On Sunday, the government pushed through two crucial agriculture Bills in Rajya Sabha, rejecting Opposition demands that they be referred to a Select Committee of Rajya Sabha. Proceedings were disrupted as the Opposition protested against the fact that neither Bill had been scrutinised by a parliamentary committee.
Parliament scrutinises legislative proposals (Bills) in two ways. The first is by discussing it on the floor of the two Houses. This is a legislative requirement; all Bills have to be taken up for debate. The time spent debating the bills can vary. They can be passed in a matter of minutes, or debate and voting on them can run late into the night. Since Parliament meets for 70 to 80 days in a year, there is not enough time to discuss every Bill in detail on the floor of the House. Plus debate in the house is mostly political and does not go into the technical details of a legislative proposal.
The second mechanism is by referring a Bill to a parliamentary committee. It takes care of the legislative infirmity of debate on the floor of the House. Woodrow Wilson, before he became US President in 1885: “… it is not far from the truth to say that Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work”. But referring of Bills to parliamentary committees is not mandatory.
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India’s Parliament has multiple types of committees. They can be differentiated on the basis of their work, their membership and the length of their tenure. First are committees that examine bills, budgets and policies of ministries. These are called departmentally related Standing Committees. There are 24 such committees and between them, they focus on the working of different ministries. Each committee has 31 MPs, 21 from Lok Sabha and 10 from Rajya Sabha.
When they were being set up in 1993, Vice President K R Narayanan said, “… the main purpose, of course, is to ensure the accountability of Government to Parliament through more detailed consideration of measures in these committees. The purpose is not to weaken or criticise the administration but to strengthen by investing in with more meaningful parliamentary support.”
Chakshu Roy is the Head of Legislative and Civic Engagement at PRS Legislative Research
Departmentally related Standing Committees have a tenure of one year, then they are reconstituted and their work continues throughout the term of a Lok Sabha. Ministers are not members; key committees like those related to Finance, Defence, Home etc are usually chaired by Opposition MPs.
Then there are committees constituted for a specific purpose, with MPs from both Houses. The specific purpose could be detailed scrutiny of a subject matter or a Bill. These are Joint Parliamentary Committees (JPC). In 2011 the issue of telecom licences and spectrum was examined by a JPC headed by Congress MP P C Chacko. In 2016, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was sent to a JPC chaired by BJP MP Rajendra Agarwal.
And finally, there is a Select Committee on a Bill. This is formed for examining a particular Bill and its membership is limited to MPs from one House. Last year Rajya Sabha referred the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2019 to a Select Committee of 23 of its MPs from different parties. The committee was headed by BJP MP Bhupender Yadav. Since both the JPCs and Select Committees are constituted for a specific purpose, they are disbanded after their report. Both these types of committees are chaired by MPs from the ruling party.
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Bills are not automatically sent to committees for examination. There are three broad paths by which a Bill can reach a committee. The first is when the minister piloting the Bill recommends to the House that his Bill be examined by a Select Committee of the House or a joint committee of both Houses. Last year Electronics and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad moved a motion in Lok Sabha referring the Personal Data Protection Bill to a Joint Committee. If the minister makes no such motion, it is up to the presiding officer of the House to decide whether to send a Bill to a departmentally related Standing Committee. During the last Lok Sabha, Venkaiah Naidu as Chairman of Rajya Sabha sent eight Bills to departmentally related Standing Committees. And finally, a Bill passed by one House can be sent by the other House to its Select Committee. In 2011, the Lokpal Bill passed by Lok Sabha was sent by Rajya Sabha to its Select Committee. In the last Lok Sabha, multiple Bills were sent to Rajya Sabha select committees.
Sending a Bill to any committee results in two things. First, the committee undertakes a detailed examination of the Bill. It invites comments and suggestions from experts, stakeholders and citizens. The government also appears before the committee to present its viewpoint. All this results in a report that makes suggestions for strengthening the Bill. While the committee is deliberating on a Bill, there is a pause in its legislative journey. It can only progress in Parliament after the committee has submitted its report. Usually, parliamentary committees are supposed to submit their reports in three months, but sometimes it can take longer.
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The report of the committee is of a recommendatory nature. The government can choose to accept or reject its recommendations. Very often the government incorporates suggestions made by committees. Select Committees and JPCs have an added advantage. In their report, they can also include their version of the Bill. If they do so, the minister in charge of that particular Bill can move for the committee’s version of the Bill to be discussed and passed in the House.
In the current Lok Sabha, 17 Bills have been referred to committees. In the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19), 25% of the Bills were referred to committees, which was much lower than the 71% and 60% in the 15th and 14th Lok Sabha respectively.