By Aparajita Bharti and Rohit Kumar:
About a decade ago, young people from middle-class backgrounds had almost no window into the policy space. Understanding was limited and policy was synonymous with politics. We had only seen Members of Parliament on TV sets and we broadly knew that these people were responsible for making laws in the country. We thought of MPs as distant and much beyond our reach; more importantly, we thought of them as all powerful, with enormous authority to change things.
And then came along an organisation that opened the doors for young people to engage with parliamentarians to provide the much-needed support on legislation and policy. We both jumped at the opportunity to understand how the country’s law-making body operates and started working with PRS Legislative Research.
A closer look at Parliament was undoubtedly fascinating, but also very disappointing. We were surprised to learn that more often than not, Members of Parliament also find themselves just as helpless as regular citizens – without a voice and without the power to influence policy, unless of course when they are Ministers in the government.
This may come as a surprise to many people, as it did for us. And why shouldn’t it? We have all been taught in schools that Parliament is the supreme law-making body in the country, that each Member of Parliament represents upwards of 2 million people and that they hold the government accountable on our behalf. Why would anyone imagine these people as not empowered? As young citizens who were just starting to make sense of the world, how were we to know that there is a massive imbalance of power between the executive (i.e. the government) and the legislature (i.e. the Parliament)?
The reality is, in fact, just that. What goes on in Parliament is governed by certain ‘Rules of Procedure’ that gives inordinate power to the government, right from setting the agenda of what gets discussed in Parliament to deciding what Bills get referred to the committees. Possibly a legacy from British times, these archaic rules still haunt us today. These rules are also the reason why we see the opposition (irrespective of which party it is) blocking the Parliament for days on end, just to get the government to hold discussions on a topic of their interest. In the absence of a legitimate means to get themselves heard, the opposition often is left with no choice other than protesting inside the Parliament.
As the logjam in Parliament intensifies, so does public anger. Media reports lawmakers as being callous and irresponsible; an already low public perception of politics and politicians gets marred even further. The cycle repeats itself over and over again, until citizens give up, stop engaging and become indifferent to the debates (and theatrics) in Parliament.
But, in our experience of working closely with Members of Parliament, we realised that this public perception is often misguided. Many of our MPs are sincere, hardworking individuals who are genuinely trying to bring about positive change. They put in effort to critique laws and propose new ones even when the rules of Parliament offer little opportunity for them to be heard, let alone create impact.
MPs who are not a part of the government i.e. those who are not ministers have the power to submit what are called Private Members’ Bills and often put in a lot of effort to do so. Through these Bills, MPs raise pertinent issues – social, economic and otherwise – and put forward researched policy proposals in the hope that Parliament will take notice and give these issues the serious consideration that they deserve. Some Private Members’ Bills that have been in the news lately are MP Shashi Tharoor’s Bill to decriminalize homosexuality and MP Tiruchi Siva’s Bill on Rights of the Transgender Community.
Theoretically, every Bill in Parliament should carry the same weight and should be dealt with the same seriousness, regardless of who champions it. The focus should be on the issue at hand, and not the person introducing it. But, given the distorted balance of power between the executive and legislature in the Indian context, most Private Members’ Bills never see the light of day. In fact, since 1970 no Private Members’ Bill has become law and till date, only 14 Private Members’ Bills have been passed by Parliament. Of the 370 odd Private Members’ Bills introduced in the 15th Lok Sabha, barely 3% were discussed; 97% lapsed without even a single debate in the House. In the absence of a proper platform for discussion, these Bills never find a place in the public narrative. And these are not Private Members’ Bills that deal with frivolous issues either; they talk about important things like censorship and freedom of speech, paternity leave, recall of elected representatives, population control and other issues that many of us care deeply about.
As young people who joined the policy space with an idealistic view of the world in which policy-making is truly inclusive and democratic, it has been disheartening to witness this disenfranchisement of our elected representatives and the growing (and almost irreversible) disenchantment of the public with the Parliament.
‘Sansad Unplugged’ is, therefore, YKA and YLAC’s attempt to create a platform for our Members of Parliament to present their Private Members’ Bills directly to young people and lend a voice to these proposals. For youth, this is a chance to know the hopes and dreams of our elected representatives, and to get to know them beyond the cynical image painted by the media. We hope that this platform becomes a direct channel to engage on policy issues that matter and where many MPs and young people can find common ground.
As they say, democracy is a never-ending project; it’s “a beckoning goal and not a safe harbour”. We hope this becomes a small step that we take together to fill the fissures in the very foundations of our democracy.
Aparajita and Rohit are founders of Young Leaders for Active Citizenship (YLAC). YLAC aims to increase the participation of young people in the democratic process and build their capacity to lead change.