A Systemic Overhaul of Our Parliamentary Standing Committees Is Long Overdue

The Wire, September 06, 2016

P.D.T. Achary*

Parliamentary committees perform poorly due to a lack of supervision and executive neglect ? issues that can only be fixed if we acknowledge that there is a problem to
begin with

A parliamentary standing committee is mandated to scrutinise the Budget and examine the bills referred to it by the chair. But the House rules do not say that all bills introduced in the House should be referred to the standing committee as a matter of course. This can?t be done because sometimes bills, mostly amendment bills that seek to alter an existing Act, may need to be passed urgently to handle a specific situation. In such situations, the chair has to respond to a request coming from the government and allow the bill to be passed without being referred to a standing committee. The chair must use his or her independent judgement before accepting such requests. For instance, Somnath Chatterjee, Speaker of the 14th Lok Sabha, refused such requests on a number of occasions and referred the bills to the standing committee. In addition, money bills, such as the Appropriation Bill and Finance Bill, are never referred to a standing committee or any other committee because these need to be passed within a specific time frame. Thus, the discretion about referring a bill to a standing committee justifiably rests with the chair, who makes a decision after considering all relevant factors. Therefore the number of bills that are referred to committees is not a direct indicator of the lack of concern from the chair or government. One must examine the bills that were approved without being referred to the committee to understand the pattern.

The practice of regularly referring bills to committees began in 1989 after government departments started forming their own standing committees. Prior to that, select committees or joint committees of the houses were only set up to scrutinise in detail some very important bills, but this was few and far between. The standing committees also started receiving more bills partly because they had a considerable amount of spare capacity for other work, given that their primary mandate was to scrutinise budget grants. The decision to shift more bills to the committees turned out to be a wise one since each bill that went through a standing committee invariably came out in much better shape.

Reservoirs of information

Standing committees are the parliament?s principal instrument to ensure executive accountability, which is central in a representative democracy. Therefore, the structure of a committee, its mandate, the rules and directions governing it, the conventions it follows, the effectiveness of the overall control of the speaker and the chairman on these committees among factors warrant close examination. Such an examination would necessarily involve studying and analysing a vast amount of data, but would undoubtedly contribute a great deal to our information on parliamentary systems.

British parliamentary history demonstrates that such committees have existed there in some form or another since the 14th century. Perhaps the committee system originated with the ?triers and examiners of petitions? ? they were individual members selected for drawing up legislations to carry into effect citizens? prayers that were expressed through petitions. By the middle of the 16th century, a stable committee system had come into existence. The British parliament can legitimately be proud of the fact that it has a very powerful network of committees to ensure executive accountability.

The Indian parliament?s committee system also has a strong foundation. In fact a close look at its functioning would reveal the fact that the committee system is designed to enlighten MPs on the whole gamut of governmental activity, including defence, external affairs, industry and commerce, agriculture, health and finance. MPs receive information about parliamentary workings as well as perspective on India?s strengths and weaknesses through the detailed studies undertaken by standing committees. Indian parliamentary committees are a huge reservoirs of information, which are made available to MPs in order to enlighten themselves, and contribute ideas to strengthen the parliamentary system and improve governance. The committee system is designed to enhance the capabilities of MPs to shoulder greater responsibilities and broaden their horizons.

Systemic weaknesses

However, there are serious deficiencies in the system too and there is no point in sweeping this under the carpet.

There has been a steady decline in the effectiveness of the committees, caused by two main reasons. First, MPs are unable to pay attention to the committees as their constituencies make a huge demand on their time. They have to social functions in their constituencies such as marriages and funerals, as well as attend inauguration functions and partake in other local political events. If they fail to attend any of these events, they risk losing voters. This fear can make MPs do very innovative things. For instance, many scour the obituary pages in the newspapers every morning and send condolatory messages to the relatives of the departed. After all this, how can MPs find time to read the material sent by a committee secretariat? It is not rare for MPs to enter committee rooms without knowing what subjects are being discussed. Such busy schedules can be very effective in preventing MPs from paying attention to parliamentary work. But this problem needs to be addressed by the MPs themselves and perhaps by their political parties as well.

The second reason is that the committee chair?s supervisory role has not proved to be effective. All the committees are under the overall control of presiding officers. So far no mechanism for a regular assessment of the performance of the committee has been put in place. The need to regularly monitor the committees cannot be overstressed. It is widely acknowledged that the performance of parliamentary committees has deteriorated. But no serious thought has been given to the root cause of such deterioration. If the chairman of the Rajya Sabha and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha meet the chairmen of committees at least once in two months to discuss issues related to the committees, there will be a significant improvement in their functioning. But for this to happen, first they need to acknowledge the existence of problems. At present we can detect a certain amount of smugness all around. Institutional improvement is not being factored into the programme when considering the framework parliamentary systems. Maybe too much of strategising by the principal stakeholders in parliament in attempts to outwit each other has left them with no time to think about non-political issues like institutional revamps. Periodic experiments and reviews will bring about changes. No such attempts have been made in the Indian parliament in the past 64 years except to increase the total strength of the Houses and boost the security system. A systemic overhaul of the parliamentary committees is long overdue.

* Former Secretary General of the Lok Sabha.

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