It was heartening to have the recently concluded monsoon session of Parliament (July-August), even though it was adjourned sine die on August 8, 2022, witnessing the Competition (Amendment) Bill, 2022 and the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2022 being sent to the Standing Committee of Parliament for detailed examination and a report thereon.
This is a significant step in light of the fact that Parliament had only limited legislative time this session and could pass only five pieces of legislation. This has also come in the wake of constant criticism by the Opposition that has been alleging that the Government has been trying to steamroll various pieces of legislation in the last few sessions. The worry of the Government has been that so much time is lost in disruptions in Parliament that the legislative process, as it is, becomes unduly delayed and therefore, referring the bills to the Standing Committees may be counterproductive — that could only add to this delay.
Relevant parliamentary data
The functioning of the monsoon session of Parliament this year bears testimony to this fact: the Lok Sabha’s productivity was 47% and the Rajya Sabha only 42%. It may be mentioned here that Parliament has 24 Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committees (DRSC), comprising members of the Parliament of both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha in the ratio 2:1, which are duly constituted by the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, jointly.
The mandate of these committees is to examine various legislations referred to it, the budget proposals of different Ministries, and also to do policy thinking on the vision, mission and future direction of the Ministries concerned. The objective of this article is to examine whether these committees have been able to achieve their stated objectives, and if not or if done inadequately, what the corrective actions could be to increase their efficacy and their relevance.
The percentage of Bills having been referred to the DRSCs during the tenures of the 14th (2004-2009), 15th (2009-2014) and 16th Lok Sabhas (2014-2019) has been 60%, 71% and 27%, respectively. The fall in this percentage during the 16th Lok Sabha was witnessed largely in the second half of its session, when the Government was in a hurry to push its big ticket reforms through and the Opposition was equally adamant to stall it in view of high stakes involved in the 2019 elections.
Committee versus Parliament
Even though it is not obligatory for the Government to agree to refer each Bill to the DRSC, the experience, both nationally and internationally, has been that referring a Bill to the DRSC has been of use to the process of lawmaking. It has been alleged that Bills which are not being referred to the parliamentary committees, are not examined properly, especially from the perspective of consumers and stakeholders and remain just a bureaucratically conceived piece of legislation. As proof of this, the case of the three Farm Bills is cited as they were passed without being referred to the DRSC and had to be withdrawn later.
Even though there could be many reasons for the withdrawal of the three Farm Bills — some of it political — it needs to be understood that the examination of the Bills by the parliamentary committees is more to the benefit of the Government than the Opposition. The simple reason for this is that the tenor and the ambience of the discussions in the parliamentary committee and in Parliament are two entirely different things. The committee meetings are in camera and, therefore, the meetings are held in a comparatively congenial atmosphere of bonhomie and cordiality than they would be in Parliament.
The deliberations in these committees mostly add value to the content of the legislation and, more often than not, the Members, their party positions notwithstanding, try to reach a consensus. Additionally, such pieces of legislation after examination in the committees, have some sort of ownership of the members of the committee, both from the ruling side and the Opposition, even though it is also a function of the skill of the chairman of the committee.
Governments and the ruling party should not be wary of these committees, as in most of these committees, the government has a majority and the final decision is always by the process of majority voting. Therefore, there is no reason why any government should shy away from referring Bills to the committee. Skilled and experienced Ministers know this and generally have no aversion to a Bill being referred to to the committees. So, fostering the trust of parliamentarians, both from the ruling party and the Opposition parties, in the relevance and usefulness of the system of the committees is of paramount importance.
Consider these steps
It has been observed that the reluctance to refer the Bills to the committee arises more out of inaction and ignorance of the Ministry concerned, and rarely out of ideological or policy reasons. So, the following changes could be suggested to be made into procedures meant for consideration of Bills.
First, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha have powers to refer Bills to a DRSC of Parliament. This requirement is often given a go by for various political or administrative reasons. It may be useful to make the process of reference of Bills to these committees compulsory/an automatic process. An exemption could be made with the specific approval of the Speaker/Chairman after detailed reasons for the same. The prerogative of the House to refer the Bills to the Standing committee, through an amendment, would, of course, remain unaffected.
Second, all discussions in the Parliamentary Standing Committee should be frank and free. For this, it may be provided that during the discussions of the committee meetings, no whip of the party would apply to them. In any case, they have the liberty to vote in favour or against the Bill in Parliament.
Third, the committees can be given a fixed timeline to come up with the recommendation and present its report which can be decided by the Speaker/Chairman. The committees mostly abide by this direction of the Speaker/Chairman. But to deal with just political exigencies, it can be provided that in case the committee fails to give its recommendation within the approved/extended time, the Bill may be put up before the House concerned directly.
Fourth, to ensure quality work in the committees, experts in the field may be invited who could bring with them the necessary domain knowledge and also help introduce the latest developments and trends in that field from worldwide. It would be value for money if some subject matter experts/young researchers could be associated with the committee for a short period.
Fifth, the Speaker/Chairman should have the right to fix a time limit, sometimes even stringent, if the government of the day asks for it and the demand is found to be reasonable by the Speaker/Chairman.
Sixth, between two sessions, there is generally enough time to organise committee meetings for discussions on Bills in the parliamentary committees. Sometimes, the government and the committee chairmen are lax in this respect, and then try to push through these pieces of legislation when the next session is announced. Hence, it is important for the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs to keep an eye on this and, in collaboration with the committee chairmen, get these parliamentary works organised during the inter-sessional period, in advance.
Seventh and last, when it comes to the budget proposals of the Ministries, the committees should not limit themselves to discussing just the budget proposals and endorsing them with a few qualifications here or amendments there. They should also come up with suggestions for the Ministry to take up new initiatives and people-friendly measures.
Desh Deepak Verma is a former Indian Administrative Service officer and a former Secretary-General of the Rajya Sabha