Six steps to a more effective parliament

Arvind Kejriwal’s outburst on parliamentarians is only the latest display of the disdain we have for our MPs. Nripendra Misra & Tannu Singh suggest ways to remedy the governance and financial setbacks caused by disruptions, logjams and standoffs in parliament, and bring in parliamentary reform

parliamentary reforms

 Amongst the various reactions that the repeated non-functioning of the Indian parliament evoked, was the suggestion of one Samajwadi Party MP that parliament be converted into an amusement park on days of no substantial work so that some of the monetary losses to the nation may be made up. This open mockery reflects public sentiment and appears to be justified if you look at this brief snapshot of the functioning of the current (15th) Lok Sabha.

Ever since it was convened in May 2009, the 15th Lok Sabha has met for a total of 54 sittings in 2009 and 81 sittings in 2010;  the Rajya Sabha for 53 sittings in 2009 and 81 sittings in 2010. The annual report compiled by the ministry of parliamentary affairs for the year 2009-10 states that 19.53% of the time of the Lok Sabha was lost due to adjournments and other interruptions in 2009, whereas the Rajya Sabha’s time lost on similar accounts was 9.09% in the same year. The year 2010 saw a steep rise in the time lost due to interruptions and adjournments, with the Lok Sabha recording 49.50% of its time lost, and the Rajya Sabha not being far behind at 44.47%.

According to data gathered by PRS Legislative Research, the opening session of the present year, the Budget Session of 2011, was recorded as the shortest budget session in the last two decades, where both houses sat for a total of 23 days, wherein the Lok Sabha spent 44 hours discussing the budget, whereas Rajya Sabha spent a mere 23 hours on discussion of the budget.  Thus during Budget Session 2011 a total of nine bills against the planned 34 bills were introduced, with only six taken up for discussion, besides the finance and appropriation bills. Again during the 2011 Monsoon Session of parliament, the Lok Sabha met for 104 of the planned 156 hours, and the Rajya Sabha for a total of 81 of the planned 104 hours, ie the Lok Sabha worked for a total of 67% of the scheduled time whereas Rajya Sabha worked for 62% of the planned time. The same disturbing pattern was seen in the 2011 Winter Session of parliament.

Next, let us take a sneak peek at basic expenditure for the monthly and daily maintenance of our members of parliament (MPs). According to the Salary, Allowances and Pension of Members of Parliament Act, 1954, as it stands amended up to December 2010, each MP is entitled to a monthly salary of Rs 50,000 in addition to a monthly constituency allowance of Rs 45,000 and a monthly office expense allowance of Rs 45,000 each. Besides all this there is also the daily allowance for MPs of Rs 2,000 for each day on which she merely signs the register maintained by the secretariats of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, regardless of whether or not any substantial work has been transacted in parliament.

This amount when computed against the total present strength of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha taken together -- which is 785 – gives us a total cost to the public exchequer of Rs 52.5 lakh for each day that parliament is in session, for just the salary and major allowances of MPs. Thus each day wasted in parliament means a loss of at least Rs 52.5 lakh per day. And this figure does not include the freebies disbursed to every MP in kind through other benefits like travel, medical, telephone, residence etc.

Moreover, just as a government is accountable to parliament, parliament as the highest legislative office of India owes its accountability to the people of India, the highest sovereign authority in a democracy. How can the people holding the highest offices in the Indian democracy be made accountable for the governance and financial setbacks caused by disruptions, logjams and standoffs in parliament? Overarching parliamentary reforms seem inevitable in light of the challenges that Indian democracy is facing today.

With parliament set to consider the Judicial Accountability Bill, 2011, seeking to bring to book even the judges of the Supreme Court and High Court, parliamentary accountability is a must. The time is ripe for the immediate setting up of a high-level committee on parliamentary reforms comprising eminent jurists and constitutional experts, to suggest a way to evolve and upgrade parliamentary procedures. This has also been suggested by Dr Subhash Kashyap, eminent expert in constitutional law and parliamentary affairs, as well as the 2004 report of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution.

Second, there should be a monetary penalty for deviation from expected behaviour, executed in terms of disentitlement to the daily sitting allowance for MPs for days on which no substantial work has been transacted in parliament. This same intent was strongly reflected by various private members’ bill in the recent past, like the Disruption of Proceedings of Parliament (Disentitlement of Allowances) Act, 2004, introduced by Fali S Nariman which has since lapsed; and the Disruption of Proceedings of Parliament (Disentitlement of Daily Allowance to Members and Termination of Membership) Bill, 2009, introduced by Lagadapati Rajagopal, which is still pending before parliament.

The third step towards parliamentary procedural reforms should be reinstating the sanctity of  Question Hour. This potent weapon in the hand of MPs to question all government acts of omission and commission is in pressing need of revamp. During the 2011 Budget Session of the 15th Lok Sabha, out of the 12 hours slated for Question Hour, nearly eight were lost due to adjournments. Of the total 320 questions listed to be answered orally, only 40 have been answered in the Lok Sabha and 36 in the Rajya Sabha. And again in the 2011 Monsoon Session of parliament huge time loss was recorded in Question Hour due to disruptions, such that of the 520 starred questions planned in the Lok Sabha only 51 could be answered orally, and similarly in the Rajya Sabha out of the 520 planned questions only 65 could be answered orally. In order to rein in this repeated disruption no time should be lost in strictly defining the procedures and penalties for disrupting a Question Hour. Any interruption to Question Hour should be admissible by the chair of the house only if it is introduced either by the leader of the opposition or the leader of the ruling party, premised further on the fact that the issue for disruption should comprise of an agenda of extraordinary concern. Any other grounds for creating disturbance during Question Hour by any other MP should call for automatic suspension of the concerned MP from the house and his/her disentitlement to the sitting allowance for the day.

Fourth, Adjournment Motions should no longer be seen as a latent device for presenting a No-Confidence Motion against the ruling government. Entirely disassociated from a No-Confidence Motion, Adjournment Motions should be refurbished as a way to introduce matters of extraordinary and urgent concern, which could not be included beforehand in the business of parliament for a given day. And the final outcome of an Adjournment Motion should not entail any demand for the exit of the government, which is the essence of a No-Confidence Motion.

Fifth, we need a specific codification of the rules and punishments for entering the well of the house. Entering the well of the house should be possible only if the subject being raised has prior notice and also the formal approval of the party concerned. This rule should also entail the automatic suspension of the MP from the house and his/her disentitlement to the sitting allowance for the day in parliament, in case of disobedience.

Lastly, the limits to parliamentary privileges are still undefined. Parliamentary privileges are allowed to MPs by the Constitution of India to enable them to discharge their parliamentary duties in the interests of the people without any obstruction towards the free and independent functioning of parliament.  Six decades after the commencement of the Constitution there are still no specific legal rules which delimit these privileges. In order to ensure that the real essence of this privilege is retained these privileges need to be legally defined right away.

These six concrete suggestions proposed as an agenda for immediate action on parliamentary reforms in India may seem like token measures which might not completely weed out the unaccountability and inefficiency creeping into the highest legislative office of Indian democracy. But a beginning has to be made somewhere.

(Nripendra Misra is former Secretary, Government of India, ex-Chairman, TRAI, and Director, Public Interest Foundation . Tannu Singh is Research Associate, Public Interest Foundation)

Infochange News & Features, February 2012