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A Necessary Pit Stop In Parliamentary Business

Context

  • Despite the fact that Parliament’s recently concluded monsoon session (July-August) was adjourned sine die on August 8, 2022, the Competition (Amendment) Bill, 2022 and the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2022 were sent to the Standing Committee of Parliament for detailed examination and a report thereon.
  • This is a significant step, given that Parliament only had a limited amount of legislative time this session and could only pass five pieces of legislation.
  • The article investigates whether these standing committees were able to achieve their stated objectives, and if not, or if they were done insufficiently, what corrective actions could be taken to increase their efficacy and relevance.

Relevance:

GS Paper II: Parliament-Structure, organization, functioning and conduct of business etc

Mains Question

Parliamentary oversight of regulators is required for government policies to function properly and be implemented. Analyze. (150 Words)


Background

This referring of bills to standing committees also comes in the wake of constant criticism from the opposition that the government has been trying to steamroll (force) various pieces of legislation in the last few sessions.

Relevant parliamentary data

  • The functioning of Parliament’s monsoon session this year bears testimony to this fact; the Lok Sabha’s productivity was 47%, while the Rajya Sabha’s productivity was only 42%.
  • Overall bill referred: During the tenures of the 14th (2004-2009), 15th (2009-2014), and 16th Lok Sabhas (2014-2019), the percentage of bills referred to the Department-related Standing Committees (DRSCs) was 60%, 71%, and 27%, respectively.
  • Reason for decrease in entrusting bills: The decrease in this percentage occurred primarily in the second half of the 16th Lok Sabha’s session.
    • The government was eager to push through its big-ticket reforms, and the opposition was equally determined to stall them in light of the high stakes involved in the 2019 elections.
  • Type: There are two types of parliamentary committees: Standing Committees and Ad Hoc Committees. The former are permanent (formed every year or on a regular basis) and work continuously, whereas the latter are temporary and cease to exist upon completion of the task assigned to them.
  • Standing committee: A standing committee is the DRSC. Other types of committees include financial committees, select committees, administrative committees, and so on.
  • Number: There are 24 (DRSC) in the Parliament, which are duly appointed by the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha.
    • There are 8 Rajya Sabha members and 16 Lok Sabha members.
  • Composition: Each DRSC has 31 members (21 from Lok Sabha and 10 from Rajya Sabha). Members of the Lok Sabha are appointed by the Speaker, while members of the Rajya Sabha are appointed by the Chairman from among its members. o A minister is ineligible to be appointed to any of the standing committees. If a member is appointed a minister after his nomination, he ceases to be a member of the committee.
  • Mandate: To examine various legislations referred to it, budget proposals of various Ministries, and to do policy thinking on the vision, mission, and future direction of the Ministries concerned.

The Committee versus the Parliament

  • Learnings: While referring each bill to DRSC is not required, the experience, both nationally and internationally, has shown that it is beneficial to the legislative process.
  • Full picture: Bills that are not referred to parliamentary committees are not thoroughly examined, particularly from the standpoint of consumers and stakeholders, and remain merely a bureaucratically conceived piece of legislation.
  • Demonstration: The case of the three Farm Bills is cited as proof of this, as they were passed without being referred to the DRSC and had to be withdrawn later.
  • Advantages the government: The examination of bills by parliamentary committees benefits the government more than the opposition because the tone and atmosphere of the discussions in the parliamentary committee and in Parliament differ greatly.
    • Because the committee meetings are held in private, they are held in a more friendly and cordial atmosphere than they would be in Parliament.
  • Enrich legislation: The deliberations in these committees mostly add value to the content of the legislation as members, regardless of party affiliation, try to reach a consensus.
  • Discrete holding: Furthermore, such pieces of legislation, after being examined in committees, have some sort of ownership of the committee members, both from the ruling and opposition parties.
  • Be wary: Governments and the ruling party should be wary of these committees because the government has a majority in most of them and the final decision is always made by majority voting.
  • Policy of indolence (inaction): The reluctance to refer Bills to committee stems from the Ministry’s inaction and ignorance, rather than ideological or policy reasons.

The way forward

  • Changes in procedure: The process of referring bills to committees should be made mandatory and automatic. An exemption could be granted with the specific approval of the Speaker/Chairperson after detailed justification.
    • Currently, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha have the authority to refer Bills to a DRSC of Parliament, but this is rarely used for various political or administrative reasons.
  • No scourge: To ensure that all discussions in the Parliamentary Standing Committee are open and free, it may be stipulated that no whip of the party may be applied to them during committee meetings.
  • Fixed timeline: The Speaker/Chairman can give the committees a specific timeline to come up with recommendations and present their report.
  • Legislative necessity: To address political exigencies, it may be provided that if the committee fails to make its recommendation within the approved/extended time frame, the Bill may be brought directly before the House concerned.
  • Special expertise: To ensure quality work in the committees, experts with relevant domain knowledge in the field may be invited. o It would be cost effective if some subject matter experts/young researchers could be associated with the committee for a limited time.
  • Supervision: Because there is enough time between sessions to organise committee meetings for Bill discussions, the government and committee chairmen are lax and try to rush through these pieces of legislation when the next session is announced.
    • The Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, in collaboration with the committee chairmen, must oversee this and organise these parliamentary works in advance during the inter-sessional period.
  • Adopting Best Practices: In several countries, the minister in question appears before the committee to elaborate on and defend the government’s policies. The same can be done in India.
  • Broader vision: In the context of Ministry budget proposals, committees should not limit themselves to discussions and endorsing the proposals with minor changes, but should also make suggestions for the Ministry to undertake new initiatives and people-friendly measures.

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