Tag Archives: Parliament

My paper on parliamentary oversight in India

9 Aug

My paper proposing a framework for Parliamentary Oversight in India has been published in the NUJS Law Review (link). A brief description of the paper: 

The need for a strong monitoring mechanism of the Executive in India has been made clearer by recent allegations of corruption against high-ranking officials of the central government. The Indian Parliament is the ideal institution to perform such a monitoring function through oversight of the central executive. The Executive in India is directly accountable to the Parliament. Making oversight by Parliament stronger and more effective would therefore increase the accountability of the Executive. Additionally, an increased oversight role would allow for greater policy inputs from Parliament to the Executive. It would also increase the general level of expertise within Parliament by making parliamentarians more technocratic and giving them greater avenues for specialization in different aspects of policymaking. This has held true in varying degrees in different countries as examined in this paper. Enacting a law that formalizes mechanisms of oversight within Parliament, especially within the committee system, can create such a framework in India. The central focus of a strong oversight framework is the system of parliamentary committees. Reinvigorating existing committees by giving them greater autonomy, clearer powers and research support are central tenets of the proposals made in this paper. Along with restructuring parliamentary committees, the incentive structure for Indian parliamentarians to conduct oversight is also examined, and proposals are suggested to ensure they perform their oversight function effectively. Such a law should reshape the way Parliamentary business is conducted with a view to holding government accountable, while at the same time allowing the central executive to function independently, and with greater efficiency.”

Let the public participate

5 Aug

This post was first published in Takshashila’s Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review on May 3, 2013.  The article can be accessed here.

Given the failure of many government legislations in achieving the objectives for which they were formulated, a case for institutionalising deeper public consultations in the legislative process has been made in the recent past. Currently, there are four entry points where citizens can participate in the legislative process: first, the identifying stage; second, the drafting stage; third, the legislative stage; and fourth, the post-legislative stage.

Civil society organisations can alert the government to the need for a particular legislation or changes in an existing law. The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, a farmers and workers group, ran a successful campaign for a Right to Information law, which was finally enacted in 2005. The recent anti-corruption agitation led to the introduction of a Lokpal Bill currently pending in the Rajya Sabha. The long-running Right to Food campaign by a network of NGOs has been instrumental in raising awareness about chronic hunger and the eventual introduction of the National Food Security Bill in 2011.

The government can also suo moto decide that a law is required in a particular sector. It may get inputs from specialised bodies such as the National Human Rights Commission and the Law Commission or appoint a group to study a sector and draft a law. These groups or bodies may hold consultations with independent experts and stakeholders. Furthermore, an individual Member of Parliament (MP) can also introduce a Bill in either House. This is known as a Private Member’s Bill (for example, Lok Sabha MP, Kalikesh Singh Deo introduced the Disclosure of Lobbying Activities Bill in 2013 to regulate lobbying activities). Although these are generally never passed, they act as signalling devices to the government, which may introduce its own legislation on the subject. It is possible for the public to approach their constituency representatives to advocate for a particular law.

Government Bills are drafted by the concerned ministry, which is then vetted by other ministries. There are also times when the government approaches an independent expert to draft a law. Recently, it appointed the Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission, under the chairmanship of Justice BN Srikrishna to reform the financial sector laws.

The government may publish the draft legislation in the public domain for feedback. Drafts of the Electronic Service Delivery Bill, the National Sports Bill and the Land Acquisition and Resettlement Bill were published for a specified time period (generally 20-30 days). It may also circulate the draft among a select set of stakeholders for comments.  An individual MP may solicit public feedback on his Private Member Legislation. For example, Biju Janata Dal, MP Baijayant Panda uses his personal website and social media tools such as Facebook to publicise the draft of his private member bills.

There are few avenues of public engagement once the Bill is introduced in the Parliament. Since 1993, 24 Department-related Standing Committees (DRSCs) were formed to scrutinise Bills and other policies of the Government (before 1993 Bills were sometimes referred to ad-hoc committees for scrutiny). Generally most Bills are referred to these DRSCs, however, the presiding officer of the House has the discretion not to do so. For instance, key Bills such as the Special Economic Zones Bill, 2005 and the National Investigation Agency Bill, 2008 were not referred to a DRSC. In contrast, the Lokpal Bill passed by the Lok Sabha was sent to a Select Committee by the Rajya Sabha although it had been examined by the DRSC.

These DRSCs may solicit feedback from the public by issuing notices in key newspapers and the Gazette of India. The public comments are also tabled in the form of a report. However, the level of public engagement varies with different Bills. For instance, the DRSC scrutinising the Companies Bill, 2009 received 101 comments while only 10 submissions were received for the Armed Forces Tribunal (Amendment) Bill, 2012.

The government is not bound to accept the recommendations of the DRSC but individual MPs may introduce amendments to the Bill when it is being considered by the House. The MP may suggest amendments based on the DRSC’s suggestions or any public feedback.

Once Bills are enacted, ministries draft and notify Rules (also known as subordinate legislation) to enable their implementation. These Rules may be scrutinised by the Subordinate Legislation Committee, which is empowered to seek public feedback.

Post legislative scrutiny of laws is not mandatory in India. It may however be undertaken by bodies such as the Law Commission of India, the DRSCs or a specific commission appointed for the purpose who may hold public consultations. Recently, rape laws were reviewed by the Justice Verma Committee before an Ordinance was promulgated on the matter.

Many other democracies have devised meaningful ways to encourage public participation in the legislative process. In countries such as the UK, Australia and South Africa, it is mandatory to hold public consultations or publish draft Bills for comments. In fact, in South Africa it is a constitutionally mandated provision. In the UK, the Government publishes Green Paper and White Paper, which sets out its central ideas on the Bill. After introduction, it is compulsory to refer a Bill to a committee in the UK and the US. However, there is no such requirement in Australia, Canada and South Africa. Unlike in India and South Africa, it is mandatory for the Government in countries such as the UK, Australia and Canada to respond to the recommendations of the committee. While post legislative scrutiny in India is largely a matter of discretion of the Government, in the UK it is compulsory to do so within three to five years. In the US, legislative oversight committees review laws on a continuous basis. In Australia, most laws have to be reviewed within three years.  Public comments are also solicited during the post-legislative scrutiny.

India can learn from the experience of these countries and tailor them to suit our requirements. There are many ways in which the government can deepen public engagement in the legislative process.

First, ministries can be mandatorily required to publish the draft Bill for a reasonable time and publicise it through different media. Along with the draft Bill, the ministry may be required to include available background information on the subject and facilitate access to legal and legislative record on the matter.

Second, it should be compulsory to refer a Bill to a DRSC or select committee for scrutiny. This could be at both the pre-legislative stage and the legislative stage.  These committees should be required to hold wide consultations with a variety of stakeholders (NGOs, state and local governments, special interest groups, academics and legal experts). Public participation may be facilitated by increasing access to constituency offices, using a variety of media outlets to publicise the Bill and creating public participation offices that can interface with the public.

Third, in order to increase transparency in the feedback process, the government could be required to publish a report demonstrating how the inputs from stakeholders have been considered while formulating the law.

Fourth, most Acts should be subject to a post legislative scrutiny through public engagement every three to five years.  This could be carried out if each Bill includes an Explanatory Note giving the criteria or outcomes by which the Bill could be judged for effectiveness.  This responsibility could be given to a specialised committee.

Such measures will result in robust legislations, which shall need lesser amendments and will be successful in achieving the objective with which that legislation was enacted.

Why have pre-legislative scrutiny for Acts of Parliament?

28 May

This post is part-comment, part-response to Nick Robinson’s post on the Law and Other Things Blog (please do check the blog out!) regarding the NAC’s proposal for having pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills to be passed by Parliament. The National Advisory Council came out with “Draft Recommendations on Pre Legislative Process” for both draft rules, and draft laws or Bills. As a response to Nick’s post, I restrict my focus to the latter i.e. the need for pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills, or draft laws.

The pre-legislative proposal essentially mandates 3 things:

(a) Any public authority/government department has to publish a Statement of Essential Objectives and Principles, on the basis of which it will draft legislation.

(b) After the Statement has been in the public domain for 45 days, the public authority shall draft the legislation and keep it in public domain for 90 days and proactively share with the public.

(c) The public authority will then hold consultations and give comments on the feedback received, before the Bill is finalized and presented to Parliament.

(For those who do not know, most laws are first drafted by the concerned government department, and then discussed, debated and passed in Parliament)

Nick’s main critique of this process is the following:

“…Rules are created by out-of-touch administrators who never have to run for office. Legislation is passed and debated by Parliament – theoretically the central citadel in the Indian democratic system. Not only is Parliament the empowered representatives of the people, but while considering legislation Parliament often solicits outside comment through standing committees.
Should this not be enough? Doesn’t this provide legislation with adequate legitimacy? Shouldn’t Parliament be in charge of demanding proper justification and reason-giving for legislation? Indeed, does draft legislation even have to be based on sound reasoning? After all, legislation – unlike rulemaking – is often the product of compromise between different political factions. A vote is enough. No reasons necessary….”
As Nick says, there is merit to the argument for the NAC’s proposal to democratize the law-making process further since (a) laws are framed by unaccountable bureaucrats, (b) major changes are difficult to make once Bills have been introduced in Parliament, and (c) Parliament has been spending very little time on actual deliberation of legislation.
I believe that Nick is correct when he says that the NAC proposals are essentially a parallel process mirroring the process followed by Parliamentary Standing Committees, and that strengthening the Committee system might be a better idea. It is however, also important to note that there is no legal/ethical bar on pre-legislative scrutiny. The government is free to follow any process it wants in the drafting of legislation. However, a more participatory process may in most cases be better than a less participatory one. The important thing I believe, is to get the participatory process correct. Getting this process right would help prevent the process from getting dominated by civil-society and corporate elites.
On the other hand, it is also important to note that while as a matter of practise, most Bills passed are drafted and introduced by the Government, individual MPs are also free to introduce private-member Bills. Though private member Bills are rarely enacted in to law, individual MPs drafting such laws are also free to pursue any process for drafting their Bill, as per their convenience. They may follow a process more participatory than that of a Government Bill, or merely introduce their personally drafted Bill without any consultation whatsoever. As a matter of principle, this supports Nick’s theoretical position that the law making process does not require pre-legislative scrutiny.
Nick also discusses the importance of getting “…more parliamentary involvement at this earlier drafting stage. MPs (from all parties) could play an important role in giving feedback in drafting…” I would just like to state that a number of Ministries, if not all, have Parliamentary Consultative Committees, with the Minister as Chairman. These Consultative Committees discuss a number of issues regarding the day to day functioning of the Ministry. They do not currently, have any clear-cut role regarding draft legislation. A start could perhaps be made by institutionalizing pre-legislative scrutiny by these parliamentary Consultative Committees.
I believe that creating pre-legislative scrutiny as a process is more a statement of principle as a commitment towards greater democratization. It fits less well within the conventional understanding of the law-making process. However, there are a number of factors which in fact militate towards greater participation through these mechanisms: (a) Patrick French points out the increasing trend towards “hereditary” politics, (b) the erosion of Parliamentary incentives for deliberating legislation, (c) the ease with which Ministries can disregard recommendations of Standing Committees (see Action Taken Reports w.r.t. the higher education Bills), etc.
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Back to blog!

25 May

Dear All! Welcome back. I have been away from the blog for a while, but have decided to renew blogging actively again. I hope to give you interesting stuff to read once or twice every week, and engage you in some sort of debate on the stuff I write. So please let me know if there are any suggestions regarding subjects/topics you would like me to write on, and I will try my best to come up with something informative and engaging. Cheers!!

My article in Seminar Magazine on Parliamentary obstruction

24 May

Following is the article I wrote for Seminar Magazine (May 2013 issue) as a response to a piece on obstructions in Parliament: 

Communication

 

AN article in the February 2013 issue of Seminar titled ‘The Real Price of Parliamentary Obstruction’ by Tarunabh Khaitan highlights the issue of recent obstructionism in Parliament and elaborates on its attendant consequences. The piece highlights the fact that crucial parliamentary plenary time has been lost, and important legislation not passed due to obstructionism by (sometimes small) groups of opposition parliamentarians. It states that as a consequence of such obstructionism, the majority rule for passing legislation in Parliament has been translated to a de facto unanimity rule. A further consequence of such a unanimity rule and the consequent legislative paralysis, according to the article, has been the progressive ‘muscularization’ of the executive and the judiciary at the cost of the legislature.

This article attempts to contest three themes within this narrative. First, while some legislation has been held hostage to obstructions, obstructionism has not led to complete legislative paralysis. Such paralysis extends mainly to big-ticket legislation. Second, that the prioritization of local issues over legislative business by individual members of Parliament is in itself unhealthy, and worsens the pre-existing logjam (caused by legislative paralysis) in Parliament. Third, the ‘muscularization’ of the executive is at least as important a cause of parliamentary obstructionism as it is a consequence. A reconsideration of the issue of parliamentary obstruction on these lines may be crucial to design incentives for better usage of Parliament’s time.

In the winter session of 2012, the government introduced seven bills in the Lok Sabha. All seven were passed. In the monsoon session of 2013, this ratio dropped down to seven introduced, and two passed. However, in all other sessions of the 15th Lok Sabha, the Lok Sabha passed at least 50% of the number of bills the government introduced. In fact, the government has introduced 176 bills in the 15th Lok Sabha, while the Lok Sabha has passed 146 bills over the same period.1 While these numbers do not take into account the large number of bills still left pending, they do not indicate a state of paralysis either. Indeed, as Khaitan points out, the government has been more than willing to pass legislation, disregarding obstruction even as senior ministers have expressed grief over the passage of legislation in such a manner.

What is interesting is that while the government introduced seven bills in the 2012 winter session, it had listed 26 bills in all for consideration and passing.2 What does seem to be paralyzed, therefore, is the ability of the government to push through the legislation it wants passed. Legislation on goods and services tax, women’s reservation, companies law, direct tax, land acquisition and relief and rehabilitation, and higher education are still pending in Parliament. It may make interesting reading to see the total number of bills that have actually come up for discussion, and have been obstructed. In other words, the spectre of obstructionism causing ‘plenary bottleneck’, does not arise if legislation is not even debated during Parliament’s plenary time.

Various reasons other than obstructive logjam could be responsible for this state of affairs. The inability to form consensus, especially with coalition partners, may be one such reason. Ineptness in dealing with opposition demands may be another reason. The winter session of 2010 is one such example,3 where almost the entire session was wasted in protests over the government’s reluctance to form a JPC to look into the irregularities in 2G-spectrum allocation.4 One may characterize the loss of an entire session to obstruction as legislative paralysis. However, both the ruling coalition and the opposition should be considered as responsible for such paralysis. Lastly, legislative logjam could also simply be the result of not putting up legislation for a vote on the floor of either House due to apprehension about the passage of the bill. In other words, it may be more convenient to blame obstructionism if the ruling coalition is unsure of its ability to ensure passage of a bill.

Obstruction in Parliament can generally be said to occur for one of two reasons – opposition to government business to be conducted in Parliament, or the raising of local or non-legislative issues. The former is usually led by, or at the behest of party leaders, given the predominant strength of political parties and party leaders in our democracy. The latter, the raising of local issues, or other non-legislative issues and grievances is an important representative function that present parliamentary practice completely undermines.

In the First Lok Sabha, 489 elected members of the Lok Sabha5 represented an electorate of approximately 173 million.6 In the 15th Lok Sabha the same number of elected members represent an electorate of 700 million. At the same time, Lok Sabha met for an average of 127 days in the 1950s and Rajya Sabha for 93 days. This has decreased to 73 days for both Houses in 2011.7 Therefore, while the burden of representation on legislators during Parliament’s plenary time has increased nearly four-fold, the available plenary time to do so has decreased by a quarter.

The ‘plenary bottleneck’ therefore, is first and foremost a function of the inadequate time for a legislator to represent his/her constituency. While passing legislation is an important function for a legislator, oversight and representation are equally important. Present parliamentary practice and incentive structures create a bottleneck with respect to not just legislation, but also to representationper se. Obstruction in some cases at least, then becomes a perverse method of representing local issues, a symptom of the institutional weakness of Parliament in allowing legislators to represent their constituencies, and not just a publicity stunt.

Evidence indicates that the growing strength of the executive is as important a cause, as a consequence for obstructionism and paralysis. Since the early 1990s, the number of centrally sponsored schemes (CSS) has grown significantly (147 presently8 ), providing for direct transfer from the central government to the states. Parliamentary oversight over CSS during plenary time is limited to discussions on the budget. Data shows that an overwhelming majority of demands for grants by various ministries get guillotined, i.e. never get discussed (79% of demands for grants in 2009-109). Therefore, a large amount of government resources are being spent on CSS with no role for legislators for effective accountability or oversight during Parliament’s plenary time.

Further, the government has established a pension fund regulator, and started the largest programme in the world for capturing biometric information through the UIDAI without legislative mandate. The only significant social welfare scheme to get Parliament’s mandate was the MGNREGA, and even then, the legislation was passed after the NREGS was already operational! The executive has thus continually bypassed Parliament for various reasons, consequently reducing incentives and the ability of parliamentarians to perform their representation and oversight roles. Parliament, as many parliamentarians complain, has effectively become a rubber stamp.

Additionally, MPLADS provides a counter-incentive to parliamentarians to move away from legislative functions to executive roles. Stripped of the ability to perform roles in a representative manner within Parliament, MPLADS allows parliamentarians to focus on nurturing their constituencies by undertaking developmental works instead. Political leaders have also jostled for, and created executive decision-making roles for themselves, especially at the state level (MLALADS for example), leading to greater interference with bureaucratic processes, disregarding their legislative responsibilities and causing bureaucratic emasculation.

Parliamentary obstructionism is not just a case of errant behaviour gone unchecked. It is a consequence of a systemic de-prioritization of a parliamentarian’s representative role. The lack of adequate plenary time, prioritization of government business over all other work in Parliament, and a host of other perverse incentives are responsible for this logjam, and obstructionism is its most festering, visible symptom.

Anirudh Burman

Graduate from Harvard Law School, worked with PRS Legislative Research

 

* I am grateful to Dr. K.P. Krishnan and Dr. Kaushiki Sanyal for their comments and inputs.

Footnotes:

1. Lok Sabha Secretariat, Twelfth Session of the Fifteenth Lok Sabha – An Overview. Lok Sabha Secretariat, Press and Public Relations Wing, p.8 (available at: http://164.100.47.132/lssnew/ overview/11th_15LS_statement.pdf, visited on 04/04/13).

2. Kusum Malik, Plan vs. Performance – Winter Session 2012: November 22 to December 20. PRS Legislative Research, December 2012.

3. Another example would be the paralysis in Parliament over the issue of reservations in promotion in the 2012 winter session.

4. Data from PRS Legislative Research shows that the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha worked for 5.5% and 2.4% of their respective available time. (Rohit Kumar, Vital Stats: Parliament in Winter Session 2010. PRS Legislative Research, December 2010.)

5. Election Commission of India, Statistical Report on General Elections, 1951 to the First Lok Sabha. Vol. I. (http://eci.nic.in/eci_main/StatisticalReports/LS_1951/VOL_1_51_LS.PDF, visited on 11/04/13).

6. Ibid., p. 4 (visited on 04/04/13).

7. Rohit Kumar and Devika Malik, Vital Stats: 60 Years of Parliament. PRS Legislative Research (available at: http://www. prsindia.org/administrator/uploads/general/1336864627~~ Sixty%20years%20of%20Parliament%20v2.pdf, visited on 04/04/13)

8. Planning Commission of India, Report of the Committee on Restructuring of Centrally Sponsored Schemes. September 2011, p. ii.

9. Anirudh Burman, Financial Oversight by Parliament: Background Note for the Conference on Effective Legislatures. PRS Legislative Research, November 2010 (available at: http://www. prsindia.org/administrator/uploads/media Conference% 20noteConference%20note%20on%20financial%20oversight.pdf, visited on 05/04/13).

 

Parliament: Bleak Outcome for Defence

30 Mar

In August 2005, a new experiment was initiated by India’s Ministry of Finance under P. Chidambaram.  Every Ministry would have to prepare an “Outcome Budget” and present it in parliament along with its annual budget.  An Outcome Budget, as the foreword to “Outlays and Outcomes – towards achieving better results” explains is essentially the following:

It is a mechanism to measure the development outcomes of all major programmes.

Therefore, to improve the quality of government programmes, every ministry has to explain the amount allocated for a particular programme/ scheme/ project in terms of what kind of physical outcome would be achieved by spending some amount.

For example: if the Ministry for Human Resource and Development wants to spend 1000 crore on elementary education, it will have to explain what will be the exact increase in literacy, in infrastructure for schools, in improving the quality of teachers etc that spending this money will achieve.

At the end of the year, when next year’s budget is presented, the Ministry will then have to state what the achievement has been compared to the expected results.  In the last 4-5 years, most ministries have started publishing Outcome Budgets.  One ministry which does not, is that of Defence.

The Defence Ministry was exempted from this process by the Ministry of Finance.  The Defence Ministry had stated its reasons before a committee of Parliament as:

“Sir, we will try to supply that but the fact is that in the Ministry of Defence we have not produced the Outcome Budget in the past. Ever since the Ministry of Finance issued the instructions regarding the Outcome Budget, we are trying to do it. The Ministry is trying to develop an infrastructure for this. But in the Ministry of Defence because of the nature of its functioning and the nature of expenditure, we could not produce the outcome budget. But if you feel that it should be submitted, we will try to do it for certain areas. But I do not think that it can be given in two-three days because it is a long exercise and it would mean involving everybody. So, I would say that it is simply the nature of the functioning of the Ministry that made it a little difficult.”
While doing so, the Ministry however stated that it would try and bring out an Outcome budget for certain areas by next year. This was in 2008-09.  In 2009-10 there was still no outcome budget.  The Committee of parliament which looks after defence stated that:
“Committee have been informed that the areas and organizations for preparation of Outcome Budget were identified. Although these organizations prepared the Outcome Budget, the same was considered inadequate. The concept being new, there was lack of conceptual clarity with regard to the methodology to be followed for the preparation of the Outcome Budget…..The Committee further note that the Defence Expenditure Review Committee set up to study the issue of curbing wasteful expenditure has also recommended that the proposed Demands for the year 2009-10 should be entirely outcome oriented and a workshop may be conducted to finalise the methodology. Even then, the Ministry could not present the Outcome Budget during the year 2009-10. …. The Committee hope that the Outcome Budget of the Ministry would be presented to Parliament for the year 2010-11.”
This year again, no Outcome Budget has been prepared.
I read this fact as an indicator if the fact that secrecy never does anything to improve performance.  There may be areas which genuinely need to be protected for reasons of security.  But financial performance and the status of our armed forces should be openly discussed and debated not just in Parliament but also outside it.  With no outcome budgets being presented, and with virtually no documents concerning the Ministry in public domain, one cannot help but be perturbed about the status of our armed force.  This especially when the Ministry states it does not have the infrastructure to prepare an outcome Budget!!!

How Rajya Sabha succeeded: Women’s Reservation

9 Mar

I do not wish to enter the debate on the efficacy of reservation of women in Parliament.  I do not wish to do so for the simple reason that I think it is a good idea.  In this post I wish to focus on the story of how the Rajya Sabha passed the Bill.  This so for the reason that in many ways today encapsulated the best and worst of parliamentary democracy.

To start from the beginning, let’s mark out the central characters:

1. The Congress, the BJP, the Left and their allies who all supported of the Bill.  The BJP had however said that they would refuse to vote for the Bill if the Congress tried to pass it without a discussion.  The Bill had no hope of passing without BJP support as a 2/3rd majority is required to amend India’s Constitution (which is what the Bill does).

2. The RJD, the SP, BSP, the JD(U) and some other parties who opposed the Bill with varying degrees of vehemence and violence.

3. India’s Vice-President and Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Mr. Hamid Ansari, the deputy-Chairman, and the marshalls and other officers of the House.

The chain of events really begins from last evening when some MPs tried to get on to the Chairman’s platform, tore off a copy of the sheets he was holding, and created a ruckus in the House when the Bill was to be debated.

This morning started by the Chairman decisively suspending 7 MP’s involved in the previous day’s ruckus for the rest of the budget session of Parliament.  Having categorically shown his authority, he re-convened the House at 2.00 pm.  At 2.00 pm, some people still descended to the ‘well’ of the House in front of the Chairman and tried to create a ruckus.

This usually results in the Speaker or the Chairman adjourning the House since the business of the House cannot be conducted amid such chaos.  Today however, all other MPs remained in their seats silently, and patiently, just waiting for the dissenters to quieten.  The Chairman also remained in his seat, quiet for most of the time.  After around 15-20 minutes, the 5-7 dissenting MPs were escorted out by the marshalls, who also formed a chain around the well of the House to prevent further disruption.

Gradually, the din abated, and the leader of the opposition spoke.  A number of MPs spoke for short intervals, giving their support to the Bill, for many varied, but equally tenable reasons.  Finally, the Law Minister, Veerappa Moily closed the debate, and while doing so, fittingly thanked the Chairman of the House for being strong-willed and fearless, and seeing the Bill through to its end.

Whatever one’s opinion on the Bill, the day saw MPs being suspended for the type of misbehaviour which has so far been unprecedented in our Parliament.  It also saw marshalls being called in to restore order.  It witnessed also strong and patient behaviour by an overwhelming majority of our usually squabbling politicians, and also most importantly, it saw strong and decisive behaviour by the Vice-President and Chairman, who seemed firmly in control of his House.

Erstwhile ‘State’ of Joy

25 Feb

After having spent five years as a student in Kolkata (West Bengal), I revisited the city after a year earlier this month. The difference in perspective as a student and now as an employed professional prompted me to look at the state, and its governance anew.  Given below are some facts and figures I found interesting:

1.  In response to a question in Parliament, it was reported that West bengal is somewhere near the bottom of the pile in rankings on developed on four broad parameters of access,infrastructureteacher related indicators and elementary education outcomes.

2. Though West Bengal introduced radical land reforms in the late 1970s, recent data indicates that the proportion of landless rural households increased from 39.6% in 1987-88 to 49.8% in 1993-94.  In other words, by the end of the decade, nearly half of all rural households in the state were landless.

3. The best features of governance in West Bengal seem to be in the field of decentralization and financial autonomy.  The UNDP report quoted above reports that West Bengal is unique in India in collecting information on areas such as Domestic Product (GDP) on a district-wise basis.

4. Though the overall incidence of poverty has come down in the 1990s, the rate seems to be increasing for agricultural workers.  Nearly half of them remain absolutely poor.

5. About employment: “Employment is one of the most significant issues in terms of the living conditions of the people of West Bengal today.  Quite simply, there are not enough jobs for the people who are willing, or are forced to work.”  The rate of employment generation in terms of total work has been lower than the rate at which population has expanded.  This is remarkable given the fact that West Bengal has one of the slowest population growth rates in the country!!

Should MPs have the job of developing their local area?

5 Feb

Since 1993, Members of Parliament have been given a certain amount of money they can use to recommend works of a developmental nature in their constituency.  The scheme is known as the MP Local Area Development Scheme, or MPLADS. This scheme has become the subject matter of a crucial debate recently.

Initially, all MPs were given 50 lakhs per year.  Since 1998-99 this amount has been extended to Rs. 2 crores.  The main features of this scheme are:

a.  Works, based on locally felt needs are eligible under the scheme, and the role of the MP is recommendatory.

b.   Ideally, Urban Local Bodies (e.g. MCD in Delhi, BMC in Mumbai, KMC in Kolkata) and Panchayats (in rural areas) are expected to carry out the works recommended.

c.  The work should normally be completed in one year.

d.  Such work can also be entrusted to registered trusts and societies if certain conditions are met.

In short, MPs get a sum of Rs. 2 crores every year, in addition to the funds allocated by the government to local departments and municipal bodies, and using such funds, the MPs can recommend developmental activity.  It is seemingly a beneficial scheme.  However, the most important issue arising out of this scheme is:  Is a Member of Parliament even supposed to undertake developmental activities in his constituency? There is also a PIL pending in the Supreme Court on this matter.

MPs are elected to represent the people in Parliament, and debate national issues.  They are expected to frame national policies, and in doing so, represent the views of the people who elected him or her.

The role of developing the local area is of the state government, and therefore, of the MLA.  It is MLAs who represent the people in the state government which actually looks after the development of the state.  It is the state governments who are responsible for planning cities and towns, and for roads and bridges.  They are supposed to ensure proper supply of electricity and water, and so on.

Recently, there has been a growing clamour to increase the amount given under MPLADS from Rs. 2 crore to Rs. 5 crore.  A recent op-ed in the Indian Express also points out that “it has also been rightfully argued that local bodies are in any case better placed to undertake such capital expenditure”.

Interestingly, while the clamour for increasing the money allocated has grown after the 2009 elections, one of the reports of the Administrative Reforms Commission under the current Law Minister Mr. Moily had recommended that MPLADS be scrapped.  In 2005, Mr. Somnath Chatterjee had also stated that:

“The scheme should be scrapped. Note that this scheme was launched immediately after passing the Constitution 73rd Amendment. The game clearly was to sabotage the emergence of panchayats, which were autonomous of the weight-throwing MPs and MLAs.”

Very clearly, it is very controversial whether giving money to MPs which they can throw at their constituents (and occasionally inaugurate roads and bridges built from such funds) actually aids development.  it is more plausible that MPs throw their weight around in front of local authorities, and ensure schemes under MPLADS are given greater priority than government-sponsored schemes for development.

Right to Information: What Information?

19 Jan

Since 2005, India has witnessed a gradual change in the operation of governmental structures due to the rapid and powerful use of the Right to Information Act.  Recently, the Delhi High Court ruled that even the office of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India comes within the purview of the RTI Act.  As a recent article (‘Right to Privacy‘) points out however, there is a careful balancing act required between the Right to Information and the Right to privacy.

This is especially relevant in the case of the recent order of the Chief Information Commissioner stating that “Parliament has not codified the right to privacy so far, hence, in balancing the Right to Information of Citizens and the individual’s Right to Privacy, the Citizen’s Right to Information would be given greater weightage.’’

The CIC said this in a case where it basically stated that an individual’s tax records can also be obtained by filing an RTI, as the right to information has greater weight than a person’s right to privacy!!!  The Delhi High Court has thankfully stayed this decision’s effect, and will hear the matter in detail this month.

What is disturbing is that though this decision of the CIC is alarming, it was given to help an applicant bring to light large-scale tax evasion (allegedly 500 crores) by Escorts Ltd, Escorts Heart Institute and Research Center (EHIRC), Big Apple and AAA Portfolio.  So now, the Delhi High Court may give a better judgement on a point of law, but doing so will probably help these above-named industries get away with large-scale tax evasion.

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