Smart hands to polish parliamentary debate

The Financial Express, July 31, 2010

India?s Parliamentarians have worked out a way to escape the charge of poor quality of debate and legislative interventions in the two houses.

They have teamed up with PRS Legislative Research, India?s leading resource base for parliamentarians to begin hiring graduates trained in legislative rules and knowledgeable about economic, scientific and political issues.

The initiative, Legislative Assistants for MPs (LAMPS) is clearly patterned on the US and UK legislatures. Next week, 15 such legislative assistants will join MPs who have agreed to sign them on.

?Each of the assistants will be deployed till the end of the next budget session with an MP,? said CV Madhukar, director of PRS, a unit of Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research and the brain behind the initiative that could mark itself as one of the biggest positive changes to Indian legislative history.

?On any given day, an MP could ask a question on the floods in his constituency, follow it up with a zero-hour intervention on defence and debate Sebi-Irda spat in the afternoon,? said Madhukar. This is a range that is obviously too wide for any well-informed person to keep track of; yet, he said, that is what an MP is supposed to do. ?PRS legislative research have been a good enabler for the parliamentarians so far. But I expect them to consult the parliamentarians and ask for their stand and preferences on this before taking a decision to provide legislative assitants and announcing it,? said senior MP PC Chacko.

As a result, participation in debates is alarmingly low. Available data show 32% of all MPs did not participate in any debate in the last Parliament. The figure excludes ministers. As a result, a fourth of the members do not attend the sessions. What?s worse, absenteeism is highest among the youngest lot of MPs. Till now, to ensure some quality, members had little option but to rely on their initiative allied with newspaper reports to buttress their position. Madhukar said even the information nuggets organisations like PRS provided are generic ones and therefore difficult to personalise for a debate. As part of their parliamentary privilege, members can hire support staff but this has often been filled up with campaign staff for want of anything better. This is set for a change.

During the 21-day training, candidates were made to read up works like the Sachar committee report and the Direct Taxes Code to familiarise themselves with accessing source material. ?Leave alone MPs, even experienced researchers may find it a bit difficult to get the data-enablers. Providing researchers specifically trained for this is welcome,? said Subrat Das of Delhi-based Center for Governance and Budget Accountability.

The monthly pay of Rs 10,000 and an allowance of Rs 2,000 for each assistant will be borne by PRS Legislative Research. Each Friday, the graduates will refresh their skills in a classroom setting. For the first batch, PRS got over 500 applications which was pruned to 15 through written examinations. ?A stint with an MP, they feel, will add to their CV, as most of these students want to do further study, either here or abroad,? Madhukar said.

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