Resource Crunch Hits MPs’ Ability to Hold Government Accountable

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News Click, December 30, 2020

Even as Rs 971 crore is being spent on a new Parliament building, the government has ignored the need to allocate funds to improve the functioning of parliamentary democracy. If additional resources are allotted by the government to follow up on every question submitted by MPs, it is possible for ministries to respond to them. The offices of MPs are extremely underfunded and this hampers their ability to retain domain experts in their offices. If they are asked to retain them through their personal funds, very few will be motivated to do so, writes ARVIND ABRAHAM

On December 10, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the ground-breaking ceremony for a new Parliament building, which is likely to cost the exchequer Rs 971 crore. While it can be debated whether public money must be spent to build this structure, especially at a time when the country is facing an economic crisis, it is also important to ask whether sufficient resources are being allotted to improve the functioning of parliamentary democracy in India.

Procedures & Tools

The main premise of parliamentary democracy is that the executive remains accountable to the people through their representatives elected to the legislature.

The substantive content of parliamentary accountability is not just limited to the power of the Lok Sabha to remove the executive through a vote of no-confidence, it also extends to a series of procedures and tools which can be invoked by MPs. These include raising parliamentary questions, seeking responses from ministers through parliamentary interventions, resolutions, amendments to Bills, scrutiny by parliamentary committees and much more.

Parliamentary accountability is not just limited to the power of the Lok Sabha to remove the executive through a vote of no-confidence, it also extends to a series of procedures that can be invoked by MPs. These include raising parliamentary questions and seeking responses from ministers through parliamentary interventions.

However, the exercise of these tools to ensure accountability from the executive is significantly hampered by resource constraints.

MPs are allowed to submit questions on policy matters to the council of ministers. They may submit starred questions, to which ministers need to provide oral replies, and they can also submit un-starred questions, to which ministers must provide written responses.

Since there are 545 MPs in the Lok Sabha, it is not possible for ministers to respond to every question in one sitting. Therefore questions are randomly chosen by ballot and posed to ministers on a rotational basis. Only the first 25 questions which are selected as starred questions are listed for oral responses from ministers, and nearly 250 un-starred questions are listed for written responses during a sitting.

In practice, barely five or six starred questions are given oral responses from ministers during Question Hour due to lack of time, and hundreds that do not make the ballot are ignored.

In the Lok Sabha, since there are 545 MPs, it is not possible for ministers to respond to every question in one sitting. Therefore questions are randomly chosen by ballot. Only the first 25 questions which are selected as starred questions are listed for oral responses, and nearly 250 un-starred questions are listed for written responses.

While a limitation on the number of questions for which a minister must provide oral answers can be justified on logistical grounds, there is no basis to ignore those questions which do not make the ballot when written responses can be provided.

Raising Questions

If additional resources are allotted by the government to follow up on every question submitted by MPs, it is possible for the ministries to respond to them, if not during an ongoing session, then at least during the intersession period. In the absence of this arrangement, it is quite possible that a member of parliament is not allowed to raise a question about a pending project in her constituency or about failure in the implementation of a scheme, merely because her question is not selected through a random lottery process.

The subject of parliamentary scrutiny also calls into question the institutional capacity of MPs to study Bills, rules, notifications, schemes and budgetary proposals.

The offices of MPs are extremely underfunded compared to those of legislators of other democracies such as the US. This hampers their ability to retain domain experts in their offices.

The Chairman of the Rajya Sabha informed the ministers that many MPs are not being provided replies to matters they had raised. A system whereby every grievance raised by MPs through parliamentary interventions is responded to within a timely fashion is necessary to enable them to hold the government accountable. 

If MPs are asked to retain domain experts mainly through their personal funds, then very few will be motivated to do so and only those with deep pockets will have an advantage. Therefore, it is important for Parliament to provide adequate funds to the offices of MPs to improve their institutional capacity to take positions on law and policy.

In order to draw the attention of the ministers to an important policy or legal issue, Lok Sabha MPs can make interventions during Zero Hour or by submitting a statement under Rule 377. In the case of Rajya Sabha MPs, this can be done through special mentions.

As per paragraph 15.2 of the Manual of Parliamentary Procedures, ministers should send written replies to the MPs as expeditiously as possible, preferably within a month. In practice, only a few interventions are allowed to be raised.

Hold the Government Accountable

In fact, on June 24, 2019, the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha informed ministers that many MPs are not being provided replies to matters they had raised. A system whereby every grievance raised by MPs through parliamentary interventions is responded to within a timely fashion is necessary to enable them to hold the government accountable.

This should not only extend to statements of MPs that are raised during Zero Hour, but also to those which are submitted but not selected through the ballot. It is important that those concerns are also addressed by the ministers even if they are not raised in person. In order to ensure such an efficient system, adequate resources need to be allotted.

By providing sufficient resources, Standing Committees can hold virtual meetings if unforeseen circumstances such as a public health emergency arise. Additional funds to these Committees will also enable them to retain legal and policy experts.

When the pandemic broke out, legislatures around the world such as the British Parliament and the US Congress adopted technology to hold virtual hearings. However, despite the pleas of chairpersons of Parliamentary Standing Committees in India, virtual hearings were denied over concerns of confidentiality.

Ironically, the government did not see confidentiality as a concern when virtual meetings were held for cabinet discussions, even though the confidentiality of such meetings is constitutionally mandated.

By providing sufficient resources, Standing Committees can hold virtual meetings if unforeseen circumstances such as a public health emergency arise. Additional funds to these Committees will also enable them to retain legal and policy experts, which will improve the efficacy of the parliamentary bodies in scrutinising the actions of the government.

The cancellation of the Winter Session of Parliament could have been avoided had the government invested in technological facilities to ensure a virtual meeting of Parliament.

Important structural reforms are necessary to improve parliamentary accountability to ensure that the government is not only responsible, but also responsive to Parliament. These reforms cannot be undertaken without sufficient resource allocation, especially in relation to improving the institutional capacity of parliamentarians in scrutinising the actions of the ministries and their legislative and policy proposals.

In the absence of meaningful reforms, building a new Parliament is akin to old wine in a new bottle.

(Arvind Abraham is a legal researcher at Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States. His interests relate to academic research relating to topics concerning comparative constitutional law. The views are personal.)

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