Accountability through Parliament

Livemint, April 01, 2014

Parliament has a key role in ensuring that the central government frames proper policies and delivers on them

In the last two parts of this series, we discussed the need for repealing the anti-defection law and possible reforms in the process of lawmaking by Parliament. We now turn to another important role of Parliament: holding the government to account for its policies and actions.

First, let us see what role Parliament has in implementation of government programmes. There are three levels of government and elected representatives. The local government?panchayats and municipalities?is responsible for issues such as roads, garbage collection, street lights, etc. State governments have the exclusive purview over items in the state list such as police. The central government has control over Union list items such as currency and defence. Both central and state governments have jurisdiction on concurrent list subjects such as criminal law.

As citizens, it is important for us to understand this demarcation. We should hold each of our representatives accountable on issues that fall within their respective jurisdictions. Let us take an example of bad roads that need to be repaired. A member of Parliament (MP) has no power to fix potholes; it would be the job of the municipal councillor or the panchayat member. However, we may ask him to push for higher allocation of central funds for roads. In general, we should ask the MP questions on issues that fall within the purview of Parliament, such as coal block and 2G spectrum allocations, education policies, reform of judicial criminal law systems, policies that enable job creation, etc. If MPs feel their electors reward or punish them through electoral results for their work in Parliament, they will focus on policy issues that will lead to better governance and socio-political outcomes.

How does Parliament hold the government to account or bring attention to specific issues? There are two broad forums: the floor of the House and parliamentary committees. Every sitting of Parliament starts with the question hour. An MP may ask questions to ministers on issues related to their ministries. While some questions (unstarred questions) get a written reply, the starred questions are replied orally and allow the MP to ask supplementary questions on the subject. However, in the 15th Lok Sabha, just 648 questions (10% of the listed questions) were orally answered, owing to over 40% of scheduled time being lost to interruptions coupled with the fact that only five or six of the 20 listed questions can be answered in an hour. One can increase the opportunity to ask questions by increasing the time available for questions every day and increasing the number of sitting days.

Also, our Parliament does not have a prime minister?s question hour, where one can raise issues that cut across government departments. It may be useful to institute such a procedure. For example, the British Parliament blocks half an hour every Wednesday for this purpose.

Other than questions, Parliament debates various issues to hold the government accountable for its policies and decisions. For example, we have seen debates on topics such as rising prices of essential goods, permitting foreign direct investment in retail trade, the government?s record in maintaining internal security, etc. Most of these debates are not voted upon. It would be useful to have recorded voting on all such debates as this will allow citizens to track the views of their representatives over time.

MPs also hold the government to account through parliamentary committees. For example, the standing committee on agriculture recently scrutinized the policies related to genetically modified seeds. The effectiveness of these committees can be enhanced through a few steps. These committees do not have expert research staff to help them understand complex topics. This means that they are often unable to dig deep into technical issues and find whether the action taken was the most appropriate one. Recruiting specialist staff and regularly consulting with external experts would improve the level of scrutiny. Further, if these committees were to regularly seek expert and stakeholder inputs, they may be able to appreciate different perspectives on contentious issues. Most important, ministers do not appear before these committees. Only civil servants do.

Thus the accountability for actions taken and policy made cannot be pinned on the political executive. Enabling committees to examine ministers would help build greater accountability of the government for its actions, as ministers have the final say in policy decisions.

A final question is that of transparency of committee meetings. Whereas all proceedings on the floor of the House are telecast live, verbatim proceedings are published and journalists watch from the media gallery, there is a high degree of opacity to the proceedings of committees. These are held in closed rooms without any press coverage and only the minutes of the meetings (not full transcripts) are published. This process allows MPs to discuss issues freely. However, it could be argued that as public representatives, all their representative functions should be visible to the electorate, and that the proceedings should also be reported and telecast.

To summarize, Parliament has a key role in ensuring that the central government frames appropriate policies and delivers on its promises. Improving processes related to the question hour, debates on issues and parliamentary committees would go a long way in ensuring better governance.

M.R. Madhavan is president of PRS Legislative Research.

This is the third of a four-part series.

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