The Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) that was looking into various aspects of allocation and pricing of telecom licenses and spectrum presented its report last month. Usually, the reports of Parliamentary committees are adopted with unanimous support, and occasionally, by a large majority with just a few dissenters. However, this JPC report was adopted by the 30-member committee by a 16-11 vote (3 members were absent). Interestingly, the dissent notes submitted by some members were edited by the Chairman in order to expunge certain “remark/comments/insinuations”. This is the second time that a Parliamentary committee has looked at this issue without arriving at a broad consensus on its findings. Earlier, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) which examined the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) report on 2G spectrum allocation could not reach an agreement on the report, and its report was never tabled in Parliament.
The JPC report (and the earlier PAC’s non-report) raise two broad sets of issues regarding the structure and working of Parliamentary committees. First, what should be the role and functions of Parliamentary committees. Second, whether customs and norms can be evolved to make the committees more effective.
Role of Committees
Parliament has 24 standing committees organised on the lines of ministries and departments. Part of their role is to monitor the policies of the government. If these committees were to perform this role more effectively at the stage when policies are formulated, there would be less scope for misuse at a later stage. For instance, if the standing committee related to the Ministry of Communications had examined the policy of allocating telecom spectrum before the actual allocation took place, the ‘scam’ could have been averted. In that case, the role of the CAG and the PAC would be to examine whether the executive followed the policy formulation which had already been vetted by Parliament. And there would not have been any need for a JPC to pin blame for the ‘scam’.
This brings into light the role of JPCs as investigative bodies. It is arguable whether Parliament and its committees (including the JPC) have the skills and the competence to sift through evidence, cross-examine witnesses, and pin the blame for any misdeeds. Such a task could be done more effectively by the judicial system.
Instead, bodies consisting of elected representative have a key role in balancing competing interests while policy is being formulated. For example, in the case of spectrum allocation, a case can be made (and has been made by some people) that the spectrum should be deliberately priced lower than the market determined level in order to lower costs of telecom services, which in turn, can lead to greater penetration of mobile telecom services, which may be seen as a public interest objective. In effect, the loss of government revenue can be seen as a subsidy for cheaper mobile telephony. Parliament and its committees may examine whether this argument is valid, and balance the twin objectives of cheaper telephone costs and higher government revenue to reach the appropriate level of pricing subsidy.
Many of these issues may have technical complexity. In order for the committees to perform the policy formulation and oversight role, they need high quality research support. For example, if a parliamentary committee has to examine government policies to determine the right amount of under-pricing in order to increase telecom penetration, it would need the support of staff trained in economics. It should also be able to call on outside support from experts in the area. Parliament should invest in creating such support systems for all its standing committees and financial committees.
The fact that the PAC could not submit its report, and the JPC report has a large number of dissent notes indicates that there was lack of broad agreement within these committees on the core issues. This could have significant costs for the credibility and effectiveness of the committees. If a significant minority in any committee does not agree with its findings, the acceptability of the report across the political spectrum (and across the citizenry) is diminished. Committees need to find ways to create internal consensus on the key issues involved in any report.
The JPC report also raises the issue of dealing with dissent notes which may have defamatory material. In this case, the Chairman has expunged certain portions. The reason for such powers is the following. The Constitution permits restrictions to the fundamental right to free speech under certain circumstances. These include restrictions in the interest of public order or morality, or in relation to defamation, contempt of court or incitement to offence. However, every Member of Parliament is protected from any proceedings of any court with respect to anything said in Parliament. In order to prevent this right from being misused by them (say, by making a defamatory statement in Parliament), the Chair has the powers to expunge anything said in Parliament. In the case of the JPC report, we do not know the content of the expunged material, and whether the exercise of the power by the Chairman was judicious. It would be good practice for all MPs to be careful while submitting their remarks and avoid any defamatory material. In this case, in the interest of transparency, the MPs who feel that their dissent notes were unfairly edited, should make their full note public, and be willing to face any legal consequences. Such an action will remove the cloud of uncertainty related to the Chairman’s act of expunging the remarks.
The JPC also stopped short of examining any ministers. The current practice in India is that senior officials appear before Parliamentary committees. Ministers are never examined by the committee. This differs from the practice in countries such as the United Kingdom, where ministers (and even the Prime Minister) appears before Parliamentary Committees. As the head of the political executive in each ministry and the final decision maker, it may be good practice if ministers were to defend their policies and actions to Parliamentary Committees.