An opportunity to show maturity as a democracy

The Hindu, September 22, 2011

The Standing Committee scrutinising the Lokpal Bill should open the proceedings to the public.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee tasked with scrutinising the Lokpal Bill is scheduled to restart its deliberations on Friday. The meeting assumes importance since it will be the first time that the panel, reconstituted this month, is assembling after Parliament adopted a Sense of the House resolution on Lokpal and made a reference to it.

The resolution adopted on August 27, towards the end of the monsoon session, reads: ?This House agrees in principle on the following issues: (a) Citizens Charter, (b) Lower bureaucracy also to be under Lokpal through appropriate mechanism, (c) Establishment of a Lokayukta in the States; and further resolves to transmit the proceedings to the Department-related Standing Committee for its perusal while formulating its recommendations for a Lokpal Bill.?

When the Committee resumes its sittings on the Bill, it has the unique opportunity to test the waters on an idea which has been pending for a long time ? that of throwing open the proceedings of the Committee to the public, or doing so indirectly through the media.

It is a common practice in many western democracies to permit members of the public to watch the proceedings of Committees. The U.S. Congress hearings are open to the public as a matter of routine.

In another instance, recent hearings by British lawmakers on the unethical practice of phone hacking by the now-defunct News of the World tabloid were keenly followed by people not only in the United Kingdom but also in other countries.

The Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU), an international body of 159 Parliaments of which India is a member, refers to the issue in its 2006 publication on good practices and mentions how many Parliaments open Committee work to the public and the media.

The issue of allowing media access to meetings of Standing Committees cropped up during the 14th Lok Sabha and the then Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee, discussed the subject with leaders of prominent political parties; but it fell through.

Interestingly, even political parties in the Opposition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party felt that opening up proceedings would rob the Committees of non-partisanship.

The apprehension was that once the media or the public is allowed inside the Committee rooms, the deliberations would be on party lines, thereby becoming extensions of party positions taken in Parliament.

In its publication ?Parliament and Democracy in the 21st Century: A Guide to Good Practice?, the IPU notes: ?Reservations made by parliamentarians to doing so [opening committee proceedings] on the fear that proceedings may become more partisan if they are public, that witnesses may be less forthright in their evidence, or that members may exploit the occasion for ?grandstanding’. However, if the media are to give a more rounded picture of the work of members, then opening up committee proceedings where much of the work is carried on is a logical step, and one which is becoming more general, subject to obvious limitations on grounds of personal or national security.?

Similarly, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Study Group along with the World Bank Institute presented a report on ?Parliament and Media ? Building an Informed Society? by Nicolas Bouchet and Nixon K. Kariithi in 2003. This also suggested that the public should be given access to Committee meetings except in cases determined in public that it is necessary to hold parts of a Committee’s proceedings in private. The Group also noted the practice in South Africa and commended this to other Parliaments.

The oft-repeated argument that various Parliamentary Standing Committees are able to accomplish a lot and produce unanimous reports because members are aware that the proceedings will not be made public, should not be applied in the present case for three reasons:

First, a majority of the Members of Parliament across the political spectrum have come out openly in support of a strong Lokpal as have many political parties, so the lines are well drawn. For instance, many young MPs endorsed the fight against corruption even though some of them questioned Team Anna’s tactics, such as the gherao of MPs and the questioning of parliamentary procedures.

The debate in both the Houses leading to the resolution gave a message that was loud and clear. It said that MPs favoured measures to check graft, with special emphasis on reining in corrupt activities which affect the aam aadmi the most.

Second, the entire debate on setting up a strong and robust Lokpal is based on the touchstone of transparency and probity in public life. Keeping the deliberations of the Committee from the public would, in effect, negate these principles.

Since the Committee has already invited comments/suggestions from the people and could re-engage with Anna Hazare and his team members who drafted the Jan Lokpal Bill, it would be fair to do so in an open forum.

This would also help in avoiding any misgivings on the run-up to the Committee’s work before it reports back to Parliament.

As for the question of violation of parliamentary practice, it can be sorted out by the Committee seeking special permission.

Third, the move would address the lingering doubt over the maturity of Indian democracy. The Anna Hazare campaign evoked tremendous public support and kindled interest in parliamentary procedures. This step would also bring people closer to the work done by the institution.

As an experimental measure, the Committee could consider opening the proceedings to the public at least when it invites people to appear before it to offer suggestions on the Bill

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