House Standing Committees are in a state of disuse

House Standing Committees are in a state of disuse

The Winter Session of Parliament witnessed a fierce stand-off between the Modi government and the opposition over the triple talaq bill and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Bill. The grouse of the opposition: the government, using its brute majority in the Lok Sabha, has been pushing through bills without proper scrutiny by Parliamentary Standing Committees.

Since the constitution of the 16th Lok Sabha in May 2014, barely two dozen bills have been referred to the Parliament's department-related standing committees for closer scrutiny.

What began as an exception - the expeditious passing of the bill to amend the TRAI Act without reference to a standing committee - soon became the norm, with fewer bills referred to the panels, which are considered to be a mini-Parliament.

Besides the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill or the triple talaq bill, the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Bill (IBC) and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Act are classic examples of inconsistencies and inaccuracies creeping into the law-making process. These mistakes, the opposition argues, could have been avoided had the bills been referred to a standing committee for closer scrutiny.

The end result: the triple talaq bill is still hanging fire, with the government adamant on not referring it to a committee; the GST and IBC bills had to undergo amendments to rectify the gaps in the law that were identified soon after their enactment.

This is a direct fall-out of a weaker opposition facing a strong government that is asserting its brute majority in Parliament. The bills passed by Parliament during the tenure of the Modi government fall into three broad categories - (i) smooth passage, (ii) passed by Lok Sabha but sent for scrutiny by the Rajya Sabha and (iii) Bills referred to a standing committee and then taken up by the Lok Sabha.

A quick analysis of the last three Lok Sabhas shows that fewer bills have been examined by department-related standing committees (DRSC) during the current government. During the 14th and the 15th Lok Sabhas, 60% and 71% of the total bills introduced in Parliament were referred to DRSCs respectively. This number has shrunk to a mere 27% during the three-and-a-half years of the present Lok Sabha.

The need for DRSCs was first articulated in 1978 as the then policy-makers favoured a closer scrutiny of the Union Budget, which used to get passed after discussions on a handful of departments in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. The 'Demand for Grants' for the rest of the departments were approved by Parliament without scrutiny.

The DRSCs first came into being in 1993 and slowly, new and healthy precedents were set by referring crucial bills for examination by the committees. The functioning of the DRSCs was deliberately kept away from media glare to allow for a non-partisan examination of the subject at hand.

Also, it was felt that issues could be examined dispassionately and in depth by a committee of 31 members instead of close to 800 members comprising both houses of Parliament. The committees worked throughout the year, unlike the 70-odd sittings of Parliament annually. Besides the budgetary outlays, the DRSCs examine bills referred to them, specific topics selected by the committees, as well as functioning of the government departments.

Since the anti-defection law does not apply to committees, members tend to express views beyond party lines, which help in arriving at consensus reports. If differences persist, members can give dissenting notes that become part of the DRSC reports that are submitted to Parliament from time to time.

An oft-repeated excuse forwarded by the present government is that referring bills to the DRSCs leads to delay in law-making. This may be partly true, as happened in the case of the prolonged examination of the GST Bill and the Direct Tax Code Bill introduced during the previous Lok Sabha, and that of the GST Bill and the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill by the select committee during the current Lok Sabha. However, a hurried legislation, riddled with errors, is certainly not the way to go about law-making.

Congress leader M Veerappa Moily highlighted during a debate in the Lok Sabha
in December last year how the Standing Committee on Finance presented reports on 25 bills during the UPA-II years as against the just two bills referred to the same committee since May 2014. During the Winter Session, it took a nation-wide strike by doctors and an adamant opposition for the National Medical Commission Bill to be referred to a standing committee,
prompting the opposition to wonder whet her the committee system was under siege.

Parliamentary committees have reflected the politics of the day. This was seen in the late 1980s, when the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress, then with a brute majority of nearly
425 members in the Lok Sabha, prevented the adoption of a report on the HDW submarine scandal by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), then chaired by Amal Dutta
of the CPI(M). The same political jostling was witnessed when the PAC examined the alleged 2G Spectrum allocation scam, an issue that was later examined by a Joint Parliamentary Committee. More recently, the Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture witnessed dramatic scenes over the adoption of a draft report that opposes disinvestment in Air India.

Strengthening DRSCs

There have been demands for live coverage of the proceedings as part of reforms to the committee system. However, the real intent for setting up the DRSCs - to have non-partisan discussions - could be lost if these were to be televised.

Instead, making submission of reports time-bound to remove the apprehension of delayed legislation, equipping DRSCs with a research staff having expertise in the subjects handled by it, and making it mandatory for Parliament to debate on the reports could add more value to the standing committee system.

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