The Rajya Sabha was recently disrupted over referring the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill to a Select Committee. The decision to refer it was defeated by vote and the Bill was passed. In light of this, this article looks at why parliamentary committees are important and how they strengthen the law-making process.
In the last decade, Parliament has passed over 250 Bills on a range of subjects. These legislations have a wide-ranging impact on the lives of every citizen. This impact only multiplies when you take into account the laws that have been cleared by Parliament since Independence. When Parliament debates on the merits of a legislation, it has to take into account factors such as the drafting, possible implementation challenges, the unintended consequences of enacting certain provisions, among others.
In Parliament, every business transacted on the floor of the House has a designated time allocated. As a result, it is difficult for all members to be involved in the deliberation process and ensure that each Bill is scrutinised in detail.
In order to ensure that Parliament discharges its law-making responsibilities effectively, the concept of Department-related Standing Committees was introduced in March 1993. The committees were meant to scrutinise legislations pertaining to specific ministries, their budgets and also deliberate on any other subject of importance to particular sectors.
But the 16th Lok Sabha witnessed a bypassing of parliamentary committees. During the term of the 16th Lok Sabha, the treasury benches had a majority in the Lok Sabha but not in the Rajya Sabha. This led to the government facing resistance in its legislative agenda in Rajya Sabha.
An early indication of this resistance was the government’s inability to get the Land Acquisition Bill passed through the Rajya Sabha. A graceful exit for the Bill was achieved, by referring it to a joint committee of Parliament which, till the end of the 16th Lok Sabha, did not submit a report on it.
The lack of majority led to the treasury benches changing its parliamentary strategy related to the passing of Bills. A minister piloting a Bill has the prerogative to introduce it in either House of Parliament. The only exception is money Bills, which can only be introduced in the directly elected House. During the 16th Lok Sabha, a majority of Bills were introduced in the Lok Sabha. There is a two-fold explanation for this approach. First, any member of Parliament (MP) can oppose the introduction of a Bill in a House.
The failure to introduce a Bill on the floor of the House is an embarrassment for the ruling government. Since the treasury benches did not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha, they introduced most of their Bills in the Lok Sabha.
Introducing the Bills in a House in which the government has a majority has another advantage. After a Bill is introduced in the House, the member piloting it has the option to move a motion to refer it to a committee of Parliament. If such a motion is not made, the presiding officer of the House has the option to refer it to a committee. If the presiding officer does not send the Bill to a committee, then the House can schedule a time to consider and pass it. After the Bill is passed by one House it goes to the other House, in which any MP can move a motion to refer it to a Select Committee made up of MPs from that House.
The Opposition, which had the numerical advantage in the Rajya Sabha, was able to do this on multiple occasions. The current chairman of the Rajya Sabha also referred 80% of the Bills introduced during his tenure to a committee of Parliament.
However, committees were not envisaged as a political tool. The three ideas behind parliamentary committees were (1) to strengthen Parliament by increasing its scrutiny of government, whose functioning was becoming more technical, (2) to invite subject matter experts and public feedback to be able to contribute to the deliberations in Parliament and (3) to provide a year-round forum for debate and deliberation, not limited by the 65 to 75 average sitting days of Parliament.
Over the years, parliamentary committees have made important recommendations that have helped improve the law-making process. In the last Lok Sabha, the government had introduced the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code Bill. This 252-clause Bill overhauled the process involved in the resolution of insolvency and bankruptcy cases of companies and individuals. The Bill was allocated two hours of time to be discussed and passed in the Lok Sabha. Several members pressed upon the Bill to be sent to a committee. It was referred to the Joint Select Committee. This committee held 12 meetings and made extensive amendments to the legislation. When the Bill was eventually taken up for discussion in May 2016, the government accepted all the amendments suggested by the committee.
Similarly, the Consumer Protection Bill that was passed in this session was also introduced in the last Lok Sabha. It was referred to the Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs, and Public Distribution. The committee suggested several changes, including penalising celebrities for promoting brands indulging in misleading advertisements. Many of the recommendations made by the committee were incorporated by the government in their updated Bill.
These are just two examples of the contribution of parliamentary committees to the legislative process.
However, not everything is well with parliamentary committees. They do not have specialised staff to provide them with research and assist in the scrutiny of technical subjects. MPs are also indifferent to their participation in committee proceedings. Difficulty in maintaining the quorum and low attendance in meetings are challenges that parliamentary committee chairs have faced on multiple occasions.
If Bills are not referred to committees, legislation misses an important step of scrutiny by Parliament. Inadequate scrutiny may lead to implementation challenges and impact the purpose of enacting the law itself. Parliamentary committees are central to our legislative process and strengthening them will go a long way in making our Parliament even more effective.
Abhijit Banare and Chakshu Roy are with PRS Legislative Research (www.prsindia.org). The views are personal.