Restoring the broken oversight mechanisms of Parliament

Restoring the broken oversight mechanisms of Parliament

Authors: Rohit Kumar and Bhavani Pasumarthi
Published: March 26, 2021 in the Hindustan Times

India’s Parliament recently passed the National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which significantly increases the powers of the Lieutenant-Governor (L-G) of Delhi. The bill requires the elected Delhi government to seek the opinion of the L-G before taking executive action. This is a major amendment that significantly alters the way the government in Delhi functions. It also recasts India’s federal construct and makes the Centre even more powerful than it already is, while chipping away at the power from the duly elected government in Delhi.

Despite the nature of the sweeping changes this bill proposed, it was not sent to a parliamentary committee, and there was no formal consultation with stakeholders, civil society, or experts before it was quickly rushed through both Houses of Parliament. The bill, first reported by media early this month, was introduced in the Lok Sabha on March 15 and passed by both Houses by March 24. Even before citizens had any time to absorb its implications or make up their mind, the bill was already on its way to becoming law.

“Mandating scrutiny for every bill passed is not a big ask. It is necessary to uphold the quality of legislation, and by extension, the quality of governance. A strong committee system is probably the only way to ensure Parliament’s relevance in the law-making process.”

For a parliamentary democracy, this is unusual. Typically, bills of such significance are sent to parliamentary committees for closer scrutiny. Unfortunately, sidelining committees is increasingly becoming the norm in India. Over the last few years, Parliament has been sending fewer and fewer bills to committees. Data compiled by PRS Legislative Research shows that only 25% bills were referred to committees in the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-2019) as compared to 60% in the 14th (2004-2009) and 71% in the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14).

This trend is worrying. In the constitutional scheme of things, Parliament is supposed to maintain oversight on the government and keep its power in check. By circumventing due diligence in Parliament, we run the risk of weakening democracy.

While fewer bills have been going to committees, data also shows that Parliament has been working more in recent years, discussing bills for longer durations and passing more bills than before. The 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19) for instance, worked for over 1,615 hours, 20% more than the previous Lok Sabha, and passed 133 bills, 15% more than the 15th Lok Sabha. Interestingly, even in the case of the NCT amendment, the Rajya Sabha stayed back till 9:30 pm to finish its deliberations and pass the bill before adjourning.

So, if Members of Parliament (MPs) are spending more time on direct deliberations on the floor of the House, why is bypassing committees a cause of worry?

Spending more time on direct discussions is not a substitute for committee deliberations. There is rarely enough time for a thorough analysis of any legislation on the floor of Parliament. Most MPs are also not subject matter experts on the topics being discussed — they are generalists who understand the pulse of the people but rely on advice from experts and stakeholders before taking decisions. What committees are meant to do is help MPs seek expertise and give them time to think about issues in detail. This is why the committee system was expanded in 1993.

Today, we have several committees in Parliament — each dealing with a different subject matter. All committees have MPs representing different parties, in roughly the same proportion as their strength in Parliament. When bills are referred to these committees, they are examined closely and inputs are sought from various external stakeholders, including the public. By virtue of being closed-door and away from the public eye, discussions in committee meetings are also more collaborative, with MPs feeling less pressured to posture for media galleries.

Although committee recommendations are not binding on the government, their reports create a public record of the consultations that took place and put pressure on the government to reconsider its stand on debatable provisions. The Companies Bill, 2009, is an example of a legislation that was withdrawn, and later reintroduced with significant changes, due to the issues flagged by the committee that examined it.

In the Indian system, unfortunately, it is not mandatory for bills to be sent to committees. It’s left to the discretion of the Chair — the Speaker in the Lok Sabha and Chairperson in the Rajya Sabha. In countries such as Sweden and Finland, all bills are sent to committees. In Australia, a selection of bills committee, which includes members from the Opposition, is tasked with identifying the bills that should go to committees.

It is perhaps time for India to mandate a similar requirement to avail the benefits of the committee system that we have taken for granted so far. By giving discretionary power to the Chair, the system has been especially rendered weak in a Lok Sabha where the ruling party has a brute majority.

Mandating scrutiny for every bill passed is not a big ask. It is necessary to uphold the quality of legislation, and by extension, the quality of governance in the country. A strong committee system is probably the only way to ensure Parliament’s relevance in the law-making process.