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.
The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has decided to conduct an off-cycle meeting today to discuss the failure to meet the inflation target under Section 45ZN of the Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934. As per the Reserve Bank of India Act (RBI), 1934, MPC is required to meet at least four times each year, to discuss the macroeconomic issues in the country, and take policy decisions to address those. This is the second time MPC has conducted an off-cycle meeting in 2022-23. The meeting is scheduled in light of inflation being consistently high for nine consecutive months.
In this blog, we discuss what the inflation targeting framework is, examine retail and wholesale prices, and the divergence between them.
What is the inflation targeting framework, and what happens if inflation is persistently high?
In 2016, Parliament amended the RBI Act, 1934 to change the monetary policy, and introduce an inflation targeting framework. This framework prioritises price stability to achieve sustainable GDP growth. Price stability allows investors to confidently invest their money for productive activities, without worrying about it losing value. Price stability also maintains the purchasing power of consumers, i.e., the ability to purchase a good (or service) with a given amount of money.
As per the new framework, the central government, in consultation with RBI sets: (i) an inflation target, and (ii) an upper and lower tolerance level for retail inflation. The target has been set at 4%, with an upper tolerance limit of 6% and a lower tolerance limit of 2%. The upper and lower limits indicate that although it is desirable for inflation to be close to 4%, deviation between these limits is acceptable. The target and bands are revised every five years. In March 2021, the existing targets were carried forward.
Retail inflation has been above 6% for the past nine months, and it has been above 4% from October 2019 onwards (See Figure 1).
Figure 1: Consumer price index (year-on-year; in percentage)
Sources: Database on Indian Economy, Reserve Bank of India; PRS.
If inflation is above or below the prescribed limits for three quarters, RBI must submit a report to the central government explaining why prices have been rising (or falling) persistently, what will be done to correct that, and an estimate as to when the target will be achieved.
The MPC uses tools such as interest rates to control the level of inflation in the economy. One such rate is the policy repo rate, which is the rate at which RBI lends money to banks. An increase in the policy repo rate makes borrowing money more costly, and hence is expected to control inflation by reducing the money supply. MPC increased this rate from 4% in April 2022 to 4.4% in May 2022, to 4.9% in June 2022, to 5.4% in August 2022, and to 5.9% in September 2022.
Breaking down the Consumer Price Index and the Wholesale Price Index
Consumer Price Index (CPI) measures the general prices of goods and services such as food, clothing, and fuel over time. Retail inflation is calculated as the change in the CPI over a period of time. Goods and services such as petrol, food products, health, and education are considered for its calculation, which are assigned different weights (See Table 1). Between February 2022 and August 2022, the average annual inflation was 6.9%. The rise in prices of subcomponents of the CPI during this period is indicated in Table 2.
Table 1: Assigned weights for the calculation of CPI
Sources: MOSPI; PRS.
Table 2: Average inflation of some CPI components
Sources: Database on Indian Economy, RBI; PRS.
CPI is not the only index that measures inflation in an economy. The Wholesale Price Index (WPI) measures the wholesale prices of goods. A change in wholesale prices reflects wholesale inflation. Table 3 indicates the weights assigned to goods for calculating the WPI. Manufactured goods include metals, chemicals, food products, and textiles.
Primary articles (23%) include food articles, and crude petroleum and natural gas. Fuel and power (12%) include mineral oils, electricity, and coal. WPI has remained above 10% from April 2021 onwards. It reached an all-time high of 17% in May 2022. This was driven by the inflation in metals, kerosene and petroleum coke, fruits and vegetables, and palm oil.
Table 3:Assigned weights for the
Sources: Ministry of Commerce and Industry; PRS.
Why has WPI inflation been consistently above CPI inflation?
Movements in the WPI have an impact on the CPI. For almost a year and half, CPI inflation has remained below WPI inflation. However, as per the design of the indices, it is expected that CPI would remain above WPI, and that any increase in WPI would reflect in the CPI after a time lag. This is because retail prices include taxes (as a percentage of price), while wholesale prices do not. Additionally, some of the goods in WPI act as inputs in the goods considered in CPI. An increase in input prices would lead to higher retail prices after a time lag.
We discuss possible reasons for why CPI has remained below WPI for a year and a half.
Figure 2: Consumer Price Index and Wholesale Price Index
Sources: Database on Indian Economy, Reserve Bank of India; PRS.
Composition of indices
As indicated in Table 2 and 3, the composition of the two indices varies. For instance, prices of manufacture of basic metals, chemicals, and machinery grew at an average rate of 13% between February 2021 and September 2022. They contribute 7% to the WPI. These are input goods for producing final goods and services such as automobiles, which are included in the CPI. The rise in prices of transport vehicles, communication devices, fuel for transport, and housing (CPI components) rose by 6% during this period.
The Ministry of Finance has observed that wholesale prices did not feed into retail prices (from March 2021 onwards) as wholesalers absorbed the rising input costs and did not pass them on to retailers. In August 2022, it noted that as retail prices are rising now, the pass-through may occur.