Parliament and state legislatures form the core of India’s democracy. On behalf of citizens, they make laws, hold the governments accountable for their actions, and allocate public funds to various national priorities. Therefore, it is imperative that legislators take informed decisions, that citizens know how they are being represented, and that there are channels of participation between citizens and legislators.
An example will illustrate the impact that better functioning legislatures can have on the lives of citizens. Take school education. The governments together spend over $30 billion a year on school education but learning outcomes are poor. Many charities run their own schools (which cater to a few thousand children). Given that there are about 200 million children in the school-going age group, a more effective use of funds would be to improve the government school system. This would require legislatures to make more effective laws, hold the executive accountable towards meeting outcomes, and scrutinise the use of public funds. Similar issues occur across various sectors such as health, water, infrastructure, and to pure public goods such as defence and police.
Unlike several mature democracies, India does not provide its legislators with research personnel, either through a dedicated unit or through individual assistants. PRS was set up to bridge the gap by providing high quality independent research. The objective is to help legislators understand the nuances of various issues and use data and evidence to judge the implications of various policy alternatives.
A related issue is that of improving the transparency of legislatures and engagement of citizens with the process. In a representative democracy, citizens elect legislators to take decisions on a range of issues. Legislators are expected to work towards national interest as well as for the welfare of their constituents. The accountability of legislators to citizens is enforced through regular elections, in which the mandate to represent has to be renewed.
Also, a well-functioning democracy requires citizens to be engaged with the democratic process on a continuous basis. That is, on any issue that concerns them, they should have the opportunity and the ability to provide their inputs, expertise and expectations from policy decisions. For example, if there is a Bill that relates to acquisition of land, people affected by the proposed legislation should have an opportunity to represent their concerns.
PRS has tried to address these issues in several ways. It seeks to provide information on the work of MPs and that of Parliament to citizens in accessible formats. It partners with the media and civil society groups to help them be more effective in engaging with various issues. PRS also directly provides information on its website, and actively engages with citizens through social media.
In India, there are limited channels for young citizens to explore the policy and political space in a systematic manner. The LAMP Fellowship has been created by PRS to attract young citizens to this field and provides them with the opportunity to be mentored by an MP for a year.
The Vision of PRS is to strengthen India’s democracy by making legislatures more effective. The Mission of PRS is to make the legislative process better informed, more transparent and participatory.