By Chakshu Rai and Anirudh Burman What is the difference between a JPC and a PAC? A structured committee system was introduced in 1993 to provide for greater scrutiny of government functioning by Parliament. Most committees of Parliament include MPs from both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. A Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) is an ad-hoc body. It is set up for a specific object and duration. Joint committees are set up by a motion passed in one house of Parliament and agreed to by the other. The details regarding membership and subjects are also decided by Parliament. For example, the motion to constitute a JPC on the stock market scam (2001) and pesticide residues in soft drinks (2003) was moved by the government in the Lok Sabha. The motion on the stock market scam constituted a JPC of 30 members of which 20 were from the Lok Sabha and 10 were from the Rajya Sabha. The motion to constitute the JPC on pesticides included 10 members from the Lok Sabha and 5 from the Rajya Sabha. The terms of reference for the JPC on the stock market scam asked the committee to look into financial irregularities, to fix responsibility on persons and institutions for the scam, to identify regulatory loopholes and also to make suitable recommendations. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), however, is constituted every year. Its main duty is to ascertain how the money granted (budget) by Parliament has been spent by the government. The PAC scrutinises the accounts of the government on the basis of CAG reports. The composition and functions of the committee are governed by parliamentary procedures. The PAC can consist of 15 to 22 members. Not more than 15 members can be from the Lok Sabha, and the representation from the Rajya Sabha cannot exceed 7 members. A minister cannot be a member of the PAC. What can a JPC do that a PAC cannot? The PAC examines cases involving losses and financial irregularities. Its examination is usually limited to the scrutiny of CAG reports and issues raised by the reports. The committee expresses no opinion on points of general policy, but it is within PAC’s jurisdiction to point out whether there has been waste in carrying out that policy. The mandate of a JPC depends on the motion constituting it. This need not be limited to the scrutiny of government finances. How many JPCs have we had so far? Although a number of joint committees have been formed since Independence, four major JPCs have been formed to investigate significant issues that have caused controversy. These are: (1) Joint Committee on Bofors Contracts; (2) Joint Committee to enquire into irregularities in securities and banking transactions; (3) Joint Committee on stock-market scam; and (4) Joint Committee on pesticide residues in and safety standards for soft drinks. How effective have JPCs been? Is the government bound by their recommendations? JPC recommendations have persuasive value but the committee cannot force the government to take any action on the basis of its report. The government may decide to launch fresh investigations on the basis of a JPC report. However, the discretion to do so rests entirely with the government. The government is required to report on the follow-up action taken on the basis of the recommendations of the JPC and other committees. The committees then submit ‘Action Taken Reports’ in Parliament on the basis of the government’s reply. These reports can be discussed in Parliament and the government can be questioned on the basis of the same. How effective is the PAC process? Between 2005 and 2010, the PAC has prepared 54 reports and examined ministries that have cumulatively received around 80% of the budgetary allocations in the last five financial years. Since it is not possible to examine every CAG audit finding in a formal manner, ministries have to submit Action Taken Notes to the PAC on all audit paragraphs. A 2009-10 report of the PAC, however, noted that there were 4,934 audit paragraphs still pending with various ministries. What can the JPC or the PAC find in the 2G case that is not already known, that the CAG and the Trai have not already said? The JPC or the PAC can only look at the documents and examine ministry officials who testify before the committee. The parliamentary committees can arrive at independent conclusions based on the documents placed before them. Members of the committee can also place dissent notes if they do not agree with the majority. Can Raja be tried and the telecom licences cancelled on basis of a JPC report or do we need a CBI report as well? Prosecution of individuals and cancellation of licences are executive functions and can only be initiated by the government. A JPC report can recommend the prosecution of a particular person or the cancellation of certain licences. However, the government can disagree with the JPC’s findings and refuse to take such action. How much of Parliament time have we lost already and how many critical Bills are stuck? The Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are supposed to work daily for six hours and five hours, respectively. The Lok Sabha has worked for five hours and forty five minutes and Rajya Sabha has worked for an hour and twenty five minutes in the past 12 days. Some important Bills that are listed for consideration and passing in Parliament are the Seeds Bill, 2004; the Commercial Division of High Courts Bill, 2009; and the Amendment to the Right to Education Act, 2010. Bills listed for introduction include the National Identification Authority Bill, 2010; the Protection of Women from Sexual Harassment in Workplace Bill, 2010; the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, 2010; Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill; and the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill. This article appeared in Financial Express.
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.