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Making Parliament work

Standing committees play an important role. Their deliberations should be made public, writes NK Singh.

india Updated: Mar 06, 2011 13:17 IST
NK Singh

Parliament reconstituted its standing committees last week. These 24 committees have now existed for over 17 years and were designed to improve parliamentary oversight and the quality of legislations. This entails interaction with experts, multiple stakeholders and the concerned ministries. The committees comprise of a chairperson and 31 members nominated from both Houses of Parliament on the basis of their interest, past experience and the spectrum of political parties they represent.

Countries like Britain, America and Canada have a more robust committee system. While in Britain the committees have powers to amend a Bill and present it in an amended form to Parliament, in America they decide the very Bills that may be considered by the Senate. In Canada, they can examine subjects on their own initiative, not necessarily referred by the Senate.

In India, our experience has been a mixed one. On the positive side, the merit of the committee system can be gauged from the recently enacted Civil Nuclear Liability Bill. It was an important piece of legislation that underwent significant changes. The standing committee made 18 recommendations and the government initially accepted 17 of these changes. The only unresolved issue was related to the liability of suppliers of equipment. When the Bill was discussed in Lok Sabha, the government accepted the formulation proposed by the opposition parties.

Conversely, there are other examples where the recommendations of the committee have been wholly ignored by the ministry concerned. Three recent cases illustrate this point. The Bill relating to central universities that came up during the UPA 1 ignored many valuable recommendations made by the standing committee. There were suspicions about the anxiety to appoint vice chancellors and other officials before the elections. The Right to Compulsory Education Bill had a similar

experience. In the recent monsoon session, the debate in the Rajya Sabha on the Educational Tribunals Bill 2010 saw a divided House. It brought into focus that the government had again disregarded the recommendations of the departmental-related standing committee.

The government has often taken shelter under the pretext that the recommendations are advisory and not of a binding nature. If this practice persists, all Bills would need to be debated at a much greater length in Parliament itself. It would be riddled with controversies, political posturing and detract from efforts at consensus-building. Parliamentary time is expensive and it is hardly sensible to overlook the consensus-building opportunity that standing committees are designed to foster. Ministries may find this a dampener in making up the lost time. Their enthusiasm may be laudable. However, the checks and balances embedded in our parliamentary process is a reasonable equilibrium between haste and diligence, durability and change with conformity with the accepted norms.

Notwithstanding the many strengths of our democracy, the parliamentary practices are tilted in favour of the executive. A well-functioning committee system is one way to correct this bias. The vice president recently made a number of suggestions to strengthen the committee system — the presence of ministers at the standing committee, forbearance on the issue of party whip except on Money Bills, enhancing public awareness on our parliamentary device, etc. Permitting legislations to be debated strictly on party lines may not subserve the larger public good. Amending legislations doesn’t always amount to loss of face, much less confidence in the government. These suggestions are worth pursuing.

It’s also necessary to reverse a growing public cynicism that Parliament does no useful work. This perspective overlooks the very valuable work undertaken by standing committees as well as other organs like the Public Accounts Committee, the Estimate Committee and the Committee on Public Undertakings. Keeping them out of the public domain may encourage bipartisan participation but shuts out public information on the work conducted in these committees. This is a good time to open these committee deliberations to the media for a wider public dissemination.

We need to redesign executive accountability in the somewhat altered distribution of power and engage legislature more meaningfully on today’s concerns. Building bipartisan support has a larger purpose. It makes for more informed and purposive implementation. It lies at the heart of a healthy polity.

NK Singh is a Rajya Sabha member. The views expressed by the author are personal