The Importance of Parliamentary Committees

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Last week, the Departmentally Related Standing Committees were reconstituted for the first year of the 17th Lok Sabha.  In this context, we discuss the functioning and role of Standing Committees.

The visible part of Parliament’s work takes place on the floor of the House.  Parliament meets for three sessions a year i.e., the Budget, Monsoon, and Winter Sessions.  This part of Parliament’s work is televised and closely watched.  However, Parliament has another forum through which a considerable amount of its work gets done.  These are known as Parliamentary Committees.  These Committees are smaller units of MPs from both Houses, across political parties and they function throughout the year.  These smaller groups of MPs study and deliberate on a range of subject matters, Bills, and budgets of all the ministries.

During the recently concluded first Session of the 17th Lok Sabha, Parliament sat for 37 days.  In the last 10 years, Parliament met for 67 days per year, on average.  This is a short of amount of time for MPs to be able to get into the depth of matters being discussed in the House.  Since Committees meet throughout the year, they help make up for this lack of time available on the floor of the House. 

Parliament deliberates on matters that are complex, and therefore needs technical expertise to understand such matters better.  Committees help with this by providing a forum where Members can engage with domain experts and government officials during the course of their study.  For example, the Committee on Health and Family Welfare studied the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016 which prohibits commercial surrogacy, but allows altruistic surrogacy.  As MPs come from varying backgrounds, they may not have had the expertise to understand the details around surrogacy such as fertility issues, abortion, and regulation of surrogacy clinics, among others.  The Committee called upon a range of stakeholders including the National Commission for Women, doctors, and government officials to better their understanding of the issues, before finalising their report. 

Committees also provide a forum for building consensus across political parties.  The proceedings of the House during sessions are televised, and MPs are likely to stick to their party positions on most matters.  Committees have closed door meetings, which allows them to freely question and discuss issues and arrive at a consensus. 

After a Committee completes its study, it publishes its report which is laid in Parliament.  These recommendations are not binding, however, they hold a lot of weight.  For example, the Standing Committee on Health made several recommendations to the National Medical Commission Bill in 2017.  Many of these were incorporated in the recently passed 2019 Bill, including removing the provision for allowing a bridge course for AYUSH practitioners. 

There are 24 such Departmentally Related Standing Committees (DRSCs), each of which oversees a set of Ministries.  DRSCs were set up first in 1993, to ensure Parliament could keep with the growing complexity of governance.  These are permanent Committees that are reconstituted every year.  They consist of 21 Members from Lok Sabha, and 10 Members from Rajya Sabha, and are headed by a Chairperson.  The DRSCs primarily look at three things: (i) Bills, (ii) budgets, and (iii) subject specific issues for examination.  Other types of Standing Committees include Financial Committees which facilitate Parliament’s scrutiny over government expenditure.  Besides these, Parliament can also form ad hoc Committees for a specific purpose such as addressing administrative issues, examining a Bill, or examining an issue. 

To ensure that a Bill is scrutinised properly before it is passed, our law making procedure has a provision for Bills to be referred to a DRSC for detailed examination.  Any Bill introduced in Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha can be referred to a DRSC by either the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or Chairman of the Rajya Sabha.  Over the years, the Committees have immensely contributed to strengthen the laws passed by Parliament.  For example, the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, overhauling the 1986 law, was recently passed during the Budget Session.  An earlier version of the Bill had been examined by the Committee on Food and Consumer Affairs, which suggested several amendments such as increasing penalties for misleading advertisements, making certain definitions clearer.   The government accepted most of these recommendations and incorporated them in the 2019 Act.

Besides Bills, the DRSCs also examine the budget.  The detailed estimates of expenditure of all ministries, called Demand for Grants are sent for examination to the DRCSs.  They study the demands to examine the trends in allocations, spending by the ministries, utilisation levels, and the policy priorities of each ministry.  However, only a limited proportion of the budget is usually discussed on the floor of the House.  In the recently dissolved16th Lok Sabha, 17% of the budget was discussed in the House. 

Committees also examine policy issues in their respective Ministries, and make suggestions to the government. The government has to report back on whether these recommendations have been accepted or not.  Based on this, the Committees then table an Action Taken Report, which shows status of the government’s action on each recommendation. 

While Committees have substantially impacted Parliament’s efficacy in discharging its roles, there is still scope for strengthening the Committee system.  In the 16th Lok Sabha, DRSCs examined 41 Bills, 331 Demands for Grants, 197 issues, and published 503 Action Taken Reports. 

However, the rules do not require that all Bills be examined by a Committee.  This leads to some Bills being passed without the advantage of a Committee scrutinising its technical details.  Recently, there has been a declining trend in the percentage of Bills being referred to a Committee.  In the 15th LS, 71% of the Bills introduced were referred to Committees for examination, as compared to 27% in the 16th Lok Sabha.

With the DRSCs now constituted for the first year of the 17th Lok Sabha, they will soon begin their meetings to select the subjects they are going to examine.  Some Committees already have Bills to examine that were referred to them during the 16th Lok Sabha.  Some of these Bills are: (i) the Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2019, (ii) the Allied and Healthcare Professions Bill, 2018, and (iii) the Registration of Marriage of Non- Resident Indian Bill, 2019So far in the 17th Lok Sabha no Bill has been referred to a Committee yet.