The government set up Parliamentary committees soon after the monsoon session following criticism from the Opposition over legislation being passed without scrutiny in the absence of these panels. But it seems to have found a way to skirt them. NDA members in many committees are using the rule book to stonewall scrutiny on issues that may raise uncomfortable questions for the government.
A Parliamentary committee is considered a forum for non-partisan deeper scrutiny of the issues of the day. Its members are drawn from all parties based on their proportional representation in the House, and the parties nominate their candidates.
There have been at least three such instances in three separate newly constituted panels — the Public Accounts Committee, the Standing Committee on Home Affairs, and the Standing Committee on Information Technology, headed by Congress leaders Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Anand Sharma and Shashi Tharoor, respectively.
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On Wednesday, Tharoor cast a deciding vote to overrule objections from members from Treasury benches to the Standing Committee on Information and Technology discussing data privacy issues arising from the WhatsApp security breach.
In non-partisan space, red flags
A Parliamentary panel is an extension of Parliament. To ensure non-partisan scrutiny of the executive, its proceedings do not happen in the public glare. Bills can come to it, the committee can also choose subjects. Barring select, highly contentious issues, committees are known to take a non-partisan approach. Dissent notes are not uncommon but objections at the very start are unusual.
On November 15, the Standing Committee on Home Affairs kicked off with NDA members questioning the panel’s jurisdiction in discussing the situation in Kashmir.
One of the first meetings of the Public Accounts Committee saw ruling party MPs objecting, including in writing, to the panel taking up the issue of India’s preparedness in meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Following objections from Treasury benches at the meeting of the Standing Committee on Information and Technology on Wednesday, the panel was forced to call for a vote. Officials from the Information & Technology, Home and Atomic Energy Departments are meant to brief the committee on citizens’ data security and privacy.
At least two NDA members are learnt to have cited Rule 331(E) of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha, dealing with functions of Standing Committees administered by the lower House, to object to the issue being taken up. According to them, under the provision, Standing Committees could not take up matters pertaining to day-to-day administration of the concerned ministries/departments.
The members, mostly belonging to the BJP, said the committee could not pursue the matter suo motu, and asked why several of the people who had claimed their phones had been hacked had not filed an FIR.
With the Opposition digging its heels in, one NDA member cited Rule 261 to demand that a decision on pursuing the matter be determined by a majority of members present and voting. After the panel was split down the middle, with 12 members voting for it and 12 against, Tharoor cast a deciding vote as chairperson under Rule 262 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha, allowing the discussion.
The Standing Committee on Home Affairs is administered by the Rajya Sabha. As per a Parliamentary Bulletin issued by the Rajya Sabha Secretariat on October 22, the panel was to take up “Administration, Development and People’s Welfare in the Union Territories of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh” among nine subjects selected for “detailed examination”.
Members belonging to the Treasury Benches objected to a discussion on the Kashmir situation, quoting 270 and 271 of the Rules of Procedure of the Council of States (Rajya Sabha), saying this might interfere with day-to-day administration in the Union Territory.
Earlier, in September, members from Treasury benches objected to the Public Accounts Committee taking up for discussion “Preparedness for the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goals.” The committee had scheduled the discussion following a CAG report, where NITI Aayog representatives were to brief the committee. Subsequently, a member from the Treasury benches shot off a letter citing issues of jurisdiction invoking rules and regulations to object to the issue being taken up by the committee.
While authorising Standing Committees to scrtunise Demands for Grants; Bills referred to it by the presiding officers, annual reports of ministries, and long-term policy documents referred to it, these rules cited by the members from treasury benches (331 in Lok Sabha, 270 & 271 in Rajya Sabha) bar the panels from considering matters of day-to-day administration of the related Ministries/Departments.
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“The Standing Committees shall not consider the matters of day to day administration of the concerned Ministries/Departments,” the rules specify. Several BJP leaders, in this context, suggest that their objections were well within the rules meant for the committees.