Should Hear Them

Indian Express, January 13, 2017

It’s time parliamentary panels open their doors when witnesses testify.

The governor of the Reserve Bank of India will be testifying before two parliamentary committees in the coming weeks. He will be briefing the committee on finance on the impact of demonetisation and giving evidence to the public accounts committee on the monetary policy of the country. It is not unusual for the RBI governor to appear before a parliamentary panel. In June 2016, Raghuram Rajan had briefed the finance committee on the state of the economy, the role of RBI and the banking sector in the country.

In fact, the RBI has initiated a six-monthly interaction with the finance committee where the governor reports on the activities of the central bank, and the committee offer its views and concerns. Lack of debate on the issue of demonetisation in the winter session of Parliament has fuelled tremendous interest in the governor’s testimony. This newspaper has published 10 questions posed to the governor by the public accounts committee (IE, January 9).

The public accounts committee of Parliament has been in existence since 1921 and the departmentally related committees (like finance, defence, etc.), as we know them today, were given final shape in the early nineties. Members of Parliament from both houses are part of these committees. They scrutinise legislative proposals initiated by a ministry, its demands for grants, annual reports, and long-term policy documents presented to Parliament. These committees do the heavy lifting of parliamentary oversight of government functioning. To do their work, they are empowered to call witnesses to give evidence and produce documents required by the committee.

These committees have contributed immensely to the policy debate in Parliament. However, their work has always been behind closed doors. They meet in private; their meetings open only to members of the committee, Parliament staff and anyone invited to testify before the committee. The deliberations of the committee are confidential, and evidence tendered before it is usually kept secret and made public only after the committee presents its report. It makes sense to hold the committee’s deliberations closed door. It promotes the free exchange of ideas between participating MPs. The absence of cameras live telecasting its proceedings discourages political grandstanding.
This is possibly the reason that at the time of framing of general rules governing the proceedings of committees, there were divergent views amongst MPs about the press being allowed to witness the sittings of committees.

However, this logic does not apply for keeping the testimony of individuals before committees’ secret. For example, in the US, statements made before committees of Congress are open to the public and are also telecast live. The chairman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, routinely testifies before committees of the House of Representatives. It is televised and archived for easy viewing. In addition, the prepared statements made by individuals testifying before the committee are uploaded on the website of the committee. In the United Kingdom, the House of Commons publishes a calendar of select committee meetings which are open to the public. This week, the oral evidence of Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England on last year’s financial stability reports was open to the public. Also open were multiple select committee meetings examining the impact of Brexit on the country.

There have been a few examples of the opening up of legislative committees in our country. Last year, a committee of the Delhi Vidhan Sabha looking at irregularities in sports administration bodies of cricket and hockey allowed the press to view its proceedings. In 2008, the Goa Vidhan Sabha had also opened up its committee meetings to both the public and press. In the 13th Lok Sabha, given the widespread public interest, the chairman of the joint committee examining the Stock Market Scam briefed the press at the end of each committee meeting.

It might be an opportune time for our parliamentary committees to open their doors when witnesses are testifying before them. It can be done in multiple ways. The easiest will be to permit Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha television to telecast the testimony of witnesses. Allowing the press to observe the evidence can be used to supplement it. Publication of the transcript of testimony is another low-hanging fruit when it comes to opening the committees. The final step can be allowing the general public to view evidence proceedings of committees. The rules of parliament provide some avenues for opening committee meetings. For example, rule 269 of the rules of procedure of the Lok Sabha gives the chairman of a committee the discretion to allow evidence presented before it to either be treated as confidential or made public. It takes a minimum of three months to finalise the report of a parliamentary committee. The current rules can be amended to enable uploading of the evidence given before the committees before the final report is published. These changes will have to be tempered to assure individuals that they can testify freely before committees.

The changes to the working of parliamentary committees are essential steps for securing openness and transparency. They also have the added advantage of strengthening Parliament’s accountability.

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