It’s not just an image problemhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/its-not-just-an-image-problem/

It’s not just an image problem

Parliament’s output has been sliding,in terms of time,productivity and quality of legislation. Here’s how we can start turning it around

As an MP,I am saddened by the prime-time TV discussions and newspaper editorials that decry our behaviour. However,every time another day of parliamentary proceedings is stalled,I realise what a beating the reputation of this supreme representative institution is taking.

In recent times,the supremacy of Parliament as a law-making body has been questioned. Unfortunately,these perceptions are not unfounded — the actual trends on parliamentary functioning correlate with the dip in public image.

With each passing decade,the average number of days that Parliament remains in session has steadily come down. It remained in session for an average of 128 days each year in the ‘50s,which dropped to 100 days by the end of the ‘80s,the past decade has averaged at 70 days a year. We have started this decade with a meagre 49 days for 2011.

Even when Parliament remains in session,we are being less productive. Time lost in disruptions/adjourments was 9 per cent in the 10th Lok Sabha (1991-1995),5 per cent in the 11th and 10 per cent in the 12th. During the last Lok Sabha (2004-2009),a whopping 38 per cent of Parliament’s time was squandered. This figure is likely to be considerably higher for the current Lok Sabha,where the last winter session was almost completely wasted. (I won’t judge this winter session yet!)

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These constant disruptions in both the Houses not only cause huge losses to the public exchequer,but also disillusions the public. This erosion of confidence is a dangerous consequence,even if not really intended by those who are causing the disruptions. Each minute of a Parliament session belongs to the nation and its people. No one issue,however righteous,and no one MP,however tall his or her stature,and no one political party,however numerically strong it maybe,should lay a sole claim on Parliament’s time.

The cost of these disruptions includes the direct cost of running the House (1.6 crore a day for just the Lok Sabha),and more significant indirect costs,like that of holding up bills,of deterioration in quality of our legislative work (due to the hurried passage of bills),and the cost of MPs not being allowed to raise constituency concerns.

Every pending bill costs our nation – look at how farmers and industry across the country are adversely affected as the landmark Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation Bill awaits its passage. Such delay could slow down the Indian growth story,if it hasn’t already.

What’s more,these frequent disruptions are beginning to affect the quality of legislation. When the House loses valuable time,important pieces of legislation are passed without adequate deliberation. A bill is sent to Parliament so that its finer points can be debated by the fine minds sent there by the voters. By perpetually legislating in haste,we are abdicating our responsibility and constitutional mandate to producing quality legislation. Over time,this will lead to our mandate being encroached upon by the executive (in preparing the bills that are hurriedly passed) and by the judiciary (in interpreting those lacunae or rough edges that we leave out in the bills due to inadequate deliberations). There is another worrying statistic on this: the time taken up by pure legislative work has come down from about 48 per cent of the total productive time of Parliament to less than 13 per cent in recent years. So,though Parliament was conceived as the country’s pre-eminent law-making body,that has ceased to be its most important function.

Apart from an urgent need to address these issues related to visible functioning of the Parliament,there are reform possibilities in other areas too — for example,the possibility of whip-free voting and discussion on important economic decisions like FDI in retail,or examining the relevance of British legacies like a separate Railway budget.

There is a strong case for a permanent Parliamentary Reforms Commission that would continuously observe the institution and suggest changes. The finest institutions always have strong inherent abilities to continuously introspect and to adapt to the times and evolving expectations. Some suggestions that deserve looking into are already on the table,like the private member’s bill I moved last week,seeking a minimum of 100 working days in a year for both Houses.

For the ongoing disorder,I believe we can start by amending Rule 374 A of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business to render the unruly behaviour of MPs on the floor a breach of privilege of the House as a whole (or breach of privilege of those MPs who are willing to work that day). This will ensure that unruly conduct is referred to the Committee of Privileges for investigations and report. A second suggestion,that I strongly believe to be worth considering,is creation of a new rule that mandates each session of Parliament to be extended by the exact duration of time lost due in disruptions or adjournments.

However,I oppose the “no work,no pay” chant now doing the rounds. Such a deterrent would be discriminatory against MPs who really need their salary,and it will not work against the richer MPs,who would not mind paying even a hefty fine. A better idea would be to charge the amount that the House loses owing to disruptions,from the erring MPs MPLADs,or from the political parties that these MPs belong to.

We need a Parliament that is equal to the enormous challenges we face. Our supreme legislative body represents an abundance of talent,thoughtfulness and diversity – second to none in the world. If it functioned effectively,that fact would be evident not only to our citizens,but also to the world.

The writer is a Congress MP from Haryana