Budgeting For Democracy

Indian Express, February 07, 2017

Parliament needs more funds for research, infrastructure and digital outreach

It is the season of the Union budget. The focus of discussion within and outside Parliament is about allocation, spending, taxation and reform. Missing from the public discourse is a conversation about Parliament’s budget. This year, the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have been allocated Rs 1,052 crore. It is a 3 per cent increase over last year’s estimates and 0.049 per cent of our total budget. A 2012 report of the Inter-Parliamentary Union puts this number in perspective: In 2010, the US Congress had a budget of $5.12 billion, followed by the Parliament of Japan at $1.71 billion and France at $1.17 billion. In the same year, the average budget of 110 parliaments was 0.49 per cent of the country’s budget.

Our Parliament is the focal point of our democracy. It shoulders the responsibility of enacting a robust legal framework and holding the government accountable. The houses of Parliament are also supposed to be at the forefront of thought leadership on policy issues. To do its job effectively, Parliament needs adequate resources. However, there has been almost no focused debate about

Parliament’s financial needs. Public discussion has centred around the salaries and allowances of MPs. And while deriding the free air tickets and housing in Lutyens Delhi makes for entertaining reading, it does not address the gap that exists in Parliament’s intellectual and infrastructure requirements.

The Library and Reference, Research, Documentation and Information Service (LARRDIS) is the research arm of Parliament. Its job is to provide research and reference materials to MPs on legislative and other issues. It has a sanctioned strength of 231 staffers. But as per numbers from August 2016, it discharges its duties with a reduced number of 176. That’s about 8 per cent of the strength of the Lok Sabha secretariat, which has about 2,300 staffers. Increased budgetary support to Parliament can be used to increase LARRDIS’s staff strength, enable professional development of its researchers and allow MPs to employ professional research staff .

This is not a new idea. The Congressional Research Service housed in the Library of the US Congress employs 600 people. According to its website, “more than 400 of these employees are policy analysts, attorneys and information professionals working across a variety of disciplines”. In addition, the Congressional Budget Office employs another 200 professionals. Many other parliaments recognise the importance of providing MPs with non-partisan research. These supplement MPs’ intellectual depth by giving them funds to hire research teams.

Our Parliament is one of a handful which has a wealth of information available on its website. More money will also allow the deploying of digital infrastructure to facilitate and encourage citizens’ engagement with the institution. For example, debates are available in text form. Linking them to recorded video proceedings available with the television channels of both houses will draw in a younger generation.

Somnath Chatterjee, speaker of the 14th Lok Sabha, wrote in his memoirs: “The greatness of Parliament lies not just in its majestic building, but is derived from and sustained by the quality of debates that take place inside it…”. Investing in Parliament will deepen and sharpen its deliberations, resulting in effective governance frameworks. After all, we shouldn’t expect a great Parliament without providing the money for one.

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