Democracy’s new home needs a structural uplift
The new Parliament building is a state-of-the-art facility that will help the lawmaking process. But, parliamentary procedures also need a fresh look
A modern infrastructure for the functioning of our national legislature is essential. With the inauguration of the new Parliament, we will have a state-of-the-art facility, enabling more convenience and efficiency in the sessions of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Parliament is also investing in technology such as a custom-built app to help navigate the new building, a conversational Artificial Intelligence platform to answer queries from Members of Parliament (MPs) and an online food ordering and payment system for the entire complex. The new building has better seating for MPs, addressing complaints that the legislative chambers were cramped and uncomfortable.
Seating has been a problem in the legislative chambers since it opened in 1927. For example, architect Herbert Baker designed the assembly chamber to seat a little more than 140 members of the central assembly. But after the first general elections, the same venue needed space for 450 MPs of independent India’s first Lok Sabha. The Parliament secretariat remodelled the floor space to add 1,100 square feet to accommodate more fixed and removable seating. Lok Sabha now has 543 MPs, compounding the problem. When the secretariat was reworking the seating arrangements, it replaced a brick wall with twelve marble pillars to support the public galleries above the chamber. Its staff also added 20 microphones to amplify debates, and speakers at every seat to ensure that MPs could hear each other from across the room. Each speaker was then carefully covered with a grill carved with the national emblem.
Another problem to be dealt with was Delhi’s scorching summer. In 1911, when King George V announced that the capital of British India was shifting to Delhi, a simple solution was already in place to deal with the hot weather — the central assembly moved to Shimla’s cooler climate every year. And when moving lock, stock and barrel became expensive, the national legislature started holding its meetings during Delhi’s rainy season. Dealing with the heat by tweaking the meeting calendar worked because the central assembly met for only two months during the year.
That became unsustainable when India became independent. Parliament had to meet more often to voice the people’s hopes and aspirations. It averaged 100-plus sitting days in the first two decades after Independence. The sessions were longer, and the two Houses routinely met in peak summer. The solution to dealing with the heat was air-conditioning.
In the 1950s, the legislative chambers were first air-conditioned and slowly, the rest of the building followed. Cooling the building required massive water tanks placed on the roof and chopping off the building’s interiors to install air ducts. Parliament House did not also have a boundary wall. While this had security implications, it also meant that the horticulture staff faced difficulty maintaining the gardens and flower beds, routinely damaged by stray cattle. So the perimeter was fenced with sandstone railing and iron gates.
But even as Parliament’s physical infrastructure transformed, both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha used pre-Independence legislature rules as templates for regulating their functioning. It allowed colonial thought processes to seep into the functioning of our national legislatures. One such glaring example is the parliamentary scrutiny of law making.
During the British administration, legislature committees examined government bills. This practice was older than the Parliament building. The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms Report, 1918, highlighted the legislative committee’s contribution to law-making. “Much of the most solid and useful work in the sphere of legislation is done in the seclusion of the committee room and not in the publicity of the council chamber,” it said. It also provided examples of how these committees could completely reshape a government law. But the procedure relating to committees was intended to facilitate the legislative business of the colonial government. Their purpose was not to subject each legal proposal to comprehensive scrutiny by a parliamentary committee, which could consult experts and invite public testimony. They, therefore, allowed the government to decide which bill a committee would look at.
Using the same logic after India became independent put our Parliament on a path of weakened scrutiny. Between 1952 and 1962, Parliament passed more than 600 laws, and the government only sent 10% of them to be examined by a select committee. We still need to rectify the situation.
In the late eighties and early nineties, Parliament set up a full-fledged committee system “to make the parliamentary activity more effective, to make the executive more accountable and to avail of the expert and public opinion whenever necessary...” These standing committees could also examine bills piloted by ministries under their scrutiny. The Lok Sabha speaker and the Rajya Sabha chairman decide whether to send a government bill to these specialised standing committees.
There are now two options for committees to conduct legislative scrutiny. The first is the pre-Independence style of select committees, which are temporary and can only scrutinise a law when the government sets them up. For example, in the current Lok Sabha, four bills relating to biodiversity, multi-state cooperatives, personal data protection and decriminalisation of offences have been examined by these non-specialised committees. Then there are the specialised committees, which only look at specific ministries and subjects. The 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19) data suggests that presiding officers may not have effectively utilised their discretion in sending bills to these committees. During this time, parliamentary committees examined only 25% of the bills passed by Parliament. In the 17th Lok Sabha, it stands at 22% for now.
Parliament now meets for a limited number of days (last year, it met for 56 days). One reason given by successive governments is that committees shoulder a large part of the parliamentary work, including detailed scrutiny of laws. In the upcoming monsoon session, the two Houses are likely to discuss a controversial ordinance by which the central government restored its power over the bureaucracy in Delhi and a revision of the sedition law. These bills will again focus public attention on how Parliament scrutinises legislative proposals brought about by the government.
Our Constitution entrusts Parliament with the power to pass laws. It’s a responsibility that requires careful consideration of every aspect of the law before Parliament puts its stamp of approval on it. And for the institution to be true to that responsibility, it must ensure that it updates its rules and makes every law go through the scrutiny of parliamentary committees without requiring an initiative from the government or the discretion of the presiding officers.
The decision to build a new Parliament was based on the inadequacy of the existing building and to create a new structure distinct from our colonial past. This is laudable. We should also extend that metric for overhauling our parliamentary procedure because both infrastructure and rules are required for working towards the common objective of an effective Parliament. Only then can the new home of India’s democracy fulfil the promises made by its founding document, the Constitution, to its only sovereign, the people.
Chakshu Roy is the head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research. The views expressed are personal.