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Pointing the finger at parliamentary scrutiny

Parliament building. File   | Photo Credit: REUTERS

The new Farm Bills passed by Parliament in the last monsoon session have evoked a scale of protest unforeseen by the government. Negotiations between the government and the farmers seem to have produced no result, and the farmers are determined to scale up their agitation in the coming days. The country seems to be heading toward a serious confrontation between the government and the agitating farmers.

A noteworthy aspect of the negotiations is that many of the proposals put forward now by the government for the consideration of the farmers are issues which were more or less rejected by the government when those Bills were debated in Parliament. The government is reportedly willing to amend these Acts now in order to meet the demands of the farmers. It is another matter that the farmers have rejected these proposals. They have made it clear that they want these laws to be repealed and if necessary, fresh laws to be enacted after discussions with the farmers and other stakeholders.

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A process of refinement

The demand for the repeal of the laws passed by Parliament only recently essentially points to a serious lapse in the management of the legislative work in Parliament. Parliament is the supreme law-making body which has put in place a large machinery of committees to scrutinise the Bills which are brought before it by the government as a part of its legislative programme. Rules of the Houses leave it to the Speaker or the Chairman to refer the Bills to the Standing Committees for a detailed scrutiny thereof. After such scrutiny is completed, the committees send their reports containing their recommendations on improvements to be made in the Bills to the Houses. While undertaking such scrutiny, the committees invite various stakeholders to place their views before them. Only after elaborate consultation do the committees formulate their views and recommendations. Under any circumstances, the Bills which come back to the Houses after the scrutiny by the committees will be in a much better shape in terms of their content.

This is the common experience. That is the reason why the Rules of the Houses provide for reference of the Bills to the committees. Although, technically, the reference to the committees is within the discretion of the Speaker or the Chairman, the intendment of the Rules is that all important Bills should go before the committees for a detailed examination.

However, every Bill which comes before the Houses need not be sent to the committees. For example, some minor Amendment Bills or Bills which do not have any serious ramifications need not be sent to the committees. That is precisely why the Presiding officers have been given the discretion in the matter of reference of Bills to committees. But it does not mean that they can exercise their discretion not to refer to the committee an important Bill which has serious implications for society. Such an action only defeats the purpose of the Rules.

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Draughtsman’s creations

Data show that very few Bills are referred to the Parliamentary Committees now. Ministers are generally reluctant to send their Bills to the committees because they are in a hurry to pass them. They often request the Presiding Officers not to refer their Bills to the committees. But the Presiding Officers are required to exercise their independent judgment in the matter and decide the issue. They need to keep in mind the fact that the Bills which the government brings before the Houses often have serious shortcomings. They are in fact draughtsman’s creations. Members of Parliament who know the ground realities better apply their mind and put them in a better shape.

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Across history

Improving the pieces of legislation through detailed scrutiny by Parliament through its committees is historically an ancient practice. In fact, the British Parliament has been doing it since the 16th century. The Indian experience of legislative scrutiny of Bills goes back to the post-Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms. It is interesting to note that the Central Legislative Assembly which was the Parliament of British India, had set up three committees: Committee on Petitions relating to Bills, Select Committee of Amendments of standing orders and Select Committee on Bills. Thus, even the colonial Parliament recognised the need and usefulness of parliamentary scrutiny of Bills brought to the House by the government.

Free India’s Parliament established a vast network of committees to undertake scrutiny of various aspects of governance including the Bills. Prior to the formation of Standing Committees, the Indian Parliament used to appoint select committees, joint select committees, etc. for detailed scrutiny of important legislative proposals of the government. With the formation of standing committees, the occasions for appointing select or joint select committees are few.

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A cursory look at the Bills sent to the committees in the past would reveal the seriousness shown by both the government and the Opposition in having the Bills scrutinised by the committees. So far as the select committees or joint select committees are concerned, generally, a proposal from the Opposition to set up such a committee is agreed to by the government.

Usually, some informal consultations take place between the government and the Opposition before a consensus is arrived at on the formation of such committees. Old-timers in Parliament are quite familiar with this healthy tradition of consensus making in Parliament.

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These Bills were made better

Now for a few examples of Bills scrutinised by Parliamentary Committees in the past may be cited to show that important legislative proposals were usually sent to the committees for detailed examination; this resulted in the improvement of their content. The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Bill was introduced in 1999 in the Lok Sabha and was immediately referred to a joint committee of both Houses. This Bill was meant to develop new varieties of plants and protect the rights of farmers and breeders. The committee completed its work in eight months and made many improvements by way of bringing greater clarity into various terms and concepts.

Similarly, the Seeds Bill, 2004 was referred to the Standing Committee on Agriculture which obtained the views of agricultural research institutions, agricultural universities, national and State seed corporations, private seed companies, scientists, farmers’ organisations, non-governmental organisations and individuals. Through the process of consultation with a wide range of experts and research organisations and farmers, the committee made significant improvements in the Bill; as a result, there was a better law on seeds.

It was the same case with the Companies (Amendment) Bill, the Information Technology Bill, and the Goods and Services Tax Bill, to name a few. The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill which was introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2011, which was referred to the Committee, was again referred to a Select Committee of the Rajya Sabha when it was transmitted to that House after being passed by the Lok Sabha. Thus, this Bill underwent double security by two committees of Parliament. When this Bill went back to the Lok Sabha after being passed by Rajya Sabha — with amendments as suggested by its Select Committee — Sushma Swaraj, then Leader of the Opposition, Lok Sabha, was lavish in her praise of the Chairman, Rajya Sabha for subjecting the Bill to further scrutiny by the Rajya Sabha’s Select Committee and greatly improving the Bill’s content.

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This is only a sample of Bills referred to Parliamentary Committees for detailed study. It is in fact difficult to understand why the Farm Bills — they seek to alter the well-established system of grain trade in major grain growing States and which have left farmers completely shaken — were not sent to the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture for a detailed study. The Committee is sure to have consulted the farmers apart from other stakeholders and suggested improvements which, perhaps, could have averted the current agitation.

Functioning by consensus

Our Parliamentary Committees have a tradition of working in a non-party manner. The reports of these Committees are based on consensus. It may be a bit difficult for people to believe that the instrumentalities of Parliament could rise above parties. But that is how they function. The systems of Parliament are inclusive. They have the capacity to harmonise contradictions. Despite the adversarial politics playing out in full force in the Houses, the calm atmosphere prevailing in the committee rooms and the purposiveness shown by the members in dealing with issues are a tremendously reassuring factor. To make these systems gradually non-functional and irrelevant is to invite disaster.

P.D.T. Achary is former Secretary General, Lok Sabha


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Printable version | Oct 27, 2021 7:56:56 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/pointing-the-finger-at-parliamentary-scrutiny/article33309735.ece

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