|When Anna Hazare’s protest resulted in the creation of a joint task force to draft the
Lokpal Bill, several commentators cried that it amounted to subversion of democracy
since only the legislature has the right to draft legislation. Alarm was raised over
the fact that this joint committee came into being due to the immense pressure on
the government from the people inspired by Anna Hazare’s fast. This is not the way
democracy functions and sets a very wrong precedent, said experts.
It is true that the fabric of democracy should not be stretched too much, lest it should tear. The
sanctity of the legislative process should not be compromised. However, the debate on legislative
propriety missed an opportunity to critically examine if the democracy and its instruments,
especially the Parliamentary system that we so zealously want to protect, is functioning properly
or not. There is merit in insulating the Parliamentary process from the direct pressure of the
unelected, just as there is merit in guarding the independence of the judiciary and the executive.
But the fact is that the legislative process has always been influenced by special interest groups.
While stories of prominent business houses having governments of the day ‘in their pockets’ are
possibly exaggerated, there is no denying that businesses do influence policies through active
lobbying, either on their own or through business associations.
Not just legislative
independence, but also
be monitored and
examined. India has a
very poor record on all
Further, not just legislative independence, but also legislative
efficiency, productivity, and performance should be monitored and
examined. India has a very poor record on all these parameters.
The Indian Parliament meets for roughly 65 days a year, which is
not adequate to allow considered debate on various important bills
and issues that need to be taken up. With many more political parties
today, each with its own point of view, greater time is required
to allow multiplicity of views to be heard and incorporated. This is
hardly possible with so few days devoted to sessions. In the early
days of India’s Parliamentary history, Parliament met for 140 days
on average. However, this is not all. Not only is the number of days
fewer than needed, the time actually spent on debate is even lesser.
According to data compiled by PRS Legislative Research, over
the last couple of years, Parliament has rarely functioned for all the
scheduled hours. Typically, the number of hours actually worked is
20 to 100 per cent lower than planned. In the 2010 Winter Session of Parliament, no business
could be transacted at all because of disruption of proceedings by opposition parties. The ongoing
session of Parliament is going down the same path with the opposition disrupting Parliament
on the issue of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the retail sector. As this article is being written,
seven straight days’ work has already been lost.
This is creating a serious backlog of bills that need to be passed to address myriad issues
facing the country. For instance, in the Monsoon Session of Parliament in 2011, there were 78 bills
pending. During the session, 14 new bills were introduced, 8 bills passed, and one bill withdrawn.
As a result, after the session, the number of pending bills rose to 83.
The direct cost to the exchequer of running the Parliament is Rs 25 lakh per hour, or nearly
Rs 2 crore a day, according to one estimate. The cost of disruption in the current session itself is
Rs 14 crore of tax payers’ money so far. However, this is not even the tip of the iceberg. The real cost to the economy is much higher.
Decisions not taken, bills not passed,
or passed without adequate and quality
debate, inflict far greater damage. In
fact, most surveys among professionals
and businessmen rate paralysis
of government as the number one
challenge to the ‘India story’ currently.
Even during the few days that Parliament
functions, absenteeism among
members is rife. Parliamentary committees
that deliberate on important
bills record 45-50 per cent attendance
on average. During the 12th and 13th
Lok Sabha, the Railways Committee,
for example, recorded only 14 per cent
The state of affairs in state assemblies
is even poorer. PRS data shows
that the Punjab assembly met for an average of 19 days a year over a 10 year period, ending
2007. The Delhi assembly met for an average of 21 days. Some legislative assemblies are a
few years behind in publishing their ‘resume of work’, which is a record of the work done in
a session. Clearly, they do not feel they are accountable to anyone. Also, unlike Parliament,
state assemblies do not have standing committees to examine
and debate bills, and any review of bills happen only on the floor
of the house. Most bills are passed without much debate; the
average time devoted to a discussion on a bill is just half an hour
in the Delhi assembly!
Recently, newspapers reported that Members of Parliament
(MPs) want red beacons on their cars and want privileges similar
to High Court judges. Fair point. We should give our MPs the
respect that the office demands. But, at the same time, the citizens
have a right to ask for certain minimum standards of conduct
from them. In 2004, there were 121 MPs with a criminal record,
with as many as 300 cases against them collectively. What is
more, no single party can be blamed for criminalisation of politics.
The number of MPs with a criminal background in each party
is roughly in proportion to its strength in Parliament. In fact, the
ratio of alleged criminals to the total strength of Parliament is
higher than the ratio of criminals to the general population! One cannot help but feel uncertain
if Indian democracy is safe in such hands.
assemblies are a
few years behind
in publishing their
‘resume of work’,
which is a record of the
work done in a session.
Clearly, they do not feel
they are accountable
Democracy needs to be saved in India and the sanctity of the democratic institutions needs
to be protected zealously. However, the agenda for democratic renewal needs to be much wider
and deeper. Some Parliamentarians and chief ministers have suggested ‘pay for work’ for elected
representatives. However, such cosmetic solutions will not have much impact. Some of the
things that can be done are; ridding politics of criminalisation by raising the eligibility bar; making
participation in legislative work mandatory and the failure to do so being made a ground for
disqualification in future elections; and making the duration of Parliamentary sessions flexible
so that certain minimum legislative work is accomplished. Perhaps Mr Hazare should take these
issues up to make an even greater difference to democracy in India?