“One must either not enter an Assembly Hall,
Or he must speak there with all righteousness,
For one who does not speak or one who speaks falsely,
Does involve himself in the sin equally.”
—Translation of an inscription in Parliament (Manu: 8/13)
The newspapers recently had it that the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Om Birla, has sought a comprehensive review of the Department-Related Standing Committees (DRSCs) system which was introduced way back in 1993. The reports said that he had sought an opinion on whether there was a need for change in the way they operate. On the one hand, legitimate concerns have been expressed about low attendance and inadequate participation of members of Parliament in these and other committees as well as delays in the submission of their reports. On the other hand, there are more disturbing features like the non-acceptance of and delays in taking action by the Executive on the recommendations of DRSCs.
The Committee system is the backbone of a parliamentary democracy. The main functions of a democratically-elected Parliament avowedly are legislation, oversight of the Executive, discussion, debate and representation. In a country of continental proportions like India, given the time constraints, it is nearly impossible to do complete justice to all these functions in the full/open houses of Parliament. This led to the conceptualisation of the committee system to assist the main body of Parliament.
In most cases, the Committees function as a mini-Parliament, with proportional representation of various political parties therein, as far as possible. Moreover, unlike the sittings of the two houses of Parliament, where various parliamentary functions are performed through different instruments, in the Committees many of them get rolled in together.
Thus during a typical set of sittings of a Committee to examine the subject on hand, debate and discussion are, naturally, the order of the day. Oversight of the Executive takes place through seeking information about the policy of the Executive on the subject. Representation takes the shape of evidence from members of civil society.
The Indian Parliament and its two Houses (Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha) have a large variety of committees. There are Standing Committees, some of which are joint committees of the two Houses, while others are identical in nature but function independently in the two Houses and comprise their respective members. In addition, there are ad hoc committees too.
Of these, the Department-Related Standing Committees are uniquely equipped to perform almost all the functions of both the Houses of Parliament, particularly when they examine Bills referred to them for examination and report.
In order to examine in depth the concerns of the Speaker relating to DRSCs highlighted in the media, we need to look into the genesis of the system in India. In 1989, three subject-based Standing Committees, namely, Committee on Agriculture, Committee on Science and Technology, and the Committee on Environment and Forests, were constituted to examine the activities of the concerned ministries, primarily with a view to ensuring greater accountability of the government to Parliament. The success of these committees led to the expansion of the system and 17 DRSCs came into being in April 1993 covering under their jurisdiction all the central government ministries and departments. The system was re-structured in July 2004, whereby the number of DRSCs was increased from 17 to 24.
As regards the membership of these DRSCs, it is sought to ensure that all the members of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, excluding the ministers, are accommodated in one or the other Committee. At present, each Committee has a membership of 31. And since the ratio of the total number of members in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha is approximately 2:1, each Committee has 21 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 from the Rajya Sabha. They are serviced by the secretariats of the two Houses in the same proportion, i.e. 16 and 8.
The main functions of the Committees are to consider the Demands for Grants of the related ministries/departments and to report thereon. As mentioned above, they also examine and report on such Bills, which after their introduction in either House are referred to them by the concerned presiding officer. The Committees are also empowered to consider annual reports of ministries/departments and make reports thereon; and to consider national long-term policy documents presented to the Houses, if referred to them, and make reports thereon.
The rules have put the following two restrictions on the Committees’ functions—a Committee shall not consider matters of the day-to-day administration of the related ministries/departments, and it shall not ordinarily consider matters within the purview of any other parliamentary committee.
The reports of the Standing Committees have only “persuasive value and shall be treated as considered advice given by the Committee”. In respect of reports on demands for grants, bills and other subjects, the ministry or the department concerned is required to take action on the recommendations and conclusions contained therein and furnish action taken replies thereon. Action Taken Notes received from the ministries/departments are examined by the Committees and these are presented to the House. The bills which are reported upon by the Committees are considered by the Houses in the light of the reports of the Committees.
The first hurdle in the legislative function of the DRSCs is that they can examine only those bills which are referred to them by the presiding officers of the two Houses. There is a tendency in the Executive to get the bills exempted from being referred to the DRSCs under the orders of the presiding officers. This severely curtails the autonomy and powers of these Committees.
The second, and definitely more serious, hurdle is the fact that according to the rules of the two Houses, the recommendations of these Committees have only “persuasive values” and are treated as “considered advice”. The main reason for this stipulation appears to be that these Committees include members of the Rajya Sabha, which has limited powers in respect of the financial business of Parliament. Thus recommendations of DRSCs, particularly those relating to the demands for grants of various ministries/departments, cannot be binding on the Lok Sabha.
It is felt that there is room for reconsideration of these two hurdles, as far as the legislative powers of DRSCs are concerned. Thus all bills (which are not in the nature of minor amendments to existing Acts), except “money” bills, after introduction in either of the two Houses, should get automatically referred to DRSCs. The power to exempt a bill from detailed examination by the Committee should be vested with the Committee itself, on a request made by the concerned minister in this regard.
As regards consideration of the report of the DRSCs by the Executive, it is to be noted that as per Rule 275 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States (Rajya Sabha), the rules applicable to the Select Committees have been made applicable to the DRSCs mutatis mutandis. And as far as the Select Committees on Bills are concerned, their reports are considered to be the property of the concerned House.
Thus the revised version of the Bill presented by a Select Committee becomes the Bill under consideration of the House, replacing the Bill introduced earlier. If the Executive wants to make any changes in the Bill as reported on by the Select Committee, it has to move appropriate amendments for the purpose. This procedure should be made applicable to the Bills reported on by the DRSCs too.
As far as the matter of delay by the Executive in taking action on the reports of the DRSCs is concerned, Direction No. 35 (Statement by Minister on Committee Reports) by the Chairman, Rajya Sabha as well as Direction No. 73A (Implementation of Committees’ recommendations) by the Speaker, Lok Sabha, provide that the Minister concerned shall make, once in six months, a statement regarding the status of implementation of recommendations of the Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committees. It is felt that in order to give greater sanctity to the recommendations of the DRSCs, the directions aforementioned may be incorporated in the rules of the two Houses.
Inadequate participation and low attendance of members in the meetings of the Committees is primarily a matter for the concerned political parties to take note of for appropriate action. However, this may also be for the reason that members are not provided adequate technical assistance to contribute to the deliberations. More professional support to the members by the secretariats of the two Houses and the library and research wings thereof is therefore indicated. Perhaps the new Parliament Complex, part of the Central Vista Redevelopment Project, with office accommodation for individual members of Parliament would hopefully lead to provisioning of adequate professional support staff and, hence, superior proficiency among the members, resulting in their more enthusiastic participation in the proceedings of the Department-Related Standing Committees.
—The writer is a former Secretary-General, Rajya Sabha, and a retired IAS officer of the AP cadre
Lead picture: PIB