As parties wrangle, Parliament?s productivity shrinks

The Financial Express, June 05, 2012

On Friday the BJP forced the adjournment of both Houses of Parliament for the fourth consecutive day over ?Coalgate?, amplifying the threat of the remaining period of the monsoon session being washed out and rekindling the debate over increasingly inefficient use of the legislature?s time. This is a trend that has been witnessed particularly since the 13th Lok Sabha and which peaked in the UPA-II regime. While the government has planned the passage of 30 Bills in the current session, it has so far managed to obtain Parliament?s assent for only a tiny fraction of this.

With political parties finding it easier to disrupt legislative business rather than debate and discuss issues ? especially when they are in the Opposition ? the gap between the business planned and executed in Parliament has widened at an accelerated pace over the past decade. Most state assemblies are no exception to this trend, indicating parties of all hues are to blame for undermining the productivity of these democratically elected councils.

Long-pending financial sector Bills ? on insurance and pension ? haven?t even been listed for this session due to political bickering. Among those slated for ?consideration and passing?, key economic Bills that could hang fire due to the current impasse include the Companies Bill and Land Acquisition Bill, both aimed at easing the process of setting up of industries and doing business.

The Companies Bill, which has been in the making for well over a decade now, seeks to replace the 55-year-old Companies Act with a new regime marked by non-intrusive regulation, increased shareholder democracy and enhanced disclosures. The land Bill is expected to ease availability of land for industries, while duly regarding the displaced population with a strong rehabilitation and resettlement process. The latest version of the Bill allows the government to acquire land even for projects involving private money to serve ?public interest?.

Another Bill the government was hoping to push in the current session but could be a casualty of the House paralysis is the Forward Contracts Regulation (Amendment) or FCRA Bill. This is meant to facilitate freer entry of financial institutions into the futures market, diversify the products basket and strengthen the sector regulator. Although Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee has unflinchingly opposed the FCRA Bill, the government has repeatedly taken it to the Cabinet over the last few weeks, showing its keenness to reform and grow the commodities market, which is still grossly underdeveloped in India.

Thanks to the impasse, the passing of the Banking Law Amendment Bill seeking to raise the cap on shareholders? voting rights in private banks to 26% from 10% now could also get delayed further.

What is at stake is not simply the parliamentary output but also the quality of it, which is reflected in the shrinking of time spent for debate over Bills. The last several sessions have witnessed legislative business being conducted haphazardly towards the end of the session and more than half of the session?s total legislative business being carried out in the last quarter.

The winter session in 2010, marked by the uproar over the damning CAG report over the 2G spectrum allocation, is by far the most disrupted one in Parliament history, with just eight actual sittings (5%) of the Lok Sabha out of 144 planned and three sittings (2%) of the Rajya Sabha out of 120 planned (PRS Legislative Research data). The other sessions during UPA-II (since the budget session of 2009) have also been unremarkable for their productivity.

The slippage leads to a mounting backlog of pending business, forcing the government of the day to skip or curtail debates, with the Opposition often willing to oblige. For example, if the number of Bills pending in Parliament was 96 before the 2012 budget session, it rose to 101 after the session.

Agreed, it is also incumbent upon the Opposition to expose the lapses and wrongdoings of the government and all parliamentary protests cannot be termed as unproductive. But prolonged disruption of parliamentary time and the unwillingness to debate are clearly untenable.

As one of the accompanying tables sourced from PRS Legislative Research shows, since the 13th Lok Sabha (1999-2004), when the BJP-led NDA was in power and the Congress was in the Opposition, the actual sitting hours of the house have turned to be less than the hours proposed. And the decline has been progressive. Clearly, political parties have come to terms with the practice of wasting Parliament?s time.

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