There was not a single meeting of any parliamentary committee in the four months following the national lockdown imposed on March 24 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Of the 24 departmentally-related standing committees, not one met virtually either during the lockdown.
Departmentally-related standing committees are committees with members from both houses of Parliament which deal with expenditure, laws and policies of specific ministries.
The average attendance of every departmentally-related standing committee was 54% in the second session (November-December 2019) and 48% in the third session (January-March) of the 17th Lok Sabha (National Democratic Alliance or NDA-2). The standing committee on finance, which scrutinises the expenditure of the Ministry of Finance, had the lowest attendance of all (see table). Over 78% of members were not present in the committee meetings held between November and March.
The recent decline in the role and performance of standing committees is part of a larger trend visible even before the lockdown, an IndiaSpend analysis of published parliamentary data regarding eight standing committees found.
The standing committees under the first NDA government met for 145.5 hours less than the ones under the preceding United Progressive Alliance government. In comparison, an average session of the Lok Sabha lasts for 100 hours. Comparing every standing committee’s number of meetings and the number of hours under both governments shows a steady decline.
The number of sittings decreased by 22.1% and the standing committees were 26.8% less productive by the number of hours during NDA-1’s 16th Lok Sabha as compared to the 15th Lok Sabha led by UPA-2.
Standing committees form an integral part of Parliament’s role in the debate. They discuss laws and policies by analysing them in-depth. They are composed of members from both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Additionally, standing committees provide a platform for MPs to track government expenditure, scrutinise policies and bills and seek expert advice. Due to the untelevised nature of committee meetings, they are also used as a forum for consensus-building among parties for controversial issues or contentious pieces of legislation.
Diminished say in legislative matters
There was a decrease in the involvement of standing committees in legislative matters, data show. Under the NDA-1 government, only 25% of all bills were referred to committees, compared to 71% under the UPA-2 government and 60% under UPA-1 in the 14th Lok Sabha. Only about 10% of bills introduced in Parliament during the 17th Lok Sabha have been referred to committees, data show.
Between March and August, the government has promulgated 11 ordinances. This includes the Taxation and other Laws (Relaxation of Certain Provisions) Ordinance, 2020, that amended the Income Tax Act and allowed 100% tax exemption to donations made to the PM Cares Fund.
Ordinances are passed when Parliament is not in session and the government is required to take immediate action. No ordinance is allowed to be in force for more than six months without parliamentary approval.
They must be passed in Parliament within six weeks of its reassembling under Article 123 of the Constitution of India and Parliament cannot be out of session for more than six months under Article 85. Ordinances must be used during extraordinary circumstances and should not replace the law-making power of the legislature, according to a landmark Supreme Court ruling from 1987.
“Ordinances are most often brought to escape parliamentary scrutiny and the law-making process,” said Maansi Verma, the founder of Maadhyam, a civil engagement initiative on parliamentary matters. “If we look at the subject matter of ordinances passed during the lockdown, some reforms had nothing to do with the pandemic.”
“These could have been brought as bills and sent to the committees for review, but the pandemic was used as an excuse,” said Verma.
Partisanship curtailing deliberation
As has been reported before, the committee on home affairs saw political partisanship during its meeting on Kashmir post abrogation of Article 370.
The committee on home affairs held a meeting on November 15, 2019, which was the first time any committee discussed the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and officials were called in as witnesses. Parliamentary standing committees are mandated to hold discussions on all Union Territories according to Rule 331P of Lok Sabha procedures. Restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir were ordered on August 5, 2019, and the bifurcation of the state into two Union Territories was officiated on October 30, 2019.
“Traditionally, parliamentary committees function on a non-party basis,” said PDT Achary, former secretary-general of Lok Sabha. “Of late, this tradition seems to have broken down and members have started political posturing.”
Achary added that earlier “political neutrality was ensured as committees only called officials as witnesses, and ministers were not invited in the meetings”.
Committees also provide each member with the opportunity to express their disagreement with the final report of the committee via a dissent note under Rule 331I.
“There have been cases when the MPs from the ruling party stopped the chairman from taking up an issue,” said Verma of Maadhyam. “For instance, discussion by a standing committee on demonetisation was not agreed to be taken up by MPs of the ruling government.”
“In the past, there have been cases of healthy deliberations within the committee,” said Verma. “The National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 [Aadhaar Bill as initially introduced] during the UPA-2 government was sent to the committee headed by a Bharatiya Janata Party member, the committee came out with an objective report and eventually the bill was shelved.”
“Such political partisanship during the proceedings of committees have reduced its deliberation over important issues such as tracking the expenditure of ministries and, consequently, its ability to hold the government to account,” said Verma. There have been several recent instances of confrontation within standing committees.
In August, two members of the standing committee on Information Technology – the chairperson and a member from the BJP – filed privilege motions against each other over remarks both had made publicly. The Public Accounts Committee, which is chaired by the Leader of the Opposition, was recently prevented from scrutinising the PM-CARES Fund by committee members from the ruling party.
“Standing committees provide a platform for MPs of all political parties to come together and deliberate on issues of public importance in a neutral manner,” said former Lok Sabha secretary-general Achary. “The confidentiality aspect gives the MPs an opportunity to form a consensus.”
Virtual meetings not allowed
On April 6, the joint committee on salaries and allowances became the first committee to meet virtually. The joint committee was chaired by a BJP MP. This joint committee is different from other committees as it was created specifically to frame rules under the Salary, Allowances & Pensions of Members of Parliament Act, 1954. Despite demands by four chairpersons to conduct virtual meetings for standing committees, the Speaker refused the requests arguing that it would break the confidentiality conditions under Rule 275 of the Lok Sabha.
“By definition, standing committee meetings are supposed to be confidential till the final report is presented,” said GC Prasad, additional director in the Lok Sabha secretariat. “Any meeting that is virtual means that someone who is not authorised could view the proceedings, whether that is a personal assistant or someone who sets up the technology for the member.”
“There is also the chance of the meeting being recorded or accessed illegally,” said GC Prasad. “Therefore, confidentiality does not stand in virtual meetings.”
“Even witnesses will not be willing to come forward if there is a chance that confidentiality is not guaranteed to them,” said Prasad. “This issue has already been discussed by both houses and was deemed to be untenable.”
However, Rule 267 empowers the Speaker to place the venue of a sitting outside Parliament. The same discretionary power resides with the chairperson of the Rajya Sabha under Rule 81.
“If parliamentary standing committees were able to meet virtually, they could review the performance of the government and how it dealt with the pandemic,” said Verma. “The standing committee on labour, for instance, looked at the performance of the One Nation-One Ration Card scheme and the welfare benefits to migrant labourers, but this was done months later.”
“Timely review and recommendations by the committee was required,” said Verma.
More than 15 countries have allowed their parliamentary committees to meet virtually to ensure socially distanced proceedings.
For example, the United States requires some members to ask queries through video-conferencing during its Senate hearings and has recommended encryption for safe remote voting. Similarly, the House of Commons in the United Kingdom has suggested a hybrid model where 120 MPs could participate in the proceedings and 50 of them could be physically present.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.