Transparency of Committees: International Comparison

In the aftermath of the 2G scam, there has been a great deal of discussion on how Parliamentary Committees can be used for scrutinising the functioning of the government.  Committee Reports are generally put in the public domain, but how transparent are the internal workings of the Committees themselves? As one measure of transparency, minutes of Parliamentary Committee meetings are included in Committee reports. The meetings themselves, however, are held behind closed doors. A number of other democracies allow in-person public viewing of some (if not all) Committee meetings.  Several of these offer live webcasts of meetings as well. See options in Canada, New Zealand, Scotland, and the United Kingdom.

Mandate of Committee examining issue of 2G-licenses and allocation of spectrum

A Committee has been set up to examine appropriateness of procedures followed by the Department of Telecommunications in issuance of licences and allocation of spectrum during the period 2001-2009.  The Committee will be chaired by retired Judge of the Supreme Court, Justice (Retd.) Shri Shivraj V. Patil.  According to news reports the Committee is scheduled to submit its report by the first week of January 2011.  The Terms of Reference (TOR) of the Committee have been listed as: 1. To study the circumstances and developments in the Telecom sector that led to the formulation of the New Telecom Policy 1999 and subsequently, introduction of 4th Cellular Telecom Mobile Service (CMTS) licence in 2001. 2. To examine the internal (intra-departmental) procedures adopted by DoT during the period 2001-2009 for: a. Issue of telecom access service licences, and b. Allocation of spectrum to all telecom access services licencees during the above period. 3. To examine whether these procedures were in accordance with existing policies and directions of DoT/Government. 4. To examine whether these procedures were followed consistently and if not, identify specific instances of: a. Deviation from laid down procedures; b. Inappropriate application of laid down procedures; c. Violation of underlying principles of laid down procedures. 5. To examine whether the procedures adopted were fair and transparent and were in keeping with the principles of natural justice and if not, identify the specific instances of lack of fairness and transparency. 6. To identify the deficiencies, if any, in the procedures as formulated and identify the public officials responsible for such deficiencies. 7. To identify the shortcomings and lapses, if any, in the implementation of the laid down procedures and identify the public officials responsible for such lapses. 8. To suggest remedial measures to avoid in future: a. Deficiencies in formulation of procedures; and b. Lapses in implementation of laid-down procedures.

From the states: Data on functioning of state legislatures

Apropos Madhukar’s post on available information on the functioning of state legislatures, data on the number of days State Assemblies shows a mixed trend over the 2000 to 2010 period. However, most states uniformly under perform when it comes to number of days of sitting. (Spreadsheet with relevant data here) As with Parliament, state assemblies are convened at the will of the executive. In comparison to the Lok Sabha, the state assemblies perform miserably. In any given year, most state assemblies do not sit for even half the number of the days clocked by the Lok Sabha.

How many reports has PAC tabled since 1952?

Around 1400 reports have been tabled by the PAC since the first Lok Sabha till end of 14th Lok Sabha.

In terms of absolute numbers, the largest number of reports were tabled during the 5th Lok Sabha (1971-77).  However, in terms of the average number of reports presented in the duration of a single Lok Sabha, the 6th Lok Sabha is the highest. The fewest number of PAC reports were tabled during the 1st Lok Sabha (25 reports over all and 5 reports on an average per year).

The India Leadership Workshop: An initiative by PRS Legislative Research and Indian School of Business

Parliament passes an average of 60 Bills a year.  Each state legislature also passes a similar volume of legislation addressing an array of complex issues.  Bills cover subjects ranging from microfinance, land acquisition, and honour killings to the impact of pesticides on health.  Legislative matters have become increasingly more technical and require specialist inputs to be framed as effective public policy. Unlike other large democracies, legislators in India do not have access to institutional research support.  Access to formal information channels is normally available only to the Minister drafting the bill or to the select committee if the bill is referred to it. This deprives MLAs from participating in a more informed debate. Towards this end, PRS and the Indian School of Business (ISB) have initiated the first policy workshop of its kind for MLAs in India.  There is an emerging breed of proactive MLAs who are willing to seek out information to help them perform their role better. There are over 4000 MLAs in India, and a small group of MLAs in many states are showing this initiative.  They use the internet, consult specialists, and use resources like PRS to get updated or further information on issues affecting their state. About the Workshop The India Leadership workshop is for MLAs who want to be more effective legislators and assume positions of greater influence in state and national policymaking. This unique workshop is for rising stars who want to imbibe new approaches to policymaking and build professional networks with MLAs from different states.  The programme is led by distinguished faculty from internally reputed institutions including Harvard, IITs and IIMs. The three day workshop for progressive MLAs will be held at the campus of ISB in Hyderabad. Four such sessions will be held during the year, with the maiden edition being launched in January 2011.  Over the last five years, PRS has worked with MPs across all political parties to brief them on relevant issues for their work in Parliament.  MPs have recommended that MLAs also would benefit from similar research services. Ajit Rangnekar, Dean, Indian School of Business (ISB) says, “The ISB is committed to working with the Industry and the Government to help achieve national goals. We already have had a long track of engaging with public sector enterprises, and more recently with various government departments, in both executive education and research. We are now delighted to partner with the PRS Legislative Research to develop this programme targeted at capacity building among Indian Legislators. We believe that this ongoing interaction between the government and academia will strengthen our collective understanding of national priorities and spur collaboration for greater impact.”

What information do we have on the functioning of state legislatures?

Most legislative assemblies make Parliament look like a paragon of virtue A COUPLE of days ago, an MLA from Orissa made news for climbing on to the speaker's table in the assembly. Not so long ago, television screens beamed images of Karnataka MLAs snacking and sleeping all night in the assembly. But these are only indicative of the incidents of the raucous behaviour of several MLAs in the recent past across the country. And the poor behaviour of some MLAs is only one aspect of the pitiable state of several of our state legislatures. The other aspect of our state legislatures that goes largely unnoticed is how poorly the secretariats of legislatures are equipped and how several systems that are seen as essential in Parliament are nonexistent in states. Even to know the complete picture of how our legislatures function, you need data. And several state assemblies are notoriously poor at putting out data on the functioning of the institution or the MLAs. After one gets used to the quality of Parliament websites and the regularity of their updates, it would be shocking to see that there are some state legislatures that do not even have functional websites. It has been observed that some state legislatures are lagging behind by a couple of years in compiling the "resume of work" which summarises the work done in a session of the legislature. So the first bottleneck in several instances is the inability to access data of the assembly. From the data we have managed to access, it is obvious that state assemblies meet for very few days a year. A case in point is the Punjab assembly which has met for an average of 19 days per year for a 10-year period between 1997 and 2007. Delhi was only marginally better averaging 21 days per year during the same period. Kerala has averaged some 50 days a year for several years now. Some states like Karnataka have legislated that they should meet for at least 60 days a year, but since passing that legislation in 2005, they have not managed to do so for even one year. I am not even accounting for the time lost due to disruptions. Bills are passed with little or no discussion in many state legislatures. While in Parliament, referring bills to the standing committees is the norm, most state legislatures do not have standing committees. The only examination of a bill, if any, happens on the floor of the House. And if data from the Delhi assembly is anything to go by, the average debate on a bill before is passed is a little over half hour. There are any number of instances where bills are introduced and passed in state assemblies on the same day -so there is not even a pretence of the need for MLAs to read, understand and deliberate on the provisions of legislation they are supposedly passing. MLAs are often far more narrowly constituency-focused than MPs are. On average, MLAs have lower education levels than members of Parliament. There is no formal definition of a role of an MLA, and they mostly have no exposure to ideas such as the separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. In one particularly revealing conversation with an MLA, he said, "At the time of elections, each of the contestants represents his party. But after the elections, the chiefministerbecomestheleader of all MLAs in the House. If an MLAneedssomeadditionalprojects/ favours for his constituency he needs to be in the good books of the chief minister and his cabinet ministers. So where is the question of taking on the chief minister on the floor of the House on any issue?" There are many aspects of state legislatures that point to a steady and visible decline of these important institutions. But beyond the frequent highlighting of theatrics by some MLAs, there is almost no public discourse on this issue. It is necessary to ensure that the legislatures run smoothly, and the speaker, as first among equals, has the biggest responsibility to ensure this. If there are rules and everyone knows that those rules will never be used to enforce discipline, then the rules will be broken, and repeatedly so. This practice needs to be urgently reviewed. The larger question is whether our legislatures are the highest deliberating and policymaking bodies or whether they are being reduced to platforms for political theatrics. Policy can almost never be devoid of politics and public posturing. But if this means poor deliberation of critical policy issues and the woefully inadequate functioning of our legislatures, then we may need to come up with creative ways in which this problem can be addressed. This article appeared in the Indian Express on December 20, 2010.

Parliament's scrutiny over government finances

The recent 2G-controversy and the related debate over the role of the PAC as opposed to the JPC also raises a broader Issue regarding the general scrutiny of government finances by Parliament.  Oversight of the government’s finances involves the scrutiny of the government’s financial proposals and policies.  The Indian Constitution vests this power with the Parliament by providing that (a) taxes cannot be imposed or collected without the authority of law, and (b) expenditure cannot be incurred without the authorisation of the legislature. The Indian Parliament exercises financial oversight over the government budget in two stages: (1) at the time of presentation of the annual budget, and (2) reviewing the government’s budget implementation efforts through the year. The Parliament scrutinises the annual budget (a) on the floor of the House, and (b) by the departmentally related standing committees. Scrutiny on the floor of the House The main scrutiny of the budget in the Lok Sabha takes place through: (a) General discussion and voting: The general discussion on the Budget is held on a day subsequent to the presentation of the Budget by the Finance Minister.  Discussion at this stage is confined to the general examination of the Budget and policies of taxation expressed during the budget speech. (b) Discussion on Demand for Grants: The general discussion is followed by a discussion on the Demand for Grants of different ministries. A certain number of days or hours are allocated for the discussion of all the demands. However, not all the demands are discussed within the allotted number of days. The remaining undiscussed demands are disposed of by the Speaker after the agreement of the House.  This process is known as the ‘Guillotine’.  Figure 1 shows the number of Demands discussed and guillotined over the last five years.  It shows that nearly 90% of the Demands are not discussed every year. Some Important Budget Documents Annual Financial Statement – Statement of the estimated receipts and expenditure of the government. Demand for Grants –Expenditure required to be voted by the Lok Sabha.  A separate Demand is required to be presented for each department of the government. Supplementary Demand for Grants – Presented when (a) authorized amounts are insufficient, or (b) need for additional expenditure has arisen. Finance Bill – Details the imposition of taxes, the rates of taxation, and its regulation. Detailed Demand for Grants – Prepared on the basis of the Demand for Grants.  These show further break-up of objects by expenditure, and also actual expenditure in the previous year. For more details see detailed note on Financial Oversight by Parliament here.

Assets and Liabilities of MPs after election

It is common knowledge that individuals contesting elections have to file an affidavit, declaring (i) their criminal records (if any), (ii) assets & liabilities and (iii) educational qualification.  What is not widely known is that after getting elected, Members of Parliament are required to file a declaration of assets and liabilities with the Speaker of Lok Sabha and the Chairman of Rajya Sabha.   The rules to this effect were made in 2004 under the Representation of Peoples Act , 1951. These declarations have to be made by MPs within 90 days of taking their seat in Parliament.  Rules for Lok Sabha MPs an be found hereand those for Rajya Sabha MPs can be found here. The Rajya Sabha rules specify that the declarations made by MPs shall be made availaible to any person with the written permission of the Chairman.  The rules also specify that Rajya Sabha MPs are required to update their declarations every year. The Lok Sabha rules specify that the declarations made by the Lok Sabha MPs shall be treated as confidential and shall not be made available to any person without the written permission of the Speaker.  The rules also do not contain an express provision for the declaration made by the MPs to be updated in case there is a change in the status of their assets and liabilities. Such rules under the Representation of Peoples Act currently do not exist for MLAs in States.

Issues related to Paid News: Send in your comments

The Departmentally Related Standing Committee on Information Technology has invited comments on the subject of "Isssues related to Paid News". Comments/Suggestions/Opinion/Views to be sent to: Additional Director (IT) Lok Sabha Secretariat, Room No. 156, Parliament House Annexe, New Delhi 110 001 Comments can also be sent by fax or e mail: Fax: 011 -2301 0756 | E mail: comit at sansad dot nic dot in Last date for sending in comments is: January 1, 2011

Pre-legislative scrutiny: How can citizens be more actively involved?

In recent public discourse over lobbying, two issues that have underscored the debate are:

  1. Greater transparency in the policymaking process, and
  2. Equality of access for all stakeholders in engaging with the process.

There is a need to build linkages between citizens and the policy making process, especially by strengthening scrutiny before a Bill is introduced in Parliament. Currently, there is no process established to ensure pre-legislative scrutiny by the citizenry. Other democracies incorporate several measures to enhance public engagement in the pre-legislative process. These include:

  • Making all Bills available in the public domain for a stipulated period before introducing them in the legislature. This includes, publishing these Bills in forms (language, medium etc) that are accessible to the general public.
  • Making a report or Green paper on the legislative priorities addressed by the Bill available for citizens.
  • Forming adhoc committees to scrutinise the Bill before it is piloted in the House.
  • Having Standing Committees examine the Bill before introducing it in the House.
  • Providing a financial memorandum for each Bill, which specifies the budgetary allocation for the process/bodies created by the Bill.
  • Creating online fora for discussion. For the sections of the stakeholders who have limited access to the internet, efforts are made to proactively consult them through other media.
  • Expanding the purview of citizens’ right to petition their representatives with legislative proposals.

There are several instances, in the last few years itself, wherein civil society groups have played an active role in the development of pre-legislative scrutiny in India.

  • Public consultation with cross-section of stakeholders when drafting a Bill: The Right to Information Act is seen as a landmark legislation when highlighting the role of civil society actors in the drafting of a Bill.  It also serves as a prime example for how it the movement mobilised widespread public opinion for the Bill, bringing together different sections of the citizenry.
  • Public feedback on draft Bills: In several cases, after a Bill has been drafted the concerned ministry or public body publishes the Bill, inviting public comments. The Right to Education Bill, the National Identification Authority Bill and the Draft Direct Taxes Code Bill 2009 are recent cases in point. These announcements are made through advertisements published in newspapers and other media. For instance, the government has recently proposed to amend the rules of the RTI and has invited public feedback on the rules by December 27.
  • Engaging with legislators: It is important to expand engagement with lawmakers after the Bill has been introduced in Parliament, as they will determine what the law will finally contain.  This is done by approaching individual legislators or members of the committee which is likely to examine the legislation. Standing Committees invite feedback on the Bill through newspaper advertisements.  For instance, the Standing Committee examining the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill heard testimonies from journalists, civil society groups, thinktanks, public bodies and government departments.

The role of the media and channelising the potential of the internet are other key approaches that need to be explored. Other examples and channels of engagement with the legislative process are illustrated in the PRS Primer on Engaging with Policymakers