Laws Sans Debate
By Poonam I Kaushish
Ouch, the truth hurts! This dear readers, was the sum total of the cruel joke perpetrated on us by our netagan in Parliament’s just concluded monsoon session. Not only was it abruptly adjourned two days ahead of schedule on 11 August amid unrelenting Opposition protests over Pegasus snooping row and contentious farm laws. Worse, our Right Honourables shamed democracy by creating mayhem, tearing Bills, standing on Secretary Generals tables, physically attacked each other even as the Government brazened it out to score political points. Never mind, our MPs go blue in the face about upholding the best tenets of Parliamentary democracy! Sic.
More disgusting and perturbing was not that politics of dadagiri and obstructionism is becoming more the rule rather than exception, but that our polity largely continues to drift along smugly without any shame or desire to turn a new page and prevent Parliament’s crumble. While the BJP-led Government preened over getting its way and say by its unyielding defiance to engage in debate, putting the onus on Opposition by painting them disrupters and bulldozed laws thanks to its brute majority.
Scandalously it was the least productive session in Modi Sarkar’s second term and third in the last two decades, 22 Bills were passed with less than 10 minutes spent on each Bill. In the Rajya Sabha 19 Bills were passed, an average of 1.1 Bills per day. While the total time lost due to interruptions and adjournments was 76 hours 26 minutes compared to 4 hours 30 minutes in Rajya Sabha’s 231st session 2014.
Lamented Chief Justice of India Ramana “It’s a sorry and unfortunate state of affairs to see the way proceedings take place in Parliament now, there’s no clarity in laws as they are being notified without any proper debate among lawmakers, leaving many gaps and ambiguity in legislations.
“We don’t know what is the purpose for the law which is creating a lot of litigation, inconvenience and loss to Government and public,” he added. Two examples: The General Insurance Business (Nationalisation) Amendment Bill, 2021 which enables privatization of general insurance companies was approved in 8 minutes and the Taxation Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 in just 5 minutes despite the Opposition demanding they be sent to a select committee.
More shocking important bills were passed without being referred to Standing Committees which are considered Parliament’ brain and whose prime responsibility is to scrutinize each legislation with a fine tooth comb and ensure a good law. Introduced in 1993, 24 Standing Committees comprising 21 Lok Sabha and 10 Rajya Sabha lawmakers were set-up to identify pressing issues, suggest solutions and highlight gaps in implementation.
After a Committee completed its study, its report is laid in Parliament. Though its recommendations are not binding they carry lot of weight. An example: Standing Committee on Health made several recommendations to National Medical Commission Bill in 2017. Many of these were incorporated in the Bill passed 2019 including removing the provision for allowing a bridge course for AYUSH practitioners.
With governance increasingly becoming specialised and complex, committee meetings are held behind closed doors, so that MPs can focus on issues at hand, can call for and examine witnesses, look into the minutiae of an issue and give detailed recommendations. Importantly, they allow a member to speak his mind on any issue rather than worry about political positioning to toe his Party line. This helps build consensus to resolve legislation deadlocks.
The Committees also act as a check on poorly drafted legislative provisions hurriedly passed by the House. But reports have “persuasive” or “advisory” value and due to their non-binding nature, the Government can ignore their recommendations. When a Government lacks numbers in a House to pass a contentious bill, the committee process helps bring on board support which it would otherwise lack.
But where it has adequate numbers to push through legislation, the Government might view the committee as superfluous at best, and, allows the Opposition to get its dissent noted on record at worst. But whatever the reason, bypassing committees is a practice which is inimical to Parliamentary democracy.
Moreover, repeated requests by Opposition to send bills to committees creates an impression that the committee process is political and not focused on technical scrutiny. Not referring a bill to a committee sends the message that the bills piloted by the Government are perfect and urgently needed that they do not require the contribution of a committee.
Consequently, MPs too don’t take these Committees seriously. Of 15 Bills introduced this session none were referred to a Parliamentary Committee. Only 11% Bills in Modi II have gone through any Committee scrutiny compared to 27% in his first term. In comparison the Congress-led UPA I saw 60% and UPA II 71% Bills sent to Committees. In the last 10 years 47% Bills were passed sans discussion and 31% without vetting by any Parliamentary standing or consultative committee. Between 2009-14 only half the MPs attended meetings of 16 Lok Sabha administered Committees.
This is not all. Not long back Vice President and Rajya Sabha Chairman Venkaiah Naidu expressed concern about 8 committees including home, law and justice and commerce functioning and its attendance by only 18 of 80 MPs attending all meetings of their committees, of whom 8 are Chairmen. Lok Sabha MPs attendance was equally poor: Of 168 only 18 legislators attended all meetings.
Nonetheless, Committees are vital in law-making and can serve as the intellectual compass for governance. They should be made more effective and transparent. Committee proceedings should be publicly available or live-streamed over the internet. This would allow the public to play a greater role in their functioning. Also, it would be a check on member absenteeism, a chronic problem when an issue requires quorum.
Hence, Parliament’s rules of procedure should be amended to automatically send all substantive legislation for timely scrutiny by a committee. As US 28th President Woodrow Wilson said 1885 “It is not far from the truth to say Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.”
Sadly, we have settled for size and not content wherein Parliament’s supremacy has been replaced with the ‘to the streets’ bugle. Thus, in this deteriorating political culture and ethos, Parliamentary proceedings have little material bearing on the course of politics. Underscoring that Parliament is in crisis and the system is breaking down as it neither fulfills its function of deliberative lawmaking nor holds the executive responsible.
Time has come for our polity to redeem itself. One way is to build consensus between the Government and Opposition whereby they should rise above sectarian political loyalties, heed voices of reason and be guided by what the country needs. But therein lies the rub. With sharp battle lines between the Treasury and Opposition this distrust will only further devalue Parliament and lower its image.
In the ultimate Parliament is the bulwark of democracy and represents the people, who count upon it to function as the sovereign watchdog of their national interest. Because, if that is lost, then one does know what will happen later. Modi needs to ensure that he does not fall into the pit of greater the power the more dangerous the abuse, as the law of majority has no place.” What gives? — INFA