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Monday, July 23, 2018

Parliament in 2017: A mixed year in the two Houses

Parliament in 2017 was marked by disruptions, delays and comparatively less discussion on national issues — but also, the passing of key Bills.

Written by Chakshu Roy | New Delhi | Updated: December 28, 2017 8:56:50 am
A mixed year in the two Houses This year, Parliament worked for fewer days than the annual average since 2000. (Express photo by Ravi Kanojia)

The proceedings of Parliament in the current session have been regularly disrupted. Last year, demonetisation and other issues derailed the entire Winter Session. While disruption of proceedings has been common in recent years, Parliament’s functioning in 2017 was different in some respects. The Houses had a productive Budget Session, and some work could be achieved in the Monsoon Session. State elections delayed the Winter Session.

This year, Parliament worked for fewer days than the annual average since 2000. By the end of this month, Parliament would have worked for 57 days, short of the average 70 days during this period. The last time Parliament met for fewer days (in a non-general election year) was in 2008, when it met for 46 days during the 14th Lok Sabha.

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In 2017, Parliament discussed 34% of the government’s expenditure — this was the second highest proportion of total expenditure discussed by Parliament over the last decade. There were three key changes in the Budget process: it was presented on February 1 instead of the usual last day of February; the Railway Budget was merged with the Union Budget, discontinuing a 92-year-old practice; and the Plan and non-Plan classifications of expenditure were removed.

The government was successful in getting some key Bills approved by Parliament. Four bills passed in April operationalised the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime. In February, a Bill removing the guarantee of the government to honour demonetised currency notes was passed by Lok Sabha. In August, the government was successful in pushing through a Bill empowering the Reserve Bank to give directions to banks for the resolution of their non-performing assets.

In March, Parliament passed a Bill increasing maternity leave for women from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. It also passed a Bill in the same month to protect the rights of persons with mental illness, and promote their access to mental healthcare. In April, a legislative proposal pending since 2014, prohibiting discrimination against HIV positive individuals, was passed by both Houses. In the ongoing Winter Session, a bill giving 20 Indian Institutes of Management the power to grant degrees was approved by Parliament.

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However, it was not all smooth sailing for the government in Parliament. The Opposition in Rajya Sabha scored a legislative victory in July when it forced the amendment of a key provision of a Bill giving constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC).

A key takeaway from the functioning of Parliament this year was the reduced role of Parliamentary Committees in scrutinising legislation. All the four GST-related Bills, the Bill related to demonetisation, the powers of the RBI, maternity benefits and the IIMs were passed without being examined by a Committee of Parliament. In the 16th Lok Sabha, less than 30% of Bills have been scrutinised by departmentally-related Standing Committees, compared to approximately 70% in the 15th and 60% in the 14th Lok Sabha.

In addition to debating legislation, the two Houses deliberated on national issues. These ranged from electoral reforms to lynching and mob violence, the Quit India Movement (which completed 75 years), sustainable development goals, the crisis in the farm sector, and floods. But the time for deliberation on both national and legislative issues was curtailed by disruption of proceedings in the Houses. While the Budget Session functioned smoothly, this momentum was not carried forward to the Monsoon Session and the ongoing Winter Session. During the Monsoon Session, six Opposition MPs were suspended for lowering the dignity of the Speaker of Lok Sabha.

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A casualty of the disruptions was Question Hour. During the Budget Session, Lok Sabha worked for 108% of its scheduled time, and Rajya Sabha for 86%. During the Monsoon Session, this fell to 67% for Lok Sabha and 72% for Rajya Sabha. In the first week of the Winter Session, this number fell further to approximately 50% and 36% for the two Houses respectively.

2017 saw the elections of a new President and Vice-President of India. There was some churn in the memberships of both Houses; eight sitting MPs passed away during the year. Lok Sabha members Yogi Adityanath and Keshav Prasad Maurya resigned to assume the offices of the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister respectively of Uttar Pradesh after the BJP’s massive electoral victory in the state.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar resigned from Rajya Sabha after assuming the office of the Chief Minister of Goa. CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury’s second term in Rajya Sabha came to an end this year; Congress leader Ahmed Patel was re-elected after a keenly contested vote. BJP president Amit Shah was elected for his first term in the Rajya Sabha.

JD(U) MPs Sharad Yadav and Ali Anwar lost their Rajya Sabha seats after they were disqualified under the anti-defection law. And, in a first for Lok Sabha, Snehlata Shrivastava became the first woman to be appointed the Secretary General of the Lower House.

For Parliament, 2017 was a mixed year. While there were legislative accomplishments, these came at the cost of rigorous Parliamentary scrutiny. More importantly, the disruption of proceedings continued to weaken deliberations in both Houses of Parliament.

Looking ahead

PRESIDENT RAM NATH KOVIND will soon deliver his first joint address to both Houses of Parliament. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley will present the last full Budget of the government — in his fiscal policy proposals are expected to be embedded key signals on politics.

THE LEGISLATIVE AGENDA will include, in the current session itself, the Bill to criminalise instant triple talaq. Should the Bill go to a Parliamentary Committee, it will come before Parliament in the coming year. A Bill to monitor the financial health of banks and insurance companies is pending before a Joint Committee of Parliament. This Committee’s report is expected in the Budget Session of 2018. The Committee report on The Code on Wages Bill, 2017, which seeks to consolidate laws related to wages and empower the Centre to decide a minimum national wage, is expected around the same time. A Bill prohibiting commercial surrogacy, another overhauling the country’s consumer protection framework, are listed for passage in the ongoing session. Earlier this year, the government had set up a committee under the chairmanship of Justice B N Srikrishna to identify and suggest ways to address key data protection issues, and to draft a data protection Bill. This Bill could form part of the legislative agenda for 2018.

ELECTIONS IN EIGHT STATES could result in some adjustments to the Parliamentary calendar. Terms of the Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura Assemblies will end in March, and Karnataka’s in May. The term of the Mizoram Assembly ends in December, and that of the MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan Assemblies in January 2019.

FUNCTIONING OF RAJYA SABHA, with a new Chairman and changed composition, will be watched closely. Currently, the BJP and Congress have 57 MPs each in the Upper House. Some 67 MPs will retire through 2018, including 19 from Congress and 15 from BJP. Seven Ministers — Dharmendra Pradhan, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Mansukh L Mandaviya, Arun Jaitley, J P Nadda, Thawar Chand Gehlot and Prakash Javadekar — will complete their terms in the House. AAP will have the chance to have three MPs in Rajya Sabha as terms of current Congress MPs end in January. Ten seats will open up in UP, and the Treasury Benches will increase their strength. The government will also nominate four MPs. —PRS LEGISLATIVE RESEARCH

The author is Head of Legislative and Civic Engagement, PRS Legislative Research.

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