The large-scale absence of MPs from standing committees is disturbing and a remedy has to be found for it. This should include a proportionate reduction in salary and other allowances
By Vivek K Agnihotri
On December 5, M Venkaiah Naidu, chairman of the Rajya Sabha, convened a meeting of the chairpersons of all the standing committees administered by the Rajya Sabha Secretariat. This was against the backdrop of reports of large-scale absence of MPs from the sittings of these committees. There was a general consensus at the meeting that members who were persistently absent from these committees should be dropped from them after being duly cautioned.
This action of the chairman, Rajya Sabha, was predicated by the fact that a few days ago, there were adverse reports in the media about MPs and bureaucrats skipping the meeting of the Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee (DRPSC) on Urban Development on November 15 to discuss the worsening air quality in the national capital. As only four out of 29 members of the Committee drawn from the Lok Sabha as well as the Rajya Sabha were present, the meeting had to be called off.
As far as DRPSCs are concerned, there are 24 of them to oversee all the ministries and departments of the government of India. Each committee has 21 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 from the Rajya Sabha. Excluding ministers, all the members of both Houses, by and large, are accommodated on one or more of these committees.
Out of the 24 committees, eight are serviced by the Rajya Sabha secretariat and 16 by the Lok Sabha secretariat. Accordingly, eight committees are chaired by members of the Rajya Sabha and 16 by those of the Lok Sabha. The chairpersons of these committees are appointed by the chairman, Rajya Sabha and the speaker, Lok Sabha, as the case may be.
However, the committee system of the Indian Parliament does not begin or end with the DRPSCs. There are a large number of other standing committees, some of them joint, while others are identical but function independently in the two Houses. In addition, there are ad hoc committees too.
The chairman of the Rajya Sabha had convened a meeting of chairpersons of all the standing committees within his purview. In addition to the eight DRPSCs, these included 10 Rajya Sabha committees.
Apparently, the situation relating to absenteeism of the MPs from the committees is as “severe” as the air quality in the National Capital Region. According to the data reported, at the macro level, 28 MPs (of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha) out of 248 nominated on the eight DRPSCs serviced by the Rajya Sabha secretariat, had not attended even a single meeting since their constitution in September 2019. A hundred MPs had skipped two or more successive meetings of their respective committees. On the positive side, 18 MPs (including eight chairpersons) attended all the meetings of their committees.
The issue of members attending the meetings of committees, particularly DRPSCs, has come to the fore against the backdrop of the opposition parties’ constant criticism that the government was bypassing all parliamentary scrutiny of bills by not routing them via the DRPSCs, which are regarded as mini-parliaments. Here, members are able to deliberate on issues without the constraint of the party whip as well as the prying scrutiny of the media. Very often, the recommendations of these committees, by way of amendments to legislative proposals, are accepted by the government. Hence the need for the members to attend these meetings and make collective contribution to improve the quality of parliamentary legislation. In the meeting of chairpersons of the committees convened by the chairman, Rajya Sabha, he made an important observation. He said that since not all MPs are represented in each of these mini-parliaments, every member of a committee represents the voice of 25 MPs.
As far as imposing of sanctions on MPs who wilfully default in attending the meetings of the committees, is concerned, the rules of the two Houses have very specific provisions. Omnibus Rule 260 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha says that if a member who is elected to the committee is absent from two or more consecutive sittings without the permission of the chairperson, a motion may be moved in the House for his “discharge” from that committee. This rule is applicable to all committees in which the members of the House participate. However, if a member is nominated to the committee by the speaker, he may be discharged by him too.
As far as the Rajya Sabha is concerned, a similar rule (75) in the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States (Rajya Sabha) provides for “discharge” of a member of a Select Committee on Bills, with the approval of the Rajya Sabha. This provision is applicable to the members of DRPSCs administered by the Rajya Sabha.
Prima facie, the rules appear to be very strict, but there are escape routes. A member can avoid discharge if he is absent with the permission of the chairperson. Secondly, in case of appointment to a committee though election (e.g. Public Accounts Committee and Select Committees), a motion has to be moved in the House; but who would like to move that motion and annoy the member?
The malaise of absenteeism is, however, not confined to the committees of Parliament only; it goes much deeper as two recent occurrences have highlighted. Delivering the first Arun Jaitley Memorial Lecture instituted by Delhi University on October 29, 2019, Venkaiah Naidu had expressed concern over poor attendance of lawmakers in the House. He urged that political parties need to evolve a “roster system” for ensuring attendance of at least 50 percent of their members in the legislatures all through the proceedings of the House every day to address the issue of lack of quorum. Again on December 2, 2019, as many as six out of 15 MPs, against whose names questions for oral answer were listed in the Rajya Sabha, were found absent during Question Hour. Venkaiah Naidu observed: “Hon’ble members, I am sorry, I have to make an observation. This is happening time and again…After having asked the question if they are absent, it is a sorry state of affairs.”
In a study (The Parliamentary Mandate) conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2000, it was found that forfeiture of part of a member’s salary (or supplementary allowances) is undoubtedly the most common penalty for absence without a valid reason. This was done in Costa Rica, Cyprus, France, Gabon, Germany, Guatemala, Hungary, Jordan, Luxembourg, Paraguay, Poland, Republic of Korea, Spain and Uruguay. In India too, the defaulting member loses his sitting fee, but not any part of his salary or other allowances. Deputies in the French National Assembly who participate in less than two-thirds of open votes during a session have one-third of their salary docked for a period equal to that of the session. Failure to attend more than one-third of committee meetings during a session may also entail financial penalties.
Absence without a valid reason also invites disciplinary action in some countries (e.g. Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Gabonese Senate). In Benin, in the event of repeated absence for one-third of the meetings held during a session, members may be suspended for one year. Definitive forfeiture of a mandate is less frequent but nevertheless quite common, particularly in countries with a British parliamentary tradition, including India (Article 101 (4) of the Constitution). It also exists in Armenia, Austria, Japan, Thailand and Turkey. Turkish members who have been absent without a valid reason for five sittings during a one-month period may be expelled by the assembly.
What then is the remedy for the Indian malady? Naming and shaming, as Venkaiah Naidu did by sharing the data with the media, is only the beginning. Moreover, in addition to non-payment of sitting fee for the days of absence, a proportionate deduction from the salary and other allowances should automatically follow. Absence, with or without permission, from more than five consecutive sittings should entail discharge from the committee. Absence from the sittings of the House for more than one year continuously, with/without permission, should result in the seat of the member being declared vacant.
Perhaps that is the only way to tackle such truancy.
—The writer is a former Secretary-General, Rajya Sabha
Lead picture: MPs outside Parliament. They tend to be lackadaisical in attending meetings of DRPSCs to discuss important issues/Photo: UNI