Business Line, October
A democracy derives
its legitimacy by functioning through its elected institutions.
Parliament plays a central role in our democracy by performing
several important functions. The Prime Minister (and the
cabinet) require the majority support in the directly-elected
lower house, Lok Sabha, at all times. Both Lok Sabha and the
Rajya Sabha scrutinise the work of the Government through
several procedures. Both have a role in making laws as well as
the the power to amend the Constitution. However, only Lok Sabha
needs to approve any expenditure of the Government or a tax
The Houses typically meet for about 70 days a year to conduct
their business. Beyond the visible work in the two Houses, a
substantial part of the work is carried out by committees.
Parliament has recently reconstituted the departmentally related
standing committees (DRSCs), which perform three important
functions: examine Bills referred to them; select specific
topics related to the ministries and examine implementation by
the Government; and examine the budgetary outlays of the
Their performance affects the overall effectiveness of
Parliament as an institution that makes laws, holds the
Government accountable, and gives sanction for public spending.
These committees fulfil several objectives. First, they help
Parliament manage its business better. It is easier to examine a
topic in depth by a committee of 30 than by an assembly of 700.
Second, they enable input from experts and those who may be
directly affected by a policy or legislation. For example, the
DRSCs often invite comments from the public and call people to
Third, being outside direct public glare allows members to
discuss issues and reach consensus without worrying about
constituency pressures. A related fourth advantage in the Indian
context is that the anti-defection law does not apply to
committees — therefore, decisions are not usually made on party
Finally, these committees allow members to focus on some
specific areas and build their expertise, which helps them
scrutinise issues more thoroughly.
How effective are these committees? The DRSCs were formed in
1993; prior to that, there was no systematic process to examine
Bills, and select committees were formed from time to time for
some important Bills. Other issues and budgetary demands were
not examined in committees. Each DRSC focusses on a set of
ministries and, therefore, helps its members build sector
knowledge. Currently, there are 24 DRSCs such as the Committee
on Finance or the Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture.
Each has 21 members from Lok Sabha and ten from Rajya Sabha.
Bills and more
The DRSC usually invites experts while scrutinising Bills.
However, this is not always the case, even for Bills with wide
ramifications. For example, the DRSC that examined the Right to
Education Bill, 2008 did not invite any expert witness; this
Bill guarantees free education to all children ages six to 14.
Second, all Bills are not referred to committees. Whereas during
the period of the last two parliaments, 60 percent and 71
percent of all Bills were referred to committees, just 27
percent of Bills introduced in the current Parliament have been
Though rules mention that the Speaker of Lok Sabha or Chairman
of Rajya Sabha refers the Bill, this is usually done on the
recommendation of the relevant minister. The composition of
Rajya Sabha has helped improve scrutiny in some cases. The
current government is in a minority in that House, and Rajya
Sabha has, in a number of instances, formed a select committee
to examine a Bill that has been passed by Lok Sabha. Even a Bill
as important as the Constitution Amendment to enable the GST was
passed by Lok Sabha without reference to the DRSC; Rajya Sabha
formed a Select Committee and several of its recommendations
were incorporated into the Bill that was passed.
Third, the recommendation of committees are not binding. It is
for the Government or any other member to move the relevant
amendments, which may then be voted upon by the House. The idea
is, committees are a small part of Parliament which make
recommendations, and the full House has the authority and
responsibility to make the final decision.
It may be relevant to highlight a new trend. Several Bills
piloted by the Finance Ministry have been referred to
specially-formed joint committees of the two Houses rather than
the DRSCs. Though one does not know the actual reason for this,
one cannot but fail to notice that the DRSC is chaired by a
member from the Congress while the joint committees were chaired
by a BJP member.
As explained earlier, the DRSCs also examine other subjects and
demand for grants. The Government reports back on the
recommendations and the committees publish an action taken
report. In the five-year period of the last Parliament, the
Government accepted 54 per cent of the recommendations, the DRSC
was satisfied by its response in 13 percent cases; it rejected
21 per cent of the responses, and did not get responses for 12
per cent of the recommendations.
One major weakness of these committees is the lack of standing
research support. They are backed by the general support staff
of Parliament and do not have a dedicated set of researchers
associated with them. While they can (and often do) reach out to
outside experts, there is no internal expertise that can finesse
such opinion. A related issue is the high churn in parliamentary
membership. In each of the last three Lok Sabhas, over 50 per
cent of the members elected were first time MPs. As several of
the experienced members become ministers, only a small pool of
MPs gain subject knowledge by being in a committee for long.
A final issue relates to the transparency of the work of
committees. All committees meet behind closed doors and only the
final report is published, with summary minutes. There have been
arguments that the meetings should be televised or at least the
full transcripts be published. The counter-argument is
committees work as discussion forums and often reach consensus,
as there is no pressure on members to posture for their support
This would be lost if detailed proceedings were made public. A
middle path would be to publish the submissions and evidence
given by various experts and members of the public so that any
advocacy is made more transparent while keeping the members free
from constituency pressures.
In sum, The DRSC system has been a fairly successful experiment.
It is important to further strengthen its ability for detailed
scrutiny of issues so that it helps parliament work better in
its lawmaking and accountability roles. These would include
mandatory examination of all Bills, creating research teams, and
improving the transparency of input from advocacy groups.
Many MPs call these committees “mini-parliaments” and
strengthening their working will improve Parliament’s overall
The writer is the president & co-founder of PRS Legislative
Research, Delhi, and a CASI Fall 2017 Visiting Scholar. This
article is by special arrangement with the Center for the
Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania
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