Parliament has been passing laws with very little discussion on them. Seetha examines how the Lok Sabha is spending less and less time on the business of legislation
HOUSE THAT: Parliament has not been discussing bills at length
March 1991. Eighteen bills were passed in less than two hours on the last day, last session of the ninth Lok Sabha. There was a deep sense of shock across the country.
Cut to 2010. No eyebrows are raised as five bills are passed with less than 15 minutes of discussion (two for only two and three minutes) in the budget session of the 15th Lok Sabha.
As the monsoon session of Parliament opens on July 26, a question that’s looming large is — will the 23 pending bills and others likely to be introduced in the session be adequately debated?
Perhaps not. A study done by PRS Legislative Research, a Delhi-based think tank, shows that the lack of adequate discussion on bills was not confined to the budget session alone. In the winter session of 2009, of the 15 bills debated, eight got less than 15 minutes, three got between one and three hours and four got more than three hours.
But the trend is by no means recent — only the data is. Over the past four Lok Sabhas, Subhash C. Kashyap, former secretary general of the lower House, points out, the time spent on legislative business has come down to less than 15 per cent of the total time, as against close to 50 per cent till about the 1980s. “Parliament has ceased to be primarily a law-making body — which is what it was meant to be,” he laments.
Indeed, disruptions for various reasons often eat up a quarter of the total time of Parliament. With other business to be transacted, there’s very little time left for legislative business. In the 2010 budget session, PRS data shows, legislative business took up only 10 per cent of the productive time (and 7 per cent of total time) of Parliament. Only six of the original target of 27 bills were passed by both houses of Parliament.
As a result, governments are tending to rush bills through. Of the 12 bills that were passed by the Lok Sabha in the budget session, 10 were passed in the last week of the session. In the winter session of 2009, 10 out of 15 bills were passed by the Lok Sabha in the last week.
Parliamentary procedures require bills to go through three readings — the first is the introduction, the second consists of a discussion on the overall principles behind the bill and then a clause-by-clause analysis during which all members have a right to propose amendments, and the third is arguments for and against the bill at the time of passage. That process is just a formality now.
The lack of discussion on bills isn’t just due to disruptions. There appears to be a general lack of interest among members of Parliament (MPs) in legislative business. That’s evident in the post-lunch sittings, when the benches of both Houses are practically empty. There have been instances galore of bills being passed by just about 15 members.
That’s little more than a mockery of the Constitutional requirement of a quorum of one-tenth of total members for all business (which means at least 54 members should be present). “A convention has developed,” says Kashyap, “wherein the quorum is assumed unless it is questioned by someone.”
Congress MP, V. Kishore Chandra Deo, admits that lack of discussion is not good for Parliament as an institution. But he counters that bills are debated by MPs interested in those subjects.
Indeed, some bills, with far-reaching implications, do get debated at length, as PRS data shows. The National Green Tribunal Bill, for example, was debated for four and a half hours in the Lok Sabha and close to three hours in the Rajya Sabha. The Representation of People (Amendment) Bill was debated for close to eight hours in both Houses in the winter session of 2009. But these instances are few and far between. “The problem is that bills that get debated exhaustively don’t get passed, while bills that get passed don’t get debated,” laughs Kashyap.
Sometimes bills are referred to the standing committees of various ministries. These committees were launched in the late 1980s to be in constant touch with ministries so that MPs could give their inputs for policy formulation. It was expected, says Kashyap, that bills could be scrutinised more thoroughly (since only MPs interested in a particular subject would join a standing committee) and in a non-partisan manner. That has put bills through greater scrutiny than before, says Deo.
However, bills are not automatically sent to the standing committees — the matter is decided by the presiding officer or the business advisory committee of the House where it is introduced.
Experts doubt if making it mandatory for bills to be referred to standing committees would help. It could, says Kashyap, only if MPs take an interest and do their homework on bills. But that’s rare, he points out. And Deo sounds a warning note: “It could delay the passage of even routine bills, like changing the name of a state.”
So, does every bill need to be debated exhaustively, especially when it involves a minor amendment in an existing legislation? Yes, says Kashyap. “Even an innocuous bill has some impact on someone or the other.”
He, however, despairs that very few MPs come up with valuable insights and suggestions on bills during discussions, which they used to do till the 1980s. Present day MPs, he notes, are just not willing to grapple with the technicalities of bills. What they don’t realise is that this will give the government an opportunity to sneak through whatever law it wants.
In fact, governments have been rushing through bills just to ensure that they are not scrutinised more closely. And even in cases where they are debated extensively, there is a reluctance not to incorporate changes suggested by the Opposition.
All this is a huge change from the early days of Parliament, when the Opposition had a greater impact. Kashyap recalls a debate on a bill when then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru dismissed an amendment moved by C. Rajagopalachari of the Swatantra Party and said “I have the majority on my side”. Only to have Rajagopalachari counter with “I have logic on my side”. Logic won over the majority and the bill was amended. For all her dictatorial reputation, Indira Gandhi, insists Kashyap, also took the views of the Opposition into consideration.
It is only when governments became weaker, with coalition governments becoming the norm, that they became insecure about the Opposition and taking suggestions from them, argues Kashyap. “The minority has its say but the majority has its way.”
The losers, ultimately, are the vast majority of Indians who put their trust in Parliament to pass laws after due deliberation.