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Outlawing corruption

In an Indian express editorial, Mandira Kala discusses the Bills, addressing corruption and good governance, pending in Parliament.  She discusses what their fate may be given that the Monsoon session is widely being viewed as a make or break session  for the government to get its legislative agenda through Parliament.

The monsoon session of Parliament started on a stormy note last week. Question hour was disrupted on most days and only one government bill was passed. There are 11 days left in the session and more than 40 bills pending for parliamentary approval. With the 15th Lok Sabha drawing to an end, this session is being viewed as a “make or break” session for the government to get its legislative agenda through Parliament. Since 2010, there has been much debate in Parliament on corruption and an important part of the government’s legislative agenda was the introduction of nine bills in the Lok Sabha to address corruption and improve governance through effective delivery of public services.

Three of these bills have been passed by the Lok Sabha and are currently pending before the Rajya Sabha. These include legislation to address corruption in public office, enforce standards and accountability in the judiciary, and protect whistleblowers. The government has proposed amendments to each of these bills that the Rajya Sabha will have to consider and pass. If the Rajya Sabha passes these bills with amendments, they will be sent back to the Lok Sabha for approval. It is difficult to assess in what timeframe these bills will become law, given that both Houses need to agree on the amendments.

The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill creates a process for receiving and investigating corruption complaints against public officials, including the Prime Minister, Ministers and Members of Parliament, and prosecuting these in a timebound manner. The government amendments include allowing states the flexibility to determine their respective Lokayuktas and giving the Lokpal power of superintendence over the CBI, if the case has been referred by him. A mechanism to protect whistleblowers and create a process for receiving and investigating complaints of corruption or wilful misuse of discretion against a public servant are proposed under the Whistleblowers’ Protection Bill, 2010. The amendments proposed by the government prohibit whistleblowing if the disclosure of information affects the sovereignty of the country and its strategic, scientific and economic interest. The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill requires judges to declare their assets, lays down judicial standards and establishes processes for the removal of judges of the Supreme Court and high courts. The bill is not listed in the government’s legislative agenda for the monsoon session and media reports suggest that the government intends to make amendments to it.

In the arena of strengthening governance and effective delivery of public services, there are three bills currently pending in Parliament. The Citizens’ Charter Bill confers the right to timebound delivery of goods and services on every citizen and creates a mechanism for redressing complaints on such matters. The Electronic Delivery of Services Bill mandates that Central and state governments shall deliver public services electronically no later than eight years from the enactment of the law. The parliamentary standing committee had highlighted that the Citizens’ Charter Bill and Electronic Delivery of Services Bill have an inherent overlap, which the government would have to resolve. While the former is listed for passing in this session, the government plans to withdraw the latter and replace it with a new bill. This new bill is not part of the list that is up for consideration and passing this session.

To create a reliable method of identifying individuals to facilitate their access to benefits and services the National Identification Authority of India Bill was introduced in Parliament to provide unique identification numbers (“aadhaar”) to residents of India. This bill has not been listed for parliamentary approval during this session. Two other pending bills do not find place in the government’s legislative agenda for the session either. These include legislation that curbs the holding and transfer of benami property and regulates the procurement process in government departments to ensure transparency, accountability and probity. The Prevention of Bribery of Foreign Public Officials Bill, which imposes penalties on Indian companies and individuals who bribe officials of a foreign government or international agency, is listed for passing this session.

Each of these nine bills were introduced in the Lok Sabha. If they are not passed by both Houses before the 15th Lok Sabha is dissolved in 2014, no matter where they are in the legislative process, the bills will lapse. This implies that the entire legislative process will have to start all over again, if and when there is political will to legislate on these issues in the 16th Lok Sabha.

The challenges in getting legislation passed by Parliament are many, given that its overall productive time, especially time spent on legislation, is decreasing. Typically, Parliament spends about 25 per cent of its time debating legislation, but in the past few years this average has declined to 15 per cent. While the time lost by the House due to frequent adjournments is difficult to make up, parliamentarians will have to cautious about passing bills without the rigours of parliamentary debate. It is uncertain what the trajectory of the anti-corruption legislation in Parliament will be — enacted as law or resigned to a pool of lapsed legislation.

House of Lost Opportunities

The last few days have seen repeated disruptions in Parliament. In an Opinion Editorial published in the Indian Express, Chakshu Roy of PRS Legislative Research discusses the impact of the current disruptions on Parliament. His analysis points to how disruptions are an opportunity lost  to hold the government accountable and to deliberate on significant legislative and policy issues.

The second half of the budget session commenced last week with hardly any business transacted due to disruptions on different issues. This is not new. The 15th Lok Sabha has seen entire parliamentary sessions lost without any work being done. As it nears the end of its term, Parliament’s productive time stands at 70 per cent, which is significantly lower than that of previous Lok Sabhas.

As disruptions in Parliament have become routine, public reaction to such disruptions has also become predictable. Figures depicting the quantum of taxpayers’ money lost every hour that Parliament does not function start doing the rounds, and the cry for docking the salary of disrupting members of Parliament becomes louder. What does not get adequate attention is the opportunity lost for holding the government accountable and deliberating on important legislative and policy issues.

MPs are required to keep the government in check and oversee its functioning. One of the ways in which they do so is by asking ministers questions about the work done by their ministries. Ministers respond to such questions during the first hour of Parliament, which is known as question hour. During this hour, 20 questions are slotted for oral responses by ministers. Based on the response, MPs can cross-question and corner the minister by asking supplementary questions. On certain occasions, they are also able to extract assurances from the minister to take action on certain issues. When question hour is disrupted, not only are these opportunities lost, it also leads to ineffective scrutiny of the work done by the various ministries of the government. Last week, some of the questions that could not be orally answered related to four-laning of highways, performance of public sector steel companies, supply of food grains for welfare schemes, and generic versions of cancer drugs. In 2012, out of the 146 hours allocated for question hour in both Houses of Parliament, roughly only 57 hours were utilised. Since the beginning of the 15th Lok Sabha in 2009, approximately 43 per cent of the allocated time has been spent on question hour.

When Parliament is disrupted regularly, its capacity to make laws is affected. Excluding routine financial legislation, since 2009, the government had planned to introduce 390 bills. So far, it has been able to introduce only 187 of them. It had also planned to have 365 bills scrutinised and passed by Parliament. So far, 96 of them have received parliamentary approval. Disruptions in Parliament also eat into the time available for discussing a bill in the house. In Lok Sabha, roughly 35 per cent of bills were passed with an hour or less of debate, a case being the sexual harassment bill, which was passed by Lok Sabha in September of last year in 16 minutes. Some would argue that since parliamentary committees scrutinise most bills in detail, there is no harm done if the bills are not debated in the House. However scrutiny of a bill behind closed doors is hardly a substitute for spirited debates on the merits and demerits of a bill on the floor of the House. Currently there are 115 bills awaiting parliamentary scrutiny and approval. Important social and economic legislation is currently pending before Parliament. The food security bill, the land acquisition bill, the companies and the goods and services tax bill are just a few of them.

Out of the laundry list of pending bills, some are political and may be stuck in Parliament till consensus around them can be built. But there are a number of bills that are administrative in nature, and have no political undercurrents and are possibly not coming up for discussion because of the limited time that is available for legislative debate on account of frequent disruptions.

In September 1997, to celebrate the golden jubilee of the country’s Independence, a special session of Parliament was convened. At this special session, MPs had resolved to preserve and enhance the dignity of Parliament by adhering to the rules of procedure of Parliament relating to the orderly conduct of parliamentary proceedings. Last year, Parliament completed 60 years since its first sitting. To mark the occasion, another special session of both Houses was convened, where MPs had resolved to uphold the dignity, sanctity and supremacy of Parliament. Ensuring that the proceedings of both Houses run smoothly so that Parliament can discharge its responsibility effectively is the best way of ensuring its supremacy. The question that needs to be asked is whether our members of Parliament are ready to stand by the resolutions that they voluntarily adopted.