The Budget session of Parliament ended on Thursday, two weeks ahead of the original plan, as many political leaders are busy with campaigning for the forthcoming State Assembly elections. This follows the trend of the last few sessions: the Budget session of 2020 was curtailed ahead of the lockdown imposed following the novel coronavirus pandemic, a short 18-day monsoon session ended after 10 days as several Members of Parliament and Parliament staff got affected by COVID-19, and the winter session was cancelled. As a result, the fiscal year 2020-21 saw the Lok Sabha sitting for 34 days (and the Rajya Sabha for 33), the lowest ever. The casualty was proper legislative scrutiny of proposed legislation as well as government functioning and finances. While COVID-19 was undoubtedly a grave matter, there is no reason why Parliament could not adopt remote working and technological solutions, as several other countries did.
No Bill scrutiny
An important development this session has been the absence of careful scrutiny of Bills. During the session, 13 Bills were introduced, and not even one of them was referred to a parliamentary committee for examination.
Many high impact Bills were introduced and passed within a few days. The Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which is the Bill to change the governance mechanism of Delhi — shifting governance from the legislature and the Chief Minister to the Lieutenant Governor — was introduced on March 15 in the Lok Sabha, passed by that House on March 22 and by Rajya Sabha on the March 24. Another Bill, the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2021, amends the Mines and Minerals Act, 1957 to remove end-use restrictions on mines and ease conditions for captive mines; this Bill was introduced on March 15 and passed by both Houses within a week. A Bill — The National Bank for Financing Infrastructure and Development (NaBFID) Bill, 2021 — to create a new government infrastructure finance institution and permit private ones in this sector was passed within three days of introduction. The Insurance (Amendment) Bill, 2021, the Bill to increase the limit of foreign direct investment in insurance companies from 49% to 74% also took just a week between introduction and passing by both Houses. In all, 13 Bills were introduced in this session, and eight of them were passed within the session. This quick work should be read as a sign of abdication by Parliament of its duty to scrutinise Bills, rather than as a sign of efficiency.
Consulting House panels
This development also highlights the decline in the efficacy of committees. The percentage of Bills referred to committees declined from 60% and 71% in the 14th Lok Sabha (2004-09) and the 15th Lok Sabha, respectively, to 27% in the 16th Lok Sabha and just 11% in the current one. Parliamentary committees have often done a stellar job. For example, the committee that examined the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code suggested many changes to make the Code work better, and which were all incorporated in the final law. Similarly, amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act were based on the recommendations of the Committee.
Money Bill classification
The last few years have seen the dubious practice of marking Bills as ‘Money Bills’ and getting them past the Rajya Sabha. Some sections of the Aadhaar Act were read down by the Supreme Court of India due to this procedure (with a dissenting opinion that said that the entire Act should be invalidated). The Finance Bills, over the last few years, have contained several unconnected items such as restructuring of tribunals, introduction of electoral bonds, and amendments to the foreign contribution act.
Similarly, this year too, the Finance Bill has made major amendments to the Life Insurance Corporation Act, 1956. As this is a Money Bill, the Rajya Sabha cannot make any amendments, and has only recommendatory powers. Some of the earlier Acts, including the Aadhaar Act and Finance Act, have been referred to a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court. It would be useful if the Court can give a clear interpretation of the definition of Money Bills and provide guide rails within which Bills have to stay to be termed as such.
During this session, the Union Budget was presented, discussed and passed. The Constitution requires the Lok Sabha to approve the expenditure Budget (in the form of demand for grants) of each department and Ministry. The Lok Sabha had listed the budget of just five Ministries for detailed discussion and discussed only three of these; 76% of the total Budget was approved without any discussion. This behaviour was in line with the trend of the last 15 years, during which period 70% to 100% of the Budget have been passed without discussion in most years.
The missing Deputy Speaker
A striking feature of the current Lok Sabha is the absence of a Deputy Speaker. Article 93 of the Constitution states that “... The House of the People shall, as soon as may be, choose two members of the House to be respectively Speaker and Deputy Speaker….” Usually, the Deputy Speaker is elected within a couple of months of the formation of a new Lok Sabha, with the exception in the 1998-99 period, when it took 269 days to do so. By the time of the next session of Parliament, two years would have elapsed without the election of a Deputy Speaker. The issue showed up starkly this session when the Speaker was hospitalised. Some functions of the Speaker such as delivering the valedictory speech were carried out by a senior member.
The deterioration in Parliament’s functioning is not a recent phenomenon. For example, the Monsoon Session of 2008 had set some interesting records. That session went on till Christmas, as the government wanted to use a parliamentary rule that a no-confidence motion could not be moved twice within a session; instead of a winter session, the monsoon session was extended with breaks. That session also saw eight Bills being passed in the Lok Sabha within 17 minutes. The following Lok Sabha (2009-14) saw a lot of disruptions to work, with about a third of its scheduled time lost. Some things have improved: over the last few years, we have seen most Bills being discussed in the House and have had less disruptions. However, the scrutiny of Bills has suffered as they are not being referred to committees.
Parliamentary scrutiny is key
Parliament has the central role in our democracy as the representative body that checks the work of the government. It is also expected to examine all legislative proposals in detail, understand their nuances and implications of the provisions, and decide on the appropriate way forward. In order to fulfil its constitutional mandate, it is imperative that Parliament functions effectively. This will require making and following processes such as creating a system of research support to Members of Parliament, providing sufficient time for MPs to examine issues, and requiring that all Bills and budgets are examined by committees and public feedback is taken. In sum, Parliament needs to ensure sufficient scrutiny over the proposals and actions of the government.
M.R. Madhavan is President of PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi