Sesking Accountability : Parliament Watch

A SURYA PRAKASH : The idea of a vibrant, independent and accountable parliament is central to making democracy work. In a parliamentary democracy like India, the responsibilities, roles and function of the parliament increase manifold. One of the biggest achievements of postcolonial India immediately after attainment of independence was, the establishment and institutionalization of the parliament.

Over the decades, the parliament has been one of the most important pillars of Indian democracy. Except a brief spell in the mid seventies, the Indian parliament has remained a key site for holding the government accountable and providing it with a progressive legislative framework. However, in the recent past, the parliament is failing in performing its role and increasingly reflecting the rapid down- slide of Indian democracy. In 2003, the parliament has failed to make democracy work as it wasted parliamentary time and public money on inter-party political controversies. Nevertheless, the positive performance of the parliament in the form of quality work of standing committees, approval of several important legislative measures and occasional debates on basic issues affecting the people deserves mention.


The following highlight the performance or the lack of it, of the parliament during 2003: Time lost on account of unruly behaviour: The Lok Sabha lost over 60 hours to disruptions. The cost of Parliamentary transactions is currently estimated to be Rs 18,430 per minute. The loss to the public exchequer can be easily imagined. The only thing that can be said in favour of MPs is that the time lost due to disruptions was less in 2003 as compared to 2002. One can perhaps attribute this marginal improvement to the increasing media attention to disruption of Parliament and the mounting public displeasure over the way MPs are squandering public money. Decreasing number of sittings: For 36 years from the time of its inception in 1952, the Lok Sabha sat for over 100 days every year. In fact, it averaged 138 sittings in a year for several years and came down to 102 days in 1988. Since then, it has fallen to just about 80 days in a year. But the year 2003 saw a further decline- the Lok Sabha sat for only 74 days during the year. Unfinished business-pending Bills: In Rajya Sabha more than 30 bills are pending, which include the bills pending for more than 10 years. This includes bills such as the Indian Medical Council (amendment) bill introduced in 1987. In the Lok Sabha, the end of every session during the year 2003 saw about 30-40 pending Government Bills. At the end of the fourteenth session, the number of pending Private Members Bills stood at 261. Time spent on Legislative business: During the budget session, the Lok Sabha spent a considerable amount of time discussing government bills-a total of 56 hours, i.e. 23.33 per cent of the total duration of the session.


This percentage however came down drastically during the monsoon session, when the house spent only 12 hours and 45 minutes, i.e. 11.28 per cent of the total time of the house spent on discussion of government bills. A total of 64 Bills were passed by both houses of Parliament during the year 2003 (including the second part of the winter session in the beginning of 2004). Some of the important Bills passed by both the houses include: the Constitution (Ninety Seventh Amendment) Bill; Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Bill; the Central Vigilance Commission Bill; the Election and other Related Laws (Amendment) bill; the Railway Protection Force (Amendment) Bill; the Indian Telegraph (Amendment) Bill. Parliamentary committees and missing members: The continuing absenteeism at these Committee meetings should be a cause of worry. On an average, most of the committees record only about 45 to 50 per cent attendance.


During the 12th session of the 13th Lok Sabha, for example, the financial committees recorded an average attendance of 51 per cent. Among the standing comittees, the Committee on Railway recorded the lowest attendance during the year, a mere 14 per cent. Debates and discussions on issues affecting the country: The shrinking time available to Parliamentarians can be seen in the number of notices for short duration discussion under Rule 193 on those matters of urgent public importance that do not make it to the session. During the budget session of Lok Sabha, for example, 280 such notices were received by the Lok Sabha Secretariat. Out of this, only six could be admitted. And even out of this six, discussions on only four could be completed. Question Hour and shortage of time: During the budget session of Lok Sabha, 702 starred questions were put in the question lists for oral answers. But eventually, only 131 questions could be orally answered. During the monsoon session, out of the 440 starred questions put down in the list of questions for oral answers, only 44 were answered orally.


A look at social sector through the prism of Question Hour: The concern of MPs for the social sector is evident in the large number of questions put in by members in both houses during all the three sessions on many issues ranging from amenities and policy initiatives for families below the poverty line (BPL families), employment guarantee schemes, drinking water schemes, housing for the rural poor and construction of rural roads. This leads to significant and revealing data about the status of the social sector in India. For instance in response to a question seeking information on the per capita government spending on health in each state between 1999 and 2000, the governments response showed that Goa spent Rs 1081 per capita on health care and stood first among states. Pondicherry and Mizoram spent Rs 782 and Rs 762 respectively and stood second and third. The lowest per capita spending on health was recorded in Bihar (Rs 64) in 1999-2000. In 2000-01, Bihars per capita spending dropped to Rs 60 and was the lowest among all the big states. Assurances: Both houses of Parliament have committees on government assurances. These committees are responsible for culling assurances given by ministers in both the houses and monitoring their implementation. In the year 2003, the number of pending assurances rose sharply. For example, in the Rajya Sabha, the number of pending assurances in 2002 was 203, this jumped to 515 in 2003, indicating an increase of over 150 per cent. The Ministry of Finance and Company Affairs (22 pending assurances), the Ministry of Human Resource Development (17), the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (14) and the Ministry of Tourism and Culture (11) are some of the Ministries having the maximum number of pending assurances. A total of 162 assurances were pending as at the end of the winter session of the Rajya Sabha.

The year 2003 has been quite significant for the Parliament and Rajya Sabha transacting many important businesses. However, the pattern of discussion and participation has remained more or less the same as in previous year or rather decreased in selected session. With the cost of transacting business in the houses growing up, it is important that greater accountability is demanded by the common citizen using various instruments of expressing their displeasures. The characteristics of discussion in Vidhan Sabha as well as the rural and urban local bodies is also influenced by the behaviour of the senior leaders of the Parliament. With greater transparency on the performance of the house as well as increasing demand of accountability will bring about more qualitative changes in the most important institutions of Government of the country i.e Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. - The writer is a senior journalist




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