfected-it-3331872.html.

[3] The Constitution (52nd Amendment) Act, 1985, http://indiacode.nic.in/coiweb/amend/amend52.htm.

[4] Report of the Committee on Electoral Reforms, 1990, http://lawmin.nic.in/ld/erreports/Dinesh%20Goswami%20Report%20on%20Electoral%20Reforms.pdf and the National Commission to review the working of the Constitution (NCRWC), 2002, http://lawmin.nic.in/ncrwc/ncrwcreport.htm.

[5] Ravi Naik vs Union of India, 1994, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/554446/.

[6] G.Viswanathan Vs. The Hon’ble Speaker, Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, Madras& Another, 1996, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1093980/  and Rajendra Singh Rana vs. Swami Prasad Maurya and Others, 2007, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1620629/ and Parliamentary Bulletin-II, December 4, 2017, http://164.100.47.5/newsite/bulletin2/Bull_No.aspx?number=57066.

[7] Parliamentary Bulletin-II, December 4, 2017, http://164.100.47.5/newsite/bulletin2/Bull_No.aspx?number=57066.

[8] Kihoto Hollohon vs. Zachilhu and Others, 1992, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1686885/.

[9] Sabotage of Anti-Defection Law in Telangana, 2015, https://www.epw.in/journal/2015/50/commentary/sabotage-anti-defection-law-telangana.html.

[10] Speaker, Haryana Vidhan Sabha Vs Kuldeep Bishnoi & Ors., 2012, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/45034065/  and Mayawati Vs Markandeya Chand & Ors., 1998, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1801522/.

[11] Anti-Defecton Law Ignored, November 30, 2017, http://www.news18.com/news/politics/anti-defection-law-ignored-as-mlas-defect-to-tdp-trs-in-andhra-pradesh-and-telangana-1591319.html and It’s official Minister Talasani is still a TDP Member, March 27, 2015, http://www.thehansindia.com/posts/index/Telangana/2015-03-27/Its-Official-Minister-Talasani-is-still-a-TDP-member/140135.

[12] Telangana Legislative Assembly Bulletin, March 10, 2016, http://www.telanganalegislature.org.in/documents/10656/19317/Assembly+Buletin.PDF/a0d4bb52-9acf-494f-80e7-3a16e3480460;  12 TDP MLAs merged with TRS, March 11, 2016, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/telangana/12-tdp-mlas-merged-with-trs/article8341018.ece.

[13] The line TD leaders dare not cross, December 4, http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-andhrapradesh/the-line-td-leaders-dare-not-cross/article21257521.ece

[14] Report of the National Commission to review the working of the Constitution, 2002, http://lawmin.nic.in/ncrwc/ncrwcreport.htm, Report of the Committee on electoral reforms, 1990, http://lawmin.nic.in/ld/erreports/Dinesh%20Goswami%20Report%20on%20Electoral%20Reforms.pdf  and Law Commission (170th report), 1999, http://www.lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/lc170.htm.

Role of Parliament in holding the government accountable

November 22nd, 2017 No comments

Parliament sessions are usually held thrice a year: once in February for the Budget Session, once around July or August for the Monsoon Session, and once in November for the Winter Session.  This year, the government is yet to announce the dates for the Winter Session.  While there has been uncertainty around whether Parliament will meet, ministers in the government have indicated that the Session will be held soon.[1]

The practice of allowing the government to convene Parliament differs from those followed in other countries.  Some of these countries have a limited role for the government in summoning the legislature, because in a parliamentary democracy the executive is accountable to Parliament.  Allowing the government to call the Parliament to meet could be in conflict with this principle.  While we wait for the government to announce the dates for the Winter Session, this post looks at the relationship between Parliament and the government, recommendations made over the years on improving some parliamentary customs, and discusses certain practices followed by other countries.

What is the role of Parliament in a democracy?

The Constitution provides for the legislature to make laws, the government to implement laws, and the courts to interpret and enforce these laws.  While the judiciary is independent from the other two branches, the government is formed with the support of a majority of members in the legislature.  Therefore, the government is collectively responsible to Parliament for its actions.  This implies that Parliament (i.e. Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) can hold the government accountable for its decisions, and scrutinise its functioning.  This may be done using various methods including, during debates on Bills or issues on the floor of Parliament, by posing questions to ministers during Question Hour, and in parliamentary committees.

Who convenes Parliament?

Parliament must be convened by the President at least once in every six months.  Since the President acts on the advice of the central government, the duration of the session is decided by the government.

Given the legislature’s role in keeping the executive accountable for its actions, one argument is that the government should not have the power to convene Parliament.  Instead, Parliament should convene itself, if a certain number of MPs agree, so that it can effectively exercise its oversight functions and address issues without delay.  Some countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia release an annual calendar with the sitting dates at the beginning of the year.

How regularly has Parliament been meeting over the years?

Over the years, there has been a decline in the sitting days of Parliament.  While Lok Sabha met for an average of 130 days in a year during the 1950s, these sittings came down to 70 days in the 2000s.  Lesser number of sittings indicates that Parliament was able to transact less business compared to previous years.  To address this, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution has recommended that Lok Sabha should have at least 120 sittings in a year, while Rajya Sabha should have 100 sittings.[2] Sitting days of Parliament

The Constituent Assembly, while drafting the Constitution had debated the power that should be given to Parliament with regard to convening itself.  Mr. K. T. Shah, a member of the Assembly, had suggested that in case the President or the Prime Minister are unable or unwilling to call for a Parliament session, the power to convene the Houses should be given to the presiding officers of those Houses (i.e., the Chairman of Rajya Sabha and the Speaker of Lok Sabha).  In addition, he had also suggested that Parliament should itself regulate its procedure, sittings and timings.[3]

How does Parliament hold the government accountable?

One of the forums of holding the government accountable for its actions is the Question Hour.  During Question Hour, MPs may pose questions to ministers related to the implementation of laws and policies by the government.questions answered

In the 16th Lok Sabha, question hour has functioned in Lok Sabha for 77% of the scheduled time, while in Rajya Sabha it has functioned for 47%.  A lower rate of functioning reflects time lost due to disruptions which reduces the number of questions that may be answered orally.  While Parliament may sit for extra hours to transact other business, time lost during Question Hour is not made up.  Consequently, this time lost indicates a lost opportunity to hold the government accountable for its actions.

Further, there is no mechanism currently for answering questions which require inter-ministerial expertise or relate to broader government policy.  Since the Prime Minister does not answer questions other than the ones pertaining to his ministries, such questions may either not get adequately addressed or remain unanswered.  In countries such as the UK, the Prime Minister’s Question Time is conducted on a weekly basis.  During the 30 minutes the Prime Minister answers questions posed by various MPs.  These questions relate to broader government policies, engagements, and issues affecting the country.[4]

How is public opinion reflected in Parliament?

MPs may raise issues of public importance in Parliament, and examine the government’s response to problems being faced by citizens through: (i) a debate, which entails a reply by the concerned minister, or (ii) a motion which entails a vote.  The time allocated for discussing some of these debates or Bills is determined by the Business Advisory Committee of the House, consisting of members from both the ruling and opposition parties.

Using these methods, MPs may discuss important matters, policies, and topical issues.  The concerned minister while replying to the debate may make assurances to the House regarding steps that will be taken to address the situation.  As of August 2017, 50% of the assurances made in the 16th Lok Sabha have been implemented.[5] Motions

Alternatively, MPs may move a motion for: (i) discussing important issues (such as inflation, drought, and corruption), (ii) adjournment of business in a House in order to express displeasure over a government policy, or (iii) expressing no confidence in the government leading to its resignation.  The 16th Lok Sabha has only discussed one adjournment motion so far.

To improve government accountability in Parliament, the opposition in some countries such as the UK, Canada, and Australia forms a shadow cabinet.[6],[7]  Under such a system, opposition MPs track a certain portfolio, scrutinise its performance and suggest alternate programs.  This allows for detailed tracking and scrutiny of ministries, and assists MPs in making constructive suggestions.  Some of these countries also provide for days when the opposition parties decide the agenda for Parliament.

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[1] Sonia Gandhi accuses of Modi govt ‘sabotaging’ Parliament Winter session, Arun Jaitley rejects charge’, The Indian Express, November 20, 2017, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/jaitley-refutes-sonia-gandhis-charge-of-sabotaging-parliament-session-says-congress-too-had-delayed-sitting-4946482/; ‘Congress also rescheduled Parliament sessions: Arun Jaitley hits back at Sonia Gandhi’, The Times of India, November 20, 2017, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/congress-also-rescheduled-parliament-sessions-arun-jaitley-hits-back-at-sonia-gandhi/articleshow/61726787.cms.

[2]  Parliament and State Legislatures, Chapter 5, National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, March 31, 2002, http://lawmin.nic.in/ncrwc/finalreport/v1ch5.htm.

[3] Constituent Assembly Debates, May 18, 1949.

[4]  Prime Minister’s Question Time, Parliament of the United Kingdom, http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/business/questions/.

[5]  Lok Sabha and Session Wise Report of Assurances in Lok Sabha, Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, http://www.mpa.gov.in/mpa/print_summary_lses_ls.aspx.

[6]  Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, Parliament of the United Kingdom, http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/government-and-opposition1/opposition-holding/.

[7]  Current Shadow Ministry List, Parliament of Australia, http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/Parliamentary_Handbook/Shadow.