[Editorial Analysis] Dormant Parliament, fading business

Mains Paper 2: Polity
Prelims level: Budget session of Parliament
Mains level: Parliament and State legislatures structure, functioning, conduct of business, powers and privileges and issues arising out of these.

Context:

• The Budget session of Parliament came to an end two weeks before schedule on Thursday. Despite this, the Lok Sabha recorded 114 per cent productivity during the session.
• The Government decided to cut short the session, which was supposed to conclude on April 8, due to the upcoming assembly elections in five states.
• The Budget session of 2020 was curtailed ahead of the lockdown imposed following the novel coronavirus pandemic, a short 18-day monsoon session ended after 10 days as several Members of Parliament and Parliament staff got affected by COVID-19, and the winter session was cancelled.

The highlights of Budget session of Parliament:

• A total of 17 bills were introduced in Lok Sabha and 18 bills were passed in the Lok Sabha during the session. This includes the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill and the Insurance (Amendment) Bill among others.
• Almost 600 matters of urgent public importance were also raised by the Members of Parliament
• The fiscal year 2020-21 saw the Lok Sabha sitting for 34 days (and the Rajya Sabha for 33), the lowest ever. The casualty was proper legislative scrutiny of proposed legislation as well as government functioning and finances.

Constitution provision on Parliament meets:

• The president from time to time summons each House of Parliament to meet. But, the maximum gap between two sessions of Parliament cannot be more than six months. In other words, the Parliament should meet at least twice a year. There are usually

There are three sessions in a year:

• The Budget Session (February to May);
• The Monsoon Session (July to September); and
• The Winter Session (November to December).
• A ‘session’ of Parliament is the period spanning between the first sitting of a House and its prorogation (or dissolution in the case of the Lok Sabha.
• During a session, the House meets every day to transact business. The period spanning between the prorogation of a House and its reassembly in a new session is called ‘recess’.

No Bill scrutiny:

• An important development this session has been the absence of careful scrutiny of Bills. During the session, 13 Bills were introduced, and not even one of them was referred to a parliamentary committee for examination.
• In all, 13 Bills were introduced in this session, and eight of them were passed within the session. This quick work should be read as a sign of abdication by Parliament of its duty to scrutinise Bills, rather than as a sign of efficiency.

Consulting House panels:

• This development also highlights the decline in the efficacy of committees. The percentage of Bills referred to committees declined from 60% and 71% in the 14th Lok Sabha (2004-09) and the 15th Lok Sabha, respectively, to 27% in the 16th Lok Sabha and just 11% in the current one.
• Parliamentary committees have often done a stellar job. For example, the committee that examined the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code suggested many changes to make the Code work better, and which were all incorporated in the final law.
• Similarly, amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act were based on the recommendations of the Committee.
• Data compiled by PRS Legislative Research shows that only 25% bills were referred to committees in the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-2019) as compared to 60% in the 14th (2004-2009) and 71% in the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14)

Money Bill classification:

• Money Bill is defined in Article 110 of the Indian Constitution. Money bills are concerned with financial matters like taxation, public expenditure, etc.
• The bill is significant for Indian Polity and governance as many important issues. The last few years have seen the dubious practice of marking Bills as ‘Money Bills’ and getting them past the Rajya Sabha.
• Some sections of the Aadhaar Act were read down by the Supreme Court of India due to this procedure (with a dissenting opinion that said that the entire Act should be invalidated).
• The Finance Bills, over the last few years, have contained several unconnected items such as restructuring of tribunals, introduction of electoral bonds, and amendments to the foreign contribution act.
• During this session, the Union Budget was presented, discussed and passed. The Constitution requires the Lok Sabha to approve the expenditure Budget (in the form of demand for grants) of each department and Ministry.
• The Lok Sabha had listed the budget of just five Ministries for detailed discussion and discussed only three of these; 76% of the total Budget was approved without any discussion.
• This behaviour was in line with the trend of the last 15 years, during which period 70% to 100% of the Budget have been passed without discussion in most years.

The missing Deputy Speaker:

• A striking feature of the current Lok Sabha is the absence of a Deputy Speaker. Article 93 of the Constitution states that “The House of the People shall, as soon as may be, choose two members of the House to be respectively Speaker and Deputy Speaker”
• Usually, the Deputy Speaker is elected within a couple of months of the formation of a new Lok Sabha, with the exception in the 1998-99 period, when it took 269 days to do so.
• By the time of the next session of Parliament, two years would have elapsed without the election of a Deputy Speaker.
• The issue showed up starkly this session when the Speaker was hospitalised. Some functions of the Speaker such as delivering the valedictory speech were carried out by a senior member.

Parliamentary scrutiny is key:

• Parliament has the central role in our democracy as the representative body that checks the work of the government.
• It is also expected to examine all legislative proposals in detail, understand their nuances and implications of the provisions, and decide on the appropriate way forward.
• In order to fulfil its constitutional mandate, it is imperative that Parliament functions effectively.
• This will require making and following processes such as creating a system of research support to Members of Parliament, providing sufficient time for MPs to examine issues, and requiring that all Bills and budgets are examined by committees and public feedback is taken.
• In sum, Parliament needs to ensure sufficient scrutiny over the proposals and actions of the government.

Conclusion:

• Some things have improved over the last few years, we have seen most Bills being discussed in the House and have had less disruptions. However, the scrutiny of Bills has suffered as they are not being referred to committees.
• While COVID-19 was undoubtedly a grave matter, there is no reason why Parliament could not adopt remote working and technological solutions, as several other countries did.
• It is necessary to uphold the quality of legislation, and by extension, the quality of governance in the country. A strong committee system is probably the only way to ensure Parliament’s relevance in the law-making process.

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Prelims Questions:

Q.1) With reference to the Appropriation Bill 2021-22, consider the following statements:
1. Under Article 72 of the Constitution, no amount can be withdrawn from the Consolidated Fund without the enactment of such a law by Parliament.
2. Both appropriation and finance bills are classified as money bills which do not require the explicit consent of the Rajya Sabha.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?
(a) 1 only
(b) 2 only
(c) Both 1 and 2
(d) Neither 1 nor 2
Answer: B

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