Eleven of the 22 Bills introduced in the ongoing session of Parliament have been passed, which makes it a highly productive session after many years. But these Bills have been passed without scrutiny by parliamentary standing committees, their purpose being to enable detailed consideration of a piece of legislation. After the formation of the 17th Lok Sabha, parliamentary standing committees have not been constituted as consultations among parties are still under way. Partly as a result of this, the Bills were passed without committee scrutiny. They were discussed in Parliament over durations ranging between two and five hours.
Why have parliamentary committees?
In a parliamentary democracy, Parliament has broadly two functions, which are lawmaking and oversight of the executive branch of the government. Parliament is the embodiment of the people’s will. Committees are an instrument of Parliament for its own effective functioning.
Given the volume of legislative business, discussing all Bills under the consideration of Parliament in detail on the floor of the House is impossible. Committees are platforms for threadbare discussion on a proposed law. At least in principle, the assumption is that the smaller cohort of lawmakers, assembled on the basis of the proportional strength of individual parties and interests and expertise of individual lawmakers, could have more open, intensive and better informed discussions. Committee meetings are ‘closed door’ and members are not bound by party whips, which allows them the latitude for a more meaningful exchange of views as against discussions in full and open Houses where grandstanding and party positions invariably take precedence.
Disruptive changes in technology and the expansion of trade, commerce and economy in general throw up new policy challenges that require a constant reform of legal and institutional structures. While lawmaking gets increasingly complex, lawmakers cannot infinitely expand their knowledge into ever expanding areas of human activities. For instance, we live in an era of metadata being generated by expanding connectivity. The laws and regulations that are required to govern a digital society cannot be made without highly specialised knowledge and political acumen. Members of Parliament may have great acumen but they would require the assistance of experts in dealing with such situations. It is through committees that such expertise is drawn into lawmaking.
Executive accountability to the legislature is enforced through questions in Parliament also, which are answered by ministers. However, department standing committees go one step further and hear from senior officials of the government in a closed setting, allowing for more detailed discussions. This mechanism also enables parliamentarians to understand the executive processes closely.
What are the types of committees?
Most committees are ‘standing’ as their existence is uninterrupted and usually reconstituted on an annual basis; some are ‘select’ committees formed for a specific purpose, for instance, to deliberate on a particular bill. Once the Bill is disposed of, that select committee ceases to exist. Some standing committees are departmentally related, an example being the Standing Committee on Human Resource Development. A Bill related to education could either be considered by the department standing committee or a select committee that will be specifically set up. The chair uses her discretion to refer a matter to a parliamentary committee but this is usually done in consultation with leaders of parties in the House. Financial control is a critical tool for Parliament’s authority over the executive; hence finance committees are considered to be particularly powerful. The three financial committees are the Public Accounts Committee, the Estimates Committee and the Committee on Public Undertakings.
Parliamentary committees draw their authority from Article 105 (on privileges of Parliament members) and Article 118 (on Parliament’s authority to make rules for regulating its procedure and conduct of business). Committee reports are usually exhaustive and provide authentic information on matters related to governance. Bills that are referred to committees are returned to the House with significant value addition. Parliament is not bound by the recommendations of committees.
What are its origins?
As is the case with several other practices of Indian parliamentary democracy, the institution of Parliamentary Committees also has its origins in the British Parliament. The first Parliamentary Committee was constituted in 1571 in Britain. The Public Accounts Committee was established in 1861. In India, the first Public Accounts Committee was constituted in April 1950. According to P.D.T. Achary, former Secretary General of the Lok Sabha, “The practice of regularly referring bills to committees began in 1989 after government departments started forming their own standing committees. Prior to that, select committees or joint committees of the houses were only set up to scrutinise in detail some very important bills, but this was few and far between.”