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Joint parliamentary chaos

Why do MPs show so little faith in the standing committees?

Written by C.V. Madhukar |
November 26, 2010 3:48:40 am

The ongoing deadlock in Parliament,with the opposition demanding a joint parliamentary committee be set up to examine the violations that have been allegedly committed in the sale of the 2G spectrum,raises a number of important issues. The first joint parliamentary committee was set up in 1988 in the aftermath of the Bofors case. The idea was that the JPC would examine the issue in much greater detail than would be possible on the floor of Parliament and come up with recommendations that would be tabled in Parliament. The system of departmentally related standing committees came into existence in 1993. There were at least three broad reasons behind setting up these standing committees. First,the whole House did not have time to consider all issues in detail; second,there was an increasing need for greater specialisation in order to be able to understand the issues which the committees could develop over time; and third,to develop a mechanism in which there was scope for seeking inputs from outside experts.The Rules of Procedure books of the two Houses describe the functions of these standing committees. But the spirit behind the committee system was captured very elegantly in what the then vice-president of India and chairman of Rajya Sabha,K.R. Narayanan,observed in March 1993. He said the purpose of these committees was “…to ensure the accountability of government to Parliament through more detailed consideration of measures in these committees. The intention is not to weaken or criticise the administration but to strengthen it by investing it with more meaningful parliamentary support.”With regard to the spectrum issue,there are two committees in Parliament that have direct jurisdiction. One is the Standing Committee on Information Technology,which also has the responsibility to examine the subject of telecom. This committee,which was reconstituted in August this year,has identified “allocation of spectrum” as an issue it would examine during this year. The committee has not yet had a meeting on this subject. The other is the Public Accounts Committee. The PAC is entrusted with the task of scrutinising the finances of the government. The PAC has already identified “recent developments in the telecom sector including allocation of 2G and 3G spectrum” as a subject it would take up for detailed examination this year. Now that the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report has been tabled in Parliament,the PAC can take up the matter for consideration.It is another matter that an extraordinary situation like the 2G spectrum issue might require a special intervention,such as the setting up of a JPC. But there are two very fundamental institutional questions that need to be considered. The first is whether Parliament,despite all these years of functioning and experience,has not been able to find ways to strengthen the committee system to address serious issues such as the current spectrum case. Even though our committee system has made significant contributions to strengthening scrutiny of issues that need to be considered by Parliament,it still suffers from a number of shortcomings which need to be addressed. And if there is so little faith amongst our MPs in this mechanism,surely there is a need to examine the system and make necessary changes to ensure that it has the teeth to discharge its functions effectively. The second is that law-making is one of the primary responsibilities of our MPs. Despite having made the laws to create the institutions that govern our criminal justice system,our MPs appear to be unwilling to trust these institutions of investigation and prosecution that they have legislated over the years to deliver justice in an impartial and timely manner. There have been innumerable committees that have been set up,and very many recommendations made on ways to strengthen these institutions. But there has been an unfortunate lack of political will to make significant progress on this important area. Political parties might find it difficult to signal to the larger public how keen they are to get to the root of corruption issues if they just end up having debates in Parliament. This is because the media only rarely covers these debates,however high quality they might be. And citizens rarely track what their MPs are doing in Parliament,except when the media talks of disruptions. But it’s hard for ordinary citizens to digest the fact that our MPs continue to disrupt Parliament,whatever the reasons might be. If indeed there is need for a JPC,it’s to find means of strengthening Parliament in ways that will allow our highest institution of democracy to effectively discharge its obligations to the people of this country.

The writer is director,PRS Legislative Research,Delhi,

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First published on: 26-11-2010 at 03:48:40 am
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