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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Open House

Legislatures should allow the media and public at committee proceedings.

Written by Prasanna Kumar Suryadevara | Updated: December 13, 2016 1:36:41 am
Constitution of India, legislature, Right to Information, Somnath Chatterjee, Indian express A view of Illuminated Parliament to be observed as Constitution day, during winter session of Parliament in New Delhi on Nov 27th 2015. (Express photo: Ravi Kanojia)

The Constitution of India, while granting absolute supremacy to the legislature in its own sphere, also envisioned it to be the state’s most transparent organ. The Constitution vide Articles 98, 105, 118, 122, 187, 194, 208 and 212 has provided for powers, privileges and immunities to the legislature, its members, committees and officials. These articles found their reflection in the rules adopted by both the houses of Parliament and various state legislatures making them the most transparent and independent of all the public institutions.

Long before enactment of the Right to Information in 2005, the Rules of Legislatures have provided for the proactive disclosure of information. Every word spoken in the Chamber of Legislature (the exceptions are the expunctions and secret sittings held under Rule 248 of Lok Sabha) and every report/paper tabled in the House are readily available. Legislatures across the country, led by Parliament, embraced new technologies making the dissemination of information much easier and faster.

Yet in certain sections of stakeholders, there is a sense of deprivation because the proceedings of the legislative committees in India are not open to the public. Committees, particularly of Parliament, do share a great deal of the burden of the House by diligently discharging duties such as study, inquiry, scrutiny, investigation. The statistics from the 13th Lok Sabha revealed that the committees, put together, have met for longer than the House itself. The extraordinarily high quality reports produced by the legislative committees go largely unnoticed by the media — which primarily focuses on disruptions and confrontations — thereby giving a generalised negative impression about the elected representatives in particular and the political class in general.

Aggrieved by such widely prevalent negative sentiments, Somnath Chatterjee, speaker of 14th Lok Sabha, wanted the media and public to witness the proceedings of the committees as well. Hindered by Rule 266 of the Lok Sabha which mandates that the “sittings of a Committee shall be held in private”, Chatterjee tried to evolve a consensus to usher in transparency in the functioning of committees. He was to soon realise that the House of the People was not ready to throw open committee proceedings. Despite the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union pushing the member countries to adopt measures which enhance transparency, the legislature in India could not make much headway in the models that have proved to be successful in the functioning of legislative committees in countries such as the UK, the US and Canada.

Very recently, Ram Niwas Goel, speaker of Legislative Assembly of NCT of Delhi, has permitted the chairpersons of house committees to allow the media to witness the proceedings. A special inquiry committee created history by opening its sitting to the media on December 3, 2016, thus becoming the first legislative committee in India to have ushered in a new chapter of transparency. The closest we have come to this in the past was when a special committee of the Lok Sabha, headed by Kishore Chandra Deo, was permitted by the speaker to table its report on “cash for votes” with the full transcripts of each of its sittings. But, what transpired in that committee was made known to the world only after the report was tabled. Now, the situation is different. The proceedings of the committees can be monitored and the public be kept informed on a regular basis. Allowing the media to witness and report the proceedings of committees which deal with matters of a larger public interest is a sure way to bring people closer to the legislature, thereby strengthening the legislature in the discharge of its oversight functions.

This innovation of the Delhi assembly is certain to inspire other legislative bodies all over the country.

The writer is secretary, legislative assembly, NCT of Delhi. Views are personal

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