Should Hear Them
Indian Express, January 13, 2017
parliamentary panels open their doors when witnesses testify.
The governor of the
Reserve Bank of India will be testifying before two
parliamentary committees in the coming weeks. He will be
briefing the committee on finance on the impact of
demonetisation and giving evidence to the public accounts
committee on the monetary policy of the country. It is not
unusual for the RBI governor to appear before a parliamentary
panel. In June 2016, Raghuram Rajan had briefed the finance
committee on the state of the economy, the role of RBI and the
banking sector in the country.
In fact, the RBI has initiated a six-monthly interaction with
the finance committee where the governor reports on the
activities of the central bank, and the committee offer its
views and concerns. Lack of debate on the issue of
demonetisation in the winter session of Parliament has fuelled
tremendous interest in the governor’s testimony. This newspaper
has published 10 questions posed to the governor by the public
accounts committee (IE, January 9).
The public accounts committee of Parliament has been in
existence since 1921 and the departmentally related committees
(like finance, defence, etc.), as we know them today, were given
final shape in the early nineties. Members of Parliament from
both houses are part of these committees. They scrutinise
legislative proposals initiated by a ministry, its demands for
grants, annual reports, and long-term policy documents presented
to Parliament. These committees do the heavy lifting of
parliamentary oversight of government functioning. To do their
work, they are empowered to call witnesses to give evidence and
produce documents required by the committee.
These committees have contributed immensely to the policy debate
in Parliament. However, their work has always been behind closed
doors. They meet in private; their meetings open only to members
of the committee, Parliament staff and anyone invited to testify
before the committee. The deliberations of the committee are
confidential, and evidence tendered before it is usually kept
secret and made public only after the committee presents its
report. It makes sense to hold the committee’s deliberations
closed door. It promotes the free exchange of ideas between
participating MPs. The absence of cameras live telecasting its
proceedings discourages political grandstanding.
This is possibly the reason that at the time of framing of
general rules governing the proceedings of committees, there
were divergent views amongst MPs about the press being allowed
to witness the sittings of committees.
However, this logic does not apply for keeping the testimony of
individuals before committees’ secret. For example, in the US,
statements made before committees of Congress are open to the
public and are also telecast live. The chairman of the Federal
Reserve, Janet Yellen, routinely testifies before committees of
the House of Representatives. It is televised and archived for
easy viewing. In addition, the prepared statements made by
individuals testifying before the committee are uploaded on the
website of the committee. In the United Kingdom, the House of
Commons publishes a calendar of select committee meetings which
are open to the public. This week, the oral evidence of Mark
Carney, governor of the Bank of England on last year’s financial
stability reports was open to the public. Also open were
multiple select committee meetings examining the impact of
Brexit on the country.
There have been a few examples of the opening up of legislative
committees in our country. Last year, a committee of the Delhi
Vidhan Sabha looking at irregularities in sports administration
bodies of cricket and hockey allowed the press to view its
proceedings. In 2008, the Goa Vidhan Sabha had also opened up
its committee meetings to both the public and press. In the 13th
Lok Sabha, given the widespread public interest, the chairman of
the joint committee examining the Stock Market Scam briefed the
press at the end of each committee meeting.
It might be an opportune time for our parliamentary committees
to open their doors when witnesses are testifying before them.
It can be done in multiple ways. The easiest will be to permit
Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha television to telecast the testimony
of witnesses. Allowing the press to observe the evidence can be
used to supplement it. Publication of the transcript of
testimony is another low-hanging fruit when it comes to opening
the committees. The final step can be allowing the general
public to view evidence proceedings of committees. The rules of
parliament provide some avenues for opening committee meetings.
For example, rule 269 of the rules of procedure of the Lok Sabha
gives the chairman of a committee the discretion to allow
evidence presented before it to either be treated as
confidential or made public. It takes a minimum of three months
to finalise the report of a parliamentary committee. The current
rules can be amended to enable uploading of the evidence given
before the committees before the final report is published.
These changes will have to be tempered to assure individuals
that they can testify freely before committees.
The changes to the working of parliamentary committees are
essential steps for securing openness and transparency. They
also have the added advantage of strengthening Parliament’s
This news can also be viewed at: