Dear Prime Minister
Sub: How can we make the parliament more effective?
Please accept my congratulations on becoming the 14th Prime Minister of India. We saw a spirited fight between different political parties in the last six months but all that is over. We, the people of India, have great expectations from you and your government. I thought I would write a series of letters to you on the great challenges that face our country. In these letters I would make a few suggestions on how the challenges can be tackled but my suggestions are not important. What we, the young people of India, want to know is your solutions to these challenges. We could have a discussion on how Indians can tackle these challenges; a discussion that was missed by us in the last six months.
I am writing my first letter on how we could make our parliament more effective. You are of course aware that you and your council of ministers are answerable to the people of India through the parliament. In that sense, the parliament is your boss. I am sure that you would agree that for the health of Indian democracy, we need to make the parliament more effective.
I understand that the Members of the Parliament (MPs) are expected to legislate effectively, examine the budget and debate over the expenses of the government, hold the government accountable and above all, represent the interests of their constituents. Unfortunately, over the last few years, the reputation of parliament has suffered a little. It has been losing some of its effectiveness. Let us look at some data.
How have the recent Lok Sabhas performed?
Dialogue, discussion and debate are key activities inside the Parliament. From the first Lok Sabha in 1952 to the third Lok Sabha in 1967, the house sat for an average of 600 days and 3784 hours. The conduct of the proceedings and quality of debate was of high standard. Lately, we have witnessed a steady decline in the number of sitting days and working hours of the Parliament. The 14th Lok Sabha sat for 1738 hours and the 15th Lok Sabha till the beginning of December 2013 met for 335 days and 1329 hours.
The success rate of passing the bills was relatively high earlier. The 1st and 2nd Lok Sabhas passed more than 300 bills. The 5th Lok Sabha passed more than 450 bills. The figure has declined quite dramatically and the 15th Lok Sabha has recorded only 162 bills to its credit in the last four years of which 35% were debated for an hour or less. The time spent on discussing Budget went down from 123 hours in 1950 to 39 hours in the last decade. The detailed estimation of the expenses of the ministers’ is called Demand for Grants. In the past decade, 95% of these have been passed without discussion. Last year Rs 16.6 lakh crores worth of grants were voted and passed without any discussion.
I am sure you would agree that the above numbers are a matter for concern. “AskHow” has collated a few suggestions on how to improve the functioning of the Parliament and I am presenting them to you. As I mentioned earlier in my letter, we wish to hear your solutions and would be very happy if my letter is only the starting point for a discussion.
How can we deal with the lower number of sitting days?
The government enjoys the right to decide when the Parliament shall convene and to limit the number of sitting hours. The President convenes the sessions in accordance with the advice of the Council of Ministers. To me, it seems equivalent of deciding when your boss comes to office. Do you think a fixed schedule announced in advance would be a better idea? Another thought is that a provision could be introduced where if a certain number of MPs ask for a sitting; the Parliament would be obliged to meet.
In order to smoothen the legislative process, National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (2002) had recommended pre-legislative consulting. Under this, the house shall draw suggestions and recommendations from professional institutions, business organisations, trade unions, academicians etc. by making public the draft of the bills. This would ensure that the bills that come to the parliament have already taken into account the view of all stake-holders. Thus, the time required to examine the bills could be brought down.
How can we deal with disruptions?
Sir, every time a newspaper or TV channel reports about disruption in the parliament, young people like me loose a little respect for politicians and political parties. I am sure you would agree that this is not desirable.
Everyone wants to make their point of view heard. The frustration of not being able to raise a matter for discussion in the house and shortage of time leads to adjournments. Could we address the issue by a twin pronged approach? The first prong of the approach would be to dedicate a few days in each session to matters raised by opposition MPs. The Fourteenth All India Whips Conference recommended that one full day in a week should be allotted to address concerns of MPs. England dedicates 20 working days for the opposition parties to determine an agenda for the Parliament.
Baijayant Jay Panda, MP BJD suggests a provision which allows a group of MPs to present a matter for discussion without the need for consensus of all 40 parties.
The second prong of our approach could be to take immediate action against those MPs who cause disruptions and obstruct the business of the house. The Conference of Presiding Officers recommended suspension of MPs for a specific period.
How can we incentivise MPs to work for better laws and how can we make them more effective?
For many reasons, a Member of Parliament after serving a term is not confident of a re-election based on his or her performance in the house. The MPs do not get the deserved credit and recognition in framing laws. Most laws are passed through voice votes which are never recorded and hence cannot be acknowledged by the public. Recording voice votes could be an important incentive at an individual level.
A very high concern for the citizens would be that MPs are not allowed to exercise right to express individual opinion in the house. Their party can issue a whip and then the MP cannot vote against the whip. In case they do, it is counted under anti-defection law due to which they may stand disqualified. A suggestion has been made that the issuance of whips could be limited only to those bills that put at stake the survival of the government, such as a no-confidence motion.
MPs need to make their minds up on a variety of technical and financial issues. For example, they may discuss an optimum poverty line one day and might debate a law on women’s safety the next day. MPs should be empowered with adequate surveys and statistical information in order to substantiate their arguments. They should also have access to research that informs them of what other countries have done to tackle the same issue.
Lastly, How can the Parliament do a detailed scrutiny of legislatures and government functioning? The parliamentary standing committees do not have adequate technical support. They are provided only with a secretariat that enables only scheduling and note taking. The main drawback in our system is that the valuable recommendations of the standing committees are not obligatory. The government not only can reject the recommendations but also is exempted from giving reasons for rejecting recommendations. Unlike UK, Ministers are not legally obliged to appear in front of the standing committee. The Chairman of Rajya Sabha has suggested a review over these practices. It should be the practice in a parliamentary democracy to make public the examination of witnesses as reviewed by the committees.
Sir, in the recently concluded elections, million of first time voters participated enthusiastically. They are all looking at you with great expectations. They are not yet cynical. They do not think that “kuch nahin badlega — nothing will change”. Please don’t let them down.
With warm regards
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