Polity > Parliament > Accountability
- The recently concluded monsoon session of Parliament (July-August) witnessed the Competition (Amendment) Bill, 2022 and the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2022 being sent to the Standing Committee of Parliament for detailed examination and a report thereon.
- The functions of the Parliament are varied, complex, time consuming and voluminous. Therefore, it is assisted by a number of committees in the discharge of its duties.
- The Constitution of India makes a mention of the committees at different places, but without making any specific provisions regarding their composition, tenure, functions, etc. All these matters are dealt by the rules of two Houses.
- Accordingly, a parliamentary committee means a committee that:
- Is appointed or elected by the House or nominated by the Speaker/Chairman
- Works under the direction of the Speaker/Chairman
- Presents its report to the House or to the Speaker/Chairman
- Has a secretariat provided by the Lok Sabha/Rajya Sabha
- The mandate of these committees is to examine various legislations referred to it, the budget proposals of different Ministries, and also to do policy thinking on the vision, mission and future direction of the Ministries concerned.
- Broadly, parliamentary committees are of two kinds:
- Standing Committees: They are permanent, constituted every year or periodically and work on a continuous basis. The Financial Committees, Department Related Standing Committees (DRSCs) and some other Committees come under this category.
- Ad Hoc Committees: They are temporary and cease to exist on completion of the task assigned to them. The principal Ad hoc Committees are the Select and Joint Committees on Bills.
- Public Accounts Committee:
- 22 members: 15 from Lok Sabha and 7 from Rajya Sabha, elected by the Parliament every year from amongst its members through proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote.
- Estimates committee:
- 30 members, all of them from Lok Sabha only. They are elected by the Lok Sabha every year through proportional representation by means of a single transferable vote.
- Committee on Public Undertakings:
- 22 members: 15 from Lok Sabha and 7 from Rajya Sabha, elected by the Parliament every year from amongst its own members through proportional representation by means of a single transferable vote.
- Department Related Standing Committees:
- 31 members: 21 from Lok Sabha and 10 from Rajya Sabha, nominated by the Speaker/Chairman from amongst its members.
- Other committees:
- There is no uniform composition. Generally, the Lok Sabha committee consists of 15 members, while the Rajya Sabha committee consists of 10 members.
- Whenever a Bill comes up before either the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha for consideration, it is open to that House to refer the bill to a select committee or a joint committee of the two Houses.
- If a motion for a joint committee is adopted, the other House is informed and urged to nominate members for the panel.
- After a bill is referred to a committee, its members meet to discuss the legislation. These meetings usually happen when Parliament is not in session.
- Before these meetings take place, MPs are sent research material about the issue or bill that will be discussed. On the basis of this, members prepare questions and ask for clarifications about the legislation.
MERITS OF COMMITTEES:
- Good governance:
- Committees undertake in-depth discussions on various policy issues, and make suggestions to the government. Their reports put pressure on the government to reconsider its stand on debatable provisions. This system ensures economy and efficiency in legislations and public expenditure.
- The three Farm Bills may be cited as a contrasting example, as they were passed without being referred to the DRSC and had to be withdrawn later.
- Improves accountability:
- The Parliamentary committees are often described as ‘mini parliament’. They study and deliberate on a range of subject matters and reports to the Parliament. Thus, they make parliamentary control over executive much more detailed, continuous, in-depth and comprehensive.
- Democratic participation:
- A parliamentary committee has multi-party representation and gives MPs an opportunity to discuss every clause of a bill. This enables opposition parties to play a greater role in exercising accountability over the ruling party.
- Also, committees facilitate public consultations on matters, which helps people to express their ideas and concerns.
- Political neutrality:
- Committee meetings are ‘closed door’ and members are not bound by party whips, which allows for a more meaningful exchange of views. Committees also provide a forum for building consensus across political parties.
- Engagement with experts:
- Disruptive changes in technology and the expansion of economy have thrown up new policy challenges that require specialised knowledge. Committees provide a forum to involve domain experts and general public opinion and formulate effective policies.
- Reservoir of information:
- Indian parliamentary committees are a huge reservoir of information, which are made available to MPs to enlighten themselves, and contribute ideas to strengthen the parliamentary system and improve governance.
- Declining trend:
- There is a declining trend about referring 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).
- Not mandatory:
- The rules do not require that all Bills be examined by a committee. This leads to some Bills being passed without the advantage of a committee scrutinising its technical details.
- Non-attendance of parliamentary committee meetings serious is on the rise. For instance, only 16 members of the Rajya Sabha attended all the scheduled 361 meetings held in 2020.
- Dominance of Ruling faction:
- In most of these committees, the government has a majority and the final decision is always by the process of majority voting.
- Bypassing through joint committees:
- There is a recent trend of bypassing standing committees through Specially-formed joint committees chaired by a member of ruling party rather than those chaired by a member from the opposition.
- The committees make several recommendations in their reports but the executive may not necessarily accept them.
- Eg: In the five-year period of the last Parliament, the Government accepted only 54 % of the committee recommendations.
- Less effective:
- The works of some committees is in the nature of a post-mortem, thus making them less effective.
- Eg: The Public Accounts Committee examines the expenditure after it has been incurred by the Executive and the estimates committee examines the budget estimates only after they have been voted by the Parliament.
- Non-serious nature:
- Quite often, the Committees are not taken seriously. For instance, in several countries, the concerned minister appears before the committee to elaborate and defend the policies of the government. But in India, ministers do not appear before the committees and instead send bureaucrats.
- Short tenure:
- MPs have a one-year tenure on parliamentary committees. This is insufficient for them to build up their expertise in subject areas. This short tenure is also one reason why MPs do not take the committees seriously.
- No periodic assessment:
- So far, no mechanism for a regular assessment of the performance of the committee has been put in place.
- Mandatory scrutiny: of all bills by parliamentary committees would ensure better planning of legislative business. For this, the rules must be amended.
- Nominate interested members only: Parties should gauge the interest of members in various committees and factor in the same while nominating them.
- Fix timeline: the committees can be given a fixed timeline to come up with the recommendation and present its report. In case the committee fails to give its recommendation within the approved/extended time, the Bill may be put up before the House concerned directly.
- Coordination: The Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs should collaborate with the committee chairmen and get the parliamentary committee works organised during the inter-sessional period in advance.
- Establish review mechanism: If the chairman/Speaker meet the chairmen of committees periodically to discuss issues related to the committees, there will be a significant improvement in their functioning.
- Extend tenure: Venkaiah Naidu, the Chairman of Rajya Sabha, had recently suggested that MPs should have longer tenure in committees so that they could build up their expertise in subject areas.
- Research Support: To equip members to gain an in-depth understanding of issues and give sound and nuanced recommendations, it is important that quality research is made available to them.
- Rationalise committees: The National Commission to review the working of the Constitution has argued for trimming the number of Standing Committees and doing away with existing finance committees to avoid overlapping of work. It also calls for establishing a Standing Committee on Economy for deliberations on economic policies and its implementation separately.
- Adopt international best practices: There are existing practices in other countries that can contribute to strengthening the committee system in India. For eg: in the British House of Commons, the committees interact on certain overlapping subjects. Committees related to defence, foreign affairs, international development, and trade & industry form the Quadripartite Committee which examines government’s arms export licenses.
Q. Effective utilization of Parliamentary Committees is essential to strengthen the democratic Parliamentary system in India. Discuss?