The winter session of Parliament begins today. Media reports are speculating on the fate of key pending bills. Whenever political controversies have threatened parliamentary functioning, the way forward has been through debate and consensus-building.
What happens when consensus cannot be reached and parties are not willing to soften their stand? Would Parliament not function at all? If the last few years provide any indication, there?s an urgent need to insulate Parliament?s functioning from the vagaries of the political climate.
As a legislative and oversight institution, technical and complex policy matters come up before Parliament. But there isn?t enough time to carry out detailed scrutiny of all issues since Parliament meets for a limited number of days in a year. To address these challenges, it was felt that smaller groups of MPs meeting regularly could undertake detailed consideration of policy issues outside the House. This would also allow them to obtain the views of diverse stakeholders and inputs of experts. It was with this intention that departmentally related parliamentary standing committees were set up in 1993.
Over the years, these committees have supported Parliament?s work. They have representation from both Houses. They examine ministerial budgets, analyse legislation and scrutinise the government?s working. They do this without the cloud of political positioning and populist opinion. More significantly, they function through the year. They are important forums for debate. Strengthening the work of these committees is important and, currently, critical.
Their strength lies in the depth and rigour of their reports. If these committees work effectively, they can keep a close watch on government functioning. For example, the parliamentary committee on information technology had examined the issue of spectrum allocation in 2006 much before the 2G controversy derailed the entire winter session of 2010. Parliamentary committees don?t have dedicated subject-wise research support available. The knowledge gap is partially bridged by expert testimony from government and other stakeholders. However, their work could be made more effective if the committees had full-time, sector-specific research staff. In 2002, the national commission to review the working of the Constitution pointed out that committees were ?handicapped by lack of specialist advisers?. The commission recommended that in order to strengthen the committee system, research support should be made available to them.
The forum of parliamentary committees can also be effectively utilised in obtaining public feedback and building political consensus on contentious issues. This process also ensures any concerns with respect to a bill are addressed early and the government?s legislative agenda isn?t derailed at a late stage.
The committee also offers an opportunity for detailed scrutiny of bills being piloted by the government. Currently, the rules of Parliament don?t require every bill to be referred to a parliamentary committee for scrutiny. While this allows the government greater flexibility and the ability to speed up legislative business, it comes at the cost of ineffective scrutiny by the highest law-making body. The missed opportunity of committee scrutiny gets magnified when bills are not adequately debated in the House. Mandatory scrutiny of bills by parliamentary committees would ensure better planning of legislative business. This year, parliamentary committees are examining important policy issues like ease of doing business, the Indian Financial Code, smart cities and net neutrality, among others.
Reports of well-functioning committees act as an early warning system about the laxity in government functioning. But more importantly, the deliberations and scrutiny by committees ensure that Parliament is able to fulfil some of its constitutional obligations in a politically charged environment.
*Head of outreach, PRS Legislative Research