The number of government assurances made in the Lok Sabha that have remained unfulfilled increased by 300% between the 15th and 16th Lok Sabhas, showed an analysis of Parliament data by IndiaSpend. These assurances include an array of subjects, ranging from the offer of information on custodial deaths to the impact of demonetisation and attacks on journalists.
Up to 1,540 assurances remained unfulfilled by the end of the 16th Lok Sabha, when the first NDA government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in power from 2014 to 2019, compared to 385 at the end of the 15th Lok Sabha, which was the second tenure of the UPA government led by the then PM Manmohan Singh from 2009-2014.
Nearly 76% of promises made in the Lok Sabha in 2018-19, in the parliamentary sessions leading up to the 2019 general election, were unfulfilled.
Government assurances are promises made on the floors of both houses – Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha – to Members of Parliament. These could be promises given in response to a question or in the course of an intervention in a debate, or these could also be raised by Members of Parliament. Timely and proper implementation of these is a critical measure of accountability and laxity is viewed seriously.
These assurances are critical because MPs, as representatives of the people, are required to hold the government accountable and demand solutions for the problems faced by their constituency and the country.
An assurance should be implemented within three months of it being made, the rules say. If the government is unable to meet this deadline, it has to request the committee on government assurances to ‘drop’ the assurance in question. The committee recommends whether the request should be allowed.
Here are some examples of assurances made in the Lok Sabha during the first NDA government that have yet to be fulfilled:
- The government was asked in February about the recovery of the bodies of 15 miners trapped in an illegal rat-hole mine in the East Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya in December 2018. The government reply stated that “information is being obtained by the state government” but this information is yet to be made public.
- The government was asked in November 2016 about complaints of custodial torture and deaths registered with the National Human Rights Commission and if any guidelines had been framed to prevent these. The government response was that information on the subject is being collected but the assurance remains pending.
- In a related question in April 2018, the government was asked about the release of undertrials and the implementation of the Law Commission’s August 2018 report, Wrongful Prosecution (Miscarriage of Justice): Legal Remedies. The government maintained that the information was being collected but is yet to provide any information. “Due to the need for wider consultation and engaging multiple stakeholders, commission reports are always something that takes longer than usual as you have to incorporate a variety of people,” an official from the home affairs ministry, said.
The government had requested the committee’s permission to drop 485 assurances given throughout the 16th Lok Sabha. The committee rejected nearly 57% of these – 275. The government’s reasons to request the assurances be dropped were varied – incomplete information, prolonged timeline and even disputing that the government had given an ‘assurance’.
To indicate an assurance, ministers often use expressions such as “the matter is under consideration”, “I shall look into it”, “I shall consider it”, “information is being collected and will be laid on the table of the house” and “shall supply it to the honourable member” during question hour, zero hour, debates, resolutions, motions and so on.
More than a quarter – 28.6% – of all assurances given during the 16th Lok Sabha are pending, as compared to 6% in 2009-2014. In all, the BJP-led government made 5,383 assurances of which 1,540 have been pending over the past five years.
“Monitoring the assurances made by the government on the floor of the house is one of the parliamentary procedures and accountability mechanisms that Parliament has,” said Prachee Mishra, deputy head of research, PRS Legislative Research, a parliamentary research think-tank based in Delhi. “The government has three months to fulfill these assurances. The committee may extend the time frame after examining the nature of each assurance and the government’s reason for seeking such extension.”
As the 16th Lok Sabha progressed, this government’s rate of fulfilling assurances fell from 84% in its second sitting in July-August 2014 to 10% in the last sitting in January-February 2019. Meanwhile, pending assurances rose from 11% in the second sitting in July-August 2014 to 89% in its last sitting in January-February 2019.
As many as 1,776 assurances were given in the Lok Sabha in 2014-15, the first year of the new government, of which 81% or 1,451 were fulfilled and 13% or 236 are still pending. In the year leading to the 2019 general elections, the government gave 582 assurances in the last three Lok Sabha sittings, of which 443 – 76% – are pending.
In the 16th Lok Sabha, from 2014 to 2018, the parliamentary committee rejected 56.7% of all requests to drop assurances. More than three-fourths – 76% – of the requests in 2018 were rejected, the highest rejections in five years.
“The reports on government assurances are presented and tabled in the Parliament but these reports are not discussed on the floor of the house,” said Mishra. “These are unanimous, and not discussed by the members, neither are any dissent notes filed by them. We also need to see what is the nature of these assurances.”
The parliamentary committee has criticised many of the reasons given by the government in its request to drop assurances. In a question asked in July 2014 about the national policy for the empowerment of the transgender community, the government replied that an expert committee had been formed to deal with the matter. The mere making of this statement in Lok Sabha should not be considered an assurance, the social justice and empowerment ministry had argued. The committee rejected this argument, pointing out that a statement made in the house is an assurance and that the “government ministry cannot question the wisdom of the committee to treat which statement as assurance or otherwise”.
In another instance, the government wanted to drop an assurance made in May 2016 that it would provide information on the ‘jobs against land’ scam wherein it was alleged that land-holders were being bribed with employment in the Central Coalfields Limited in exchange for land acquisition in Ranchi and other areas. The coal ministry cited the lengthy investigation process of the Central Bureau of Investigation as the primary reason for dropping the assurance. But the committee was not convinced. “The Committee [members] are of firm view that an assurance cannot be dropped merely on such grounds,” it said in its response.
In another instance, a May 2015 question asked about the number of cases relating to terrorism investigated by the National Investigation Agency since its inception. The home affairs ministry wanted to drop this assurance as “a certain number of cases remain under investigation at any particular time under the NIA”. The ministry replied that 27 cases were under investigation. The committee rejected this response, adding that it “feels that the ministry need[s] to indicate the outcome of the 27 cases referred to in the reply.”
In February 2014, the government requested that it be allowed to drop an assurance about jobs being provided to those who lost their land during land acquisition for building railway lines that same month, reasoning that it was a state task and that land acquisition was the state government’s remit. The committee rejected the request, reasoning that “such a statement is not only a manifestation of the ministry’s perfunctory approach towards fulfilling their parliamentary obligation but also shirking of their responsibility”. The committee also directed the ministry to pursue the matter with the state government.
Despite repeated attempts, the railway ministry declined to comment on the present status of the assurance to IndiaSpend.
Apart from the committee, MPs have no other platform to seek a government response on a pending assurance. “The Member of Parliament cannot follow up individually if the assurance given remains unanswered,” said S L Singh, deputy secretary of the committee on government assurances. “The committee pursues the assurances and the MP can write to either the chairman of the committee or the concerned minister on a personal level if he/she wants a response. As far as the record-keeping of assurances implemented is concerned, it is updated regularly.”
Parliament has several mechanisms and there are other tools such as zero hour, or raising a short-duration discussion to hold ministers accountable, Mishra said. “The assurance committee is only one of the tools to monitor the assurances that are made.”
The Finance Ministry, in February, was asked if any study had been conducted about demonetisation – which scrapped 86% of India’s currency, by value, on November 8, 2016 – and the impact of the introduction of the goods and services tax on industrial production and GDP. The government replied that it has neither undertaken any study about demonetisation or GST, nor has it studied their impact on the economy. However, it gave the assurance that it was in the process of collecting information. The government has yet to release any findings on the subject.
The government, in another question in January, was asked about the value of voluntarily declared black money recovered post-demonetisation. This information was being collected, the government replied, and made an assurance which is still pending.
Attacks on journalists
The Information and Broadcasting Ministry was asked in December 2018 if it was aware that India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index had declined in 2018 and if it had any information on attacks on Indian journalists. The information was still being compiled, considered as an assurance, the government responded, but till date this assurance remains pending.
The government’s position was that the National Crime Records Bureau does not collect data for separate categories of professionals, including journalists. However, Minister of State for Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir said in a reply to the Lok Sabha in December 2018 that there had been 189 attacks on journalists from 2014 to 2016. FactChecker.in disproved the government’s claim about the NCRB not collecting data on attacks on journalists in January.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.