Last week, the Departmentally Related Standing Committees were reconstituted for the first year of the 17th Lok Sabha. In this context, we discuss the functioning and role of Standing Committees.
The visible part of Parliament’s work takes place on the floor of the House. Parliament meets for three sessions a year i.e., the Budget, Monsoon, and Winter Sessions. This part of Parliament’s work is televised and closely watched. However, Parliament has another forum through which a considerable amount of its work gets done. These are known as Parliamentary Committees. These Committees are smaller units of MPs from both Houses, across political parties and they function throughout the year. These smaller groups of MPs study and deliberate on a range of subject matters, Bills, and budgets of all the ministries.
During the recently concluded first Session of the 17th Lok Sabha, Parliament sat for 37 days. In the last 10 years, Parliament met for 67 days per year, on average. This is a short of amount of time for MPs to be able to get into the depth of matters being discussed in the House. Since Committees meet throughout the year, they help make up for this lack of time available on the floor of the House.
Parliament deliberates on matters that are complex, and therefore needs technical expertise to understand such matters better. Committees help with this by providing a forum where Members can engage with domain experts and government officials during the course of their study. For example, the Committee on Health and Family Welfare studied the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016 which prohibits commercial surrogacy, but allows altruistic surrogacy. As MPs come from varying backgrounds, they may not have had the expertise to understand the details around surrogacy such as fertility issues, abortion, and regulation of surrogacy clinics, among others. The Committee called upon a range of stakeholders including the National Commission for Women, doctors, and government officials to better their understanding of the issues, before finalising their report.
Committees also provide a forum for building consensus across political parties. The proceedings of the House during sessions are televised, and MPs are likely to stick to their party positions on most matters. Committees have closed door meetings, which allows them to freely question and discuss issues and arrive at a consensus.
After a Committee completes its study, it publishes its report which is laid in Parliament. These recommendations are not binding, however, they hold a lot of weight. For example, the Standing Committee on Health made several recommendations to the National Medical Commission Bill in 2017. Many of these were incorporated in the recently passed 2019 Bill, including removing the provision for allowing a bridge course for AYUSH practitioners.
There are 24 such Departmentally Related Standing Committees (DRSCs), each of which oversees a set of Ministries. DRSCs were set up first in 1993, to ensure Parliament could keep with the growing complexity of governance. These are permanent Committees that are reconstituted every year. They consist of 21 Members from Lok Sabha, and 10 Members from Rajya Sabha, and are headed by a Chairperson. The DRSCs primarily look at three things: (i) Bills, (ii) budgets, and (iii) subject specific issues for examination. Other types of Standing Committees include Financial Committees which facilitate Parliament’s scrutiny over government expenditure. Besides these, Parliament can also form ad hoc Committees for a specific purpose such as addressing administrative issues, examining a Bill, or examining an issue.
To ensure that a Bill is scrutinised properly before it is passed, our law making procedure has a provision for Bills to be referred to a DRSC for detailed examination. Any Bill introduced in Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha can be referred to a DRSC by either the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. Over the years, the Committees have immensely contributed to strengthen the laws passed by Parliament. For example, the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, overhauling the 1986 law, was recently passed during the Budget Session. An earlier version of the Bill had been examined by the Committee on Food and Consumer Affairs, which suggested several amendments such as increasing penalties for misleading advertisements, making certain definitions clearer. The government accepted most of these recommendations and incorporated them in the 2019 Act.
Besides Bills, the DRSCs also examine the budget. The detailed estimates of expenditure of all ministries, called Demand for Grants are sent for examination to the DRCSs. They study the demands to examine the trends in allocations, spending by the ministries, utilisation levels, and the policy priorities of each ministry. However, only a limited proportion of the budget is usually discussed on the floor of the House. In the recently dissolved16th Lok Sabha, 17% of the budget was discussed in the House.
Committees also examine policy issues in their respective Ministries, and make suggestions to the government. The government has to report back on whether these recommendations have been accepted or not. Based on this, the Committees then table an Action Taken Report, which shows status of the government’s action on each recommendation.
While Committees have substantially impacted Parliament’s efficacy in discharging its roles, there is still scope for strengthening the Committee system. In the 16th Lok Sabha, DRSCs examined 41 Bills, 331 Demands for Grants, 197 issues, and published 503 Action Taken Reports.
However, the rules do not require that all Bills be examined by a Committee. This leads to some Bills being passed without the advantage of a Committee scrutinising its technical details. Recently, there has been a declining trend in the percentage of Bills being referred to a Committee. In the 15th LS, 71% of the Bills introduced were referred to Committees for examination, as compared to 27% in the 16th Lok Sabha.
With the DRSCs now constituted for the first year of the 17th Lok Sabha, they will soon begin their meetings to select the subjects they are going to examine. Some Committees already have Bills to examine that were referred to them during the 16th Lok Sabha. Some of these Bills are: (i) the Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2019, (ii) the Allied and Healthcare Professions Bill, 2018, and (iii) the Registration of Marriage of Non- Resident Indian Bill, 2019. So far in the 17th Lok Sabha no Bill has been referred to a Committee yet.
In the last few years, several states have enacted laws to curb cheating in examinations, especially those for recruitment in public service commissions. According to news reports, incidents of cheating and paper leaks have occurred on several occasions in Uttarakhand, including during the panchayat development officer exams in 2016, and the Uttarakhand Subordinate Services Selection Commission exams in 2021. The Uttarakhand Public Service Commission papers were also leaked in January 2023. The most recent cheating incidents led to protests and unrest in Uttarakhand. Following this, on February 11, 2023, the state promulgated an Ordinance to bar and penalise the use of unfair means in public examinations. The Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Bill replacing the Ordinance in March 2023. There have been multiple reports of candidates being arrested and debarred for cheating in public examinations for posts such as forest guard and secretariat guard after the ordinance’s introduction. Similar instances of cheating have also been noted in other states. As per news reports, since 2015, Gujarat has not been able to hold a single recruitment exam without reported paper leaks. In February 2023, the Gujarat Assembly also passed a law to penalise cheating in public examinations. Other states such as Rajasthan (Act passed in 2022), Uttar Pradesh (Act passed in 1998) and Andhra Pradesh (Act passed in 1997) also have similar laws. In this blog, we compare anti-cheating laws across some states (see Table 1), and discuss some issues to consider.
Typical provisions of anti-cheating laws
Anti-cheating laws across states generally contain provisions that penalise the use of unfair means by examinees and other groups in public examinations such as those conducted by state public sector commission examinations and higher secondary education boards. Broadly, unfair means is defined to include the use of unauthorised help and the unauthorised use of written material by candidates. These laws also prohibit individuals responsible for conducting examinations from disclosing any information they acquire in this role. The more recent laws, such as the Gujarat, Uttarakhand, and Rajasthan ones, also include the impersonation of candidates and the leaking of exam papers within the definition of unfair means. Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Andhra Pradesh prohibit the use of electronic aids. Maximum prison sentences for using such unfair means range from three months in Uttar Pradesh, to seven years in Andhra Pradesh.
Issues to consider
The Gujarat and Uttarakhand anti-cheating Acts have relatively stringent provisions for cheating. The Uttarakhand Act has a fixed 3-year prison sentence for examinees caught cheating or using unfair means (for the first offence). Since the Act does not distinguish between the different types of unfair means used, an examinee could serve a sentence disproportionate to the offence committed. In most other states, the maximum imprisonment term for such offences is three years. Andhra Pradesh has a minimum imprisonment term of three years. However, all these states allow for a range with respect to the penalty, that is, the judge can decide on the imprisonment term (within the specified limits) depending on the manner of cheating and the implications of such cheating. Table 1 below compares the penalties for certain offences across eight states.
The Uttarakhand Act has a provision that debars the examinee from state competitive examinations for two to five years upon the filing of the chargesheet, rather than upon conviction. Thus, an examinee could be deprived of giving the examination even if they were innocent but being prosecuted under the law. This could compromise the presumption of innocence for accused candidates. The Gujarat and Rajasthan laws also debar candidates from sitting in specified examinations for two years, but only upon conviction.
These laws also vary in scope across states. In Uttarakhand and Rajasthan, the laws only apply to competitive examinations for recruitment in a state department (such as a Public Commission). In the other six states examined, these laws also apply to examinations held by educational institutions for granting educational qualifications such as diplomas and degrees. For example, in Gujarat, exams conducted by the Gujarat Secondary and Higher Secondary Education Board are also covered under the Gujarat Public Examination (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2023. The question is whether it is appropriate to have similar punishments for exams in educational institutions and exams for recruitment in government jobs, given the difference in stakes between them.
Sources: The Rajasthan Public Examination (Measures for Prevention of Unfair Means in Recruitment) Act, 2022; the Uttar Pradesh Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 1998; the Chhattisgarh Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2008; the Orissa Conduct of Examinations Act, 1988; the Andhra Pradesh Public Examinations (Prevention of Malpractices and Unfair means) Act, 1997; the Jharkhand Conduct of Examinations Act, 2001, the Uttarakhand Competitive Examination (Measures for Prevention and Prevention of Unfair Means in Recruitment) Act, 2023, the Gujarat Public Examination (Prevention of Unfair Methods) Act, 2023; PRS.