The former President of the U.S. Woodrow Wilson once remarked, ‘It is not far from the truth to say that Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in Committee rooms is Congress at work.’ The universality of this statement seems to have stood the test of time and geography.
Due to the sheer volume of information and scale of operations that the Indian Parliament is required to undertake, it is not feasible to take up all issues on the floor of the House. Thus, Parliamentary committees — panels made up of MPs — are constituted to deal with such situations and take up sector-specific concerns. Contrary to popular perception, looking into Bills is not the only purpose that committees serve. We tend to underestimate their relevance, not realising the sheer magnitude of effort that goes into making Parliament a dynamic, functional space where members converge every few months and debate on matters that concern the nation. Behind every such speech, every comment and every Bill introduced or taken up for discussion lies the ceaseless work of various committees that deserve a nuanced perusal if we are to understand how the highest platform of multilateral dialogue in India is brought to life.
However, in these times of political rancour and polarisation, public proceedings of the House seem to reflect serious fault lines. It does not allow for any deliberation, let alone consensus. During the course of the 17th Lok Sabha, only 14 Bills have been referred for further examination so far. As per data from PRS, as little as 25% of the Bills introduced were referred to committees in the 16th Lok Sabha, as compared to 71% and 60% in the 15th and 14th Lok Sabha respectively. This represents a declining trend of national legislation being subjected to expert scrutiny.
The evolution of committees
Even though a structured committee system was only established in 1993, individual committees were being formed for various reasons as far back as independence. For instance, five of the many crucial committees of the Constituent Assembly are worth a mention here.
The Ad Hoc Committee on the Citizenship Clause, as the name suggests, was formed to discuss the nature and scope of Indian citizenship.
Two other very significant committees were the Northeast Frontier (Assam) Tribal and Excluded Areas Sub-Committee (July 28, 1947) and the Excluded and Partially Excluded Areas (Other than Assam) Sub-Committee (August 18, 1947). The former, chaired by Sh. G.N. Bordoloi, covered the Naga, Khasi, Garo, Jaintia and Mikir Hills and collected a reservoir of people’s lived experiences and demands, beliefs and customs. It looked at the status of land and forests, local government and courts, finance and taxation, making its report invaluable for determining the status quo of the region and bestowing rights/privileges accordingly. The latter was characterised by Sh. Jaipal Singh Munda’s Minute of Dissent with regard to scheduled areas in the Chhota Nagpur Plateau. A towering Adivasi leader, Munda objected to the exclusion of Manbhum, Hazaribagh and Palamau districts from the ambit of the report. He claimed that all the witnesses had been “emphatic” that all six districts in question must form a consolidated territory for the purposes of scheduling. Not just for administrative reasons but also to protect the interests of the 14,79,485 Adivasis inhabiting the three excluded districts from the veto of the Tribes Advisory Council. Sh. A.V. Thakkar, the Chairman, took note of the Minute but concluded that it lacked merit and “the award of the Boundary Commission is unalterable”.
Then there was the Expert Committee on Financial Provisions of the Union Constitution (December 5, 1947), which was responsible for giving recommendations on Union and Province (State) tax collection, central excise duty, liquor revenue, divisible pool of income tax, sharing of proceeds among provinces, residuary powers, and the institutions of the Finance Commission and the Auditor General, among other things. Finally, the Advisory Committee on the Subject of Political Safeguards for Minorities (May 11, 1949), chaired by Sardar Patel, looked at the abolition of reservations for religious minorities.
So, in essence, committees have been doing monumental work since the unveiling of independent India. Today, both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha have their own Standing (permanent) Committees and Ad Hoc (need-based) Committees. There are also Joint Committees with representation from both Houses.
The role of committees
Committees go into the details of a specific piece of legislation, analyse the impact it may have on governance indicators, and then make their recommendations. The government is required to table an ‘Action Taken’ report for the House to judge the progress made on the suggestions of the committee. Even though committee reports aren’t binding on the government, it helps the legislature ensure an oversight on the executive. For instance, during the recently concluded Budget Session, reports tabled on the Demand for Grants highlighted certain inconsistencies on the part of the government. The Committee on Rural Development & Panchayati Raj in its report noted that the revised estimates always fell short of the budget estimates. More importantly, the actual figures are also way less. In 2022-23, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj has been able to spend only ₹701 crore out of the allocation of ₹905 crore, approximately, at the revised estimates stage. Such objective assessments are only possible in the confines of a committee room, where partisan divides dissolve to make way for consensus. The alternative scenario, that is discussion on the floor of the House, involves glaring cameras that nudge parliamentarians to perform as per their respective party-lines and voter-base. There also exists the Business Advisory Committee which prepares the entire schedule of both Houses when Parliament is in session. Interestingly, papers laid on the table of the House — something we often tend not to pay attention to — have a whole committee dedicated to them. So, the seemingly insignificant few minutes at the very beginning of each sitting which are utilised to lay said papers are actually backed by a well-oiled machinery of members. Each individual paper is prepared after a careful and often long-drawn process of deliberation, writing and screening. A lot goes into the functioning of Parliament and the committees shoulder a big chunk of that responsibility.
Perhaps the most salient work done by a committee in recent years is on the Digital Data Protection Bill. Beginning in 2017 in the wake of the Puttaswamy judgment that recognised privacy as a fundamental right, the Justice Srikrishna Committee was formed and tasked with preparing a data protection framework for India. It presented the final 166-page report in 2018, covering everything from data processing and storage to rights and enforcement — on the basis of which the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 was tabled in the Lok Sabha. It was referred to another committee, this time a Joint Parliamentary Committee chaired by P.P. Chaudhary, whose report came out in December 2021, following which the bill was withdrawn and a new Draft Digital Data Protection Bill was introduced for public consultation in November 2022. In each iteration, the committees’ insights have not only been invaluable but also formed the very basis of what is possibly the single most crucial legislation for a growing economy in the digital age.
But this is not all. Several important laws such as the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill that seeks to raise the legal marriageable age of women to 21, the Anti-Maritime Piracy Bill that brings into enactment the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea for combating piracy in the high seas, the Jan Vishwas Bill that amends 42 laws across sectors like agriculture and media, the Wildlife Protection (Amendment) Bill that extends the scope of protected species, the Competition (Amendment) Bill, the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, the Criminal Procedure (Identification) Bill, and the Multi-State Cooperative Societies (Amendment) Bill have all been referred to Committees.
Another important mandate of Committees is to go into issues that are crucial from a nation-building standpoint but don’t hold as much political significance. Take the example of defence shipyards. These shipyards are not a primary poll issue. However, it is extremely important to develop these capabilities for safeguarding the security of the nation. While next to no questions have been asked in the Lok Sabha on defence shipyards, the Public Accounts Committee highlighted several concerns plaguing the same in a 2015 report including but not limited to audit findings about inadequate shipbuilding practices, frequent mid-course changes, delays in finalisation of weapon packages, and an underestimation of costs by shipyards.
The road ahead
In the U.S., committees play a crucial role and Bills are referred to them post introduction for scrutiny. It allows changes to be made and the modified Bill to go for voting.
The Parliament could consider a compulsory referral, for the Bills that are tabled on the floor, to the appropriate committees. Arming them with more powers will help them ensure accountability from the executive instead of making them toothless tigers. It is essential for the parliamentary ecosystem in India to institutionalise such procedures and not allow political considerations to hasten law-making.
The writers are former LAMP (Legislative Assistant to Member of Parliament) fellows of the 2022-23 batch