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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Standing committees down

Parliamentary committees have lost ground to the executive

Written by C.V. Madhukar |
January 17, 2011 3:52:25 am

In the ongoing spat of JPC vs PAC,and the resultant political stalemate,there has been widespread discussion on the nuances of the committee system. But there has been little space for analytical thinking about the reasons for the current stalemate,no reflection on the weaknesses of our existing committee system,and the systemic issues that may need a relook. More importantly,the legislature does not seem to recognise the serious imbalance in the powers of the executive and the legislature.

Typically,after standing committees are reconstituted each year,there is a formal meeting of committees to decide the agenda for the year. The bulk of the business they transact is decided by the policy priorities of the government and they have little time to proactively take up important issues of policy and oversight. This naturally reduces the power of the committees,which largely become a clearing house for government business.

In recent years,there have been growing concerns about the lack of adequate time for deliberation within committees. For example,for the mammoth Right to Education Bill,the committee had two meetings,which included one for finalising the report.

Some statistics on the functioning of the Public Accounts Committee in 2009-10 give specific insights into this issue. They presented 21 reports that year. The full committee had 11 sittings,and sub-committees had an additional 11 sittings. The average attendance in the committee was about 55 per cent during the year. When one looks at such statistics across committees,the question whether committees have adequate time for detailed deliberation,becomes even more urgent.

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The third issue concerns the lack of transparency in the committee proceedings. Committee meetings are closed-door affairs and all deliberations remain confidential until the report is tabled in Parliament. Keeping the meetings closed to the public allows them to work across party lines and avoid public grandstanding on issues. Even if one were to agree with this view,there is nothing that prevents the release of the full proceedings and transcripts of committee discussions after a report has been tabled. This would enable people to see the nature of issues raised and how these were debated. This could serve as an incentive for legislators to attend meetings regularly,and contribute more meaningfully to committee deliberations.

The recommendations of standing committees on legislation are not binding on the government. To add insult to injury,the government mostly does not even feel the need to explain to the House as to why it did not take into account the recommendations made by committees. So it would not be out of place if some MPs feel that their hard work in committee has gone down the drain.

There are several other issues concerning the capacity of committees to take on more subjects for deliberation. It may be possible to address this problem at least partially,by increasing the human resource and analytical capacity of the committee secretariat. It will also help if MPs have personal research staff who can help them prepare better for committee meetings. There are a number of such other instrumental ways in which committee effectiveness can be significantly enhanced.

All of this and more will be possible only if our MPs raise a chorus demanding necessary changes in procedure and conventions to make committees more effective. While many MPs complain about the committees’ inability to reach their full potential,there appears to be an unwillingness or inability on their part to collectively articulate this and other issues about Parliamentary effectiveness. This does not help them reclaim any of the power that the legislature,and the committees specifically,have ceded to the executive over the years.

In the UK,in March 2000,the House of Commons released a report on “Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive”. The report examined how some changes need to be made in order to make committees more effective. But more importantly,there was an explicit recognition that the legislature needs to assert its role vis-à-vis the executive. It will take a lot more than a mere collective recognition and articulation to have our Parliament gain back a lot of the power it has ceded to the government over the years. It is precisely this total lack of collective articulation of the need for strengthening systems in Parliament that is worrisome. It may be politically expedient or even necessary for our political leaders to take the public stands they take on the JPC vs PAC issue. But it does not mean that they should not simultaneously explore longer-term systemic solutions to such problems. It would be useful if our policymakers,expected to make policies that govern a billion people,also expend more of their collective energies making the institution of Parliament function better.

The writer is director,PRS Legislative Research,New Delhi

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