By Vivek K Agnihotri
A delay of about one month in the reconstitution of the Department-related Parliamentary Standing Committees (DPSC), whose term expired on September 12, 2021, again raised the hackles of the Opposition. They alleged that it results in unnecessary pause in the functioning of the panels and amounts to subverting an important parliamentary institution.
These Committees are reconstituted annually, often with a lag of a month or more. The delay is understandably pronounced in the year of the general elections, and sometimes goes up to three months or more. The ministry of parliamentary affairs has clarified that the delay was due to discussions about the nomination of MPs who did not attend even a single meeting of the Committee to which they were allotted during the previous term. Consequently, during the present reconstitution exercise, about 50 MPs were re-assigned to different Committees.
According to sub-rule (4) of rule 331D of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha (Lok Sabha Rules) and sub-rule (3) of rule 269 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States (Rajya Sabha Rules), the term of office of “members” of the DPSC shall not exceed one year. Thus, it is the term of office of the members and not that of the Committees per se that is one year.
This tenurial issue has also to be looked at against the backdrop of the fact that the Rajya Sabha itself undergoes partial biennial renewal since one-third of its members retire every two years by virtue of clause (1) of Article 83 of the Constitution. As far as the Lok Sabha is concerned, it has a fixed tenure of five years, unless dissolved sooner.
As per the current practice, in the Rajya Sabha, the annual renewal is only notional; major changes are brought about only after each biennial election. As far as the Lok Sabha is concerned, the major reconstitution takes place when a new House is elected, that is normally after five years. As there is a mismatch between the election schedule of the Rajya Sabha (every two years) and the Lok Sabha (every five years), it is only once in ten years that the requirement of a major reshuffle of the Standing Committees in both takes place, that is after the second round for the Lok Sabha and the fifth biennial round of the Rajya Sabha.
Also, the Rajya Sabha Rules prescribe no fixed tenure for the other standing committees (excluding DPSC). The standard prescription relating to the constitution of those Committees states that the members shall hold office until a new committee is nominated and that the casual vacancies shall be filled in by the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha.
As far as the Lok Sabha is concerned, the picture is somewhat different. Most of its committees have a tenure of one year, except the Business Advisory Committee, Committee on Petitions, Committee of Privileges, Committee on Subordinate Legislation and Rules Committee, for which no tenure has been prescribed. It would appear that Committees concerned with deliberations of a serious nature were given a term coterminous with that of the House, while others were prescribed annual renewal. Somehow, the DPSCs, which were constituted much later in 1993, came to be clubbed with the latter category by the Lok Sabha. The Rajya Sabha only followed suit.
Another fact to be borne in mind is that there are 24 DPSCs in all, each with a membership of 31 (10 of the Rajya Sabha and 21 of the Lok Sabha). They can accommodate 240 member of the Rajya Sabha and 504 members of the Lok Sabha. Ministers cannot be members of these Committees and some senior members opt out. Thus, no eligible and available member of Parliament is left out of the membership of these Committees. As a matter of fact, members of some of the political parties, particularly the ruling coalition, have to perforce do double duty.
It, therefore, stands to reason, that once a member is nominated to a Committee, based on his expertise and/ or preference, he should be allowed to continue till he retires or otherwise discontinues the membership. This way the committee is able to benefit from his experience and expertise on a continuous basis.
The whole exercise is time-consuming as it involves cyclical and iterative decision-making by the presiding officers and political parties concerned as well as the secretariats of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, which have to rigorously work out the quota for the members of innumerable political parties, proportionately, on different committees.
Another complicating factor is that out of 24 committees, 18 are serviced by the Lok Sabha and eight by the Rajya Sabha. And again, it is not just about allotting berths to MPs but also the chairmanship of the Committees to various political parties on different Committees. It thus requires close coordination between the presiding officers as well as the secretariats of the two Houses such that the final composition of these joint Committees is simultaneously published in their respective bulletins.
To undertake this gargantuan callisthenics annually is indeed a nightmare for all concerned and results inevitably in delays. There is thus definitely a case for rethinking the tenure as well as the procedure relating to the appointment of members and chairpersons of DPSCs.
Moreover, irrespective of the tenure of the members, there is the larger issue of institutional discontinuity due to failure to reconstitute Committees or fill up the vacancies therein in time. Recently, the Supreme Court has sharply questioned the unusual delay in filling up vacancies among judicial and administrative members of various tribunals.
In the British parliament, under Standing Order No 64, certain Committees are appointed on a “sessional” basis: that is, their orders of appointment remain in force from one session to the next throughout a Parliament until the House orders otherwise. Sessional committees are for most practical purposes in permanent existence.
Coming to DPSCs, they are permanent and have a continued existence in so far as they form part of the Rules. Hence, there should be no difficulty if the term of the members of the two Houses on these Committees is different, in consonance with the tenure of the Houses themselves. For the Rajya Sabha, it may be two years and for the Lok Sabha, it may be coterminous with its life. The Rules could also provide that casual vacancies, as and when they arise, may be filled in by the Presiding Officers, who may also be empowered to reconstitute the membership of their respective Houses on the committees in toto, as and when they so desire.
—The writer was Secretary, Parliamentary Affairs from 2003-2005 and Secretary General of Rajya Sabha from 2007-2012