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Going through the motions
The washout of the monsoon session of Parliament has once again turned the spotlight on the dysfunctional nature of the nation's maha-panchayat and raised serious doubts about the future of parliamentary democracy in India. Citizens wonder whether there is any redemption at all. Is this a signal even, that a working Parliament is not a necessary pre-condition for India's survival?
This is rather unfortunate because Parliament has major achievements to its credit over the last six decades. Moreover, its two Houses now mirror India's diversity better than ever before;many MPs have overcome class and caste barriers to get to the apex legislature and most boast of college degrees, have research assistants and are learning to work via committees. This is a significant step forward for a liberal democracy like India. Yet, the two Houses suffer from persistent bouts of serious paralysis and seem unwilling to carry out the three major responsibilities bestowed on them by the Constitution - to amend the Constitution if necessary and to legislate;to pass the Union Budget and the government's tax proposals;and an omnibus responsibility to keep a watch on government.
Taking the third task first, it goes without saying that Parliament must meet regularly and do its full quota of work if it is to effectively oversee the work of the executive. Sadly, this isn't happening. In the 1950s, Parliament had an average of 130-140 sittings per year. Last year, it met for just 73 days and even these curtailed sessions were disrupted.
For example, as much as 451 hours have been lost to disruptions from the first to the tenth session of the current Lok Sabha. In the monsoon session that just ended, 75 per cent of the time was washed out.
In parliaments across the world, MPs keep governments on their toes via Question Time. It is through the potent device of the parliamentary question with which MPs grill ministers and question government decisions. In India, about a quarter of the questions listed for oral answers 'mature' during question time. However, in the recent monsoon session, only 11 of the 399 questions listed for oral answers in the Rajya Sabha were answered. In the Lok Sabha, Question Hour was wiped out on 16 of the 18 days. In these circumstances, how can Parliament keep a watch on the executive?
And what about its legislative responsibility? Generally, lawmaking never figures in an MP's list of priorities. That is why the two chambers are largely empty when the legislative process is on. In these disruptive and chaotic days, the lawmaking function has sunk to a new low. Examples from the recent monsoon session could be illuminating. On August 30 this year, the Lok Sabha passed the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (Amendment) Bill and the Chemical Weapons Regulation (Amendment) Bill in a record 3 minutes. The AIIMS (Amendment) Bill concerns establishment of six more such premier hospitals at a cost of Rs 4, 920 crore and the Chemical Weapons Bill sought to align India's laws in this area with international agreements. The House took just 90 seconds to race through each of these Bills. September 3 was yet another extraordinary day on which the Lok Sabha passed two Amending Bills and one original legislation in 22 minutes. The original legislation was The Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, 2012 - a law that millions of working women have been waiting for. Needless to say, all Bills were passed without debate.
Another area of concern is the time available for discussion on the budget and the demands for grants of every ministry. Fifty years ago, the two Houses devoted a quarter of the time every year to the budgetary process. In recent years, this time has come down to 10 per cent. On an average, 80 per cent of the budgetary grants are passed without debate every year. MPs defend this by saying that the Standing Committees examine the grants. What they do not tell you is that absenteeism in these committees is an astonishing 50-60 per cent.
NO PAIN, ALL GAIN
Finally, a word about our privileged MPs. Those who have tracked Parliament over the years will vouch for the fact that the business transacted within the two chambers is now just 20 per cent of what it was in the 1950s. But the salary and allowances of MPs has risen from Rs 300 to Rs 1. 30 lakhs a month. In addition, they get bungalows, health cover, free water, electricity, 32 J Class air tickets and a first class train pass. Yet, MPs have no qualms about embellishing their personages with some of the most bizarre - and undemocratic - perks and privileges.
For example, they get priority in purchase of guns seized by customs authorities. An RTI activist has ascertained that 82 MPs availed of this facility in the last 11 years. Hundreds of MPs have purchased these weapons over the years and even got a discount, which mercifully now stands withdrawn. Other quotas enjoyed by MPs over the years include domestic gas connections, central school admissions, priority in allotment of flats built by development authorities and army jeeps and jongas. They can also requisition new currency notes fresh out of the Government Security Press via the Reserve Bank of India.
However, our MPs are never satisfied. They want more. Recently, a hundred MPs petitioned the Speaker and said they all want 'lal battis' (red lights) atop their cars. Why? Because without these red beacons they can get challaned by the police. They also want access to the Defence Canteen, probably to keep their spirits up in these dispiriting times.
So where do we go from here? Are we witnessing "the elongated funeral rites of the parliamentary system, " as Arun Shourie recently put it, or can Parliament still redeem itself? In the circumstances, it would be appropriate to recall Harold Laski's unforgettable warning, "the alternative to the talking shop is the concentration camp" - and hope that it will stir the conscience of each of our 790 fellow citizens who has the privileged suffix 'MP' attached to his or her name.
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