The notion of parliament as a mechanism to hold the government accountable has been questioned due to its recent failure in doing so. While the pandemic proved to be a hindrance to its normal working, the parliament when it worked failed to hold the executive accountable on many accounts. The saddest example of it is the passing of farm bills in the parliament which threw most of the parliamentary procedures out of the window. Let’s discuss the notion of parliamentary oversight and its importance in a parliamentary democracy like India in this article.
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The parliamentary form of democracy
- For any democratic State system, the three organs: Executive, Legislature, and judiciary, and the arrangement of separation of power decides what kind of check and balance mechanism it has.
- The separation of power and check and balance system is a hallmark of any democracy as it fulfills the basic notion of constitutional and responsible government.
- As the judiciary is an independent organization in any democracy, there are largely two types of democracies depending upon the nature of the relationship between the executive and legislature. Those are Presidential and Parliamentary democracy.
- In Presidential democracy (reference: USA), there is a strict separation of powers between the executive and legislature. Though there are variants of this but largely there is strict separation.
- In a Parliamentary democracy, there is a system of executive responsibility to the legislature Meaning, the executive is answerable to the legislature and the legislature can remove the executive if it does not have confidence in the executive.
- India is a parliamentary democracy. The executive (government) is responsible to the parliament and more specifically to the Lok Sabha (Article 75).
- When we say that the executive is responsible to the parliament, it means it works under the overall scrutiny or oversight of the parliament.
What is parliamentary oversight or Parliamentary oversight or parliamentary scrutiny?
- The parliamentary oversight function is the cornerstone of parliamentary democracy. It is a means of holding the executive accountable for its actions and ensuring that it implements policies in accordance with the constitutional provisions.
- Through oversight, parliament monitors the work of the government regarding the implementation of the law, development programs, and financial proprietary.
- The robust monitoring of the executive is an indicator of good governance. It is through oversight that the parliament ensures a balance of power and assert its role as the defender of public interests.
- It is a constitutional responsibility of the parliament to uphold the constitution in all the sectors executive concerns itself. Through detailed scrutiny, parliament upholds the constitutional principles of justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity.
What is the objective of parliamentary oversight?
Parliament conducts oversight over the executive for the following objectives:
Ensure transparency and openness
Parliaments scrutinize operations of government by providing a place in which the policies/actions of government are debated, criticized, and subjected to parameters of proprietary;
Accountability of the executive
Parliament scrutinizes whether the government’s policies have been implemented in its essence and whether they create the desired impact;
parliamentary oversight is essential to prevent arbitrary and unconstitutional actions of the executive. It makes executive work within the constitutional framework and be responsible to the citizens through parliament.
Rule of Law
Parliament protects the rights of citizens by examining potential abuses of power, arbitrary actions, and unconstitutional conduct by the government.
Parliaments approve and scrutinize the budget. They control the fiscal policies by highlighting the wastage. They aim to impart economy, efficiency, and effectiveness to the government expenditure
Parliamentary oversight mechanism in India
India has a detailed mechanism of parliamentary oversight which can be divided into two types.
(i) questions and debates on the floor of the House, and (ii) parliamentary committees that scrutinize government policies.
Accountability on the floor of the house
- Question Hour allows Members of Parliament (MPs) to pose questions to ministers relating to government policies, and hold the government accountable for its actions.
- Certain questions must be answered orally on the floor of the House, while others receive written
replies from the relevant ministry
Debates and Motions
- Debates and motions are central tools of oversight by allowing MPs to initiate discussions and seek clarifications on government policies. There are four major types of debates, which allow MPs to question ministers on the floor of the House, but do not require a vote at the end of the discussion.
- Unlike the debates mentioned above, motions allow for voting at the end of the discussion. There are many types of motions which assist in the oversight function of the Parliament. The major among them are No Confidence Motions, Adjournment Motions, and Rule 184 in the Lok Sabha (corresponding to Rule 167 in the Rajya Sabha).
The hour after Question Hour is called Zero Hour and is used to raise urgent matters by the MPs.
- As there are a large number of issues that the Parliament must address, different parliamentary committees examine the Bills, budgets, and policies of the government.
- Committees allow more nuanced discussion and help in informed debate in Parliament, and they also provide a way by which citizens engage with Parliament.
- Parliamentary committees draw their authorities from article 105 (privileges) and article 118 (parliament’s authority to make rules and regulations for its conduct).
- Committees can either be permanent or appointed temporarily. The following are some of the important committees that assist in the oversight function of Parliament
Departmentally Related Standing Committees (DRSCs)
There are 24 such committees, which examine the working of ministries that are allotted to them. These committees examine policies and issues related to the ministry allocated to them, in addition to Bills that are introduced in Parliament by the ministry. They also examine the ministry’s budget.
There are three permanent financial committees of Parliament. They are the Public Accounts Committee, Estimates Committee, and Committee on Public Undertakings. They are responsible for oversight of the government in financial matters.
Committee on Petitions
Citizens can petition this Committee for their grievance redressal relating to any officer of the central or state government. Recent reports have looked at issues of food safety, spurious drugs, and hydropower projects.
Committee on Govt. Assurances
This Committee examines the assurances given by ministers from time to time on the floor of the Parliament and submits reports on the extent to which these are implemented
Joint Parliamentary Committees (JPCs)
These are temporary committees, set up for a specific objective to examine issues of public importance. Past JPCs have examined issues such as spectrum allocation and pricing, irregularities in securities and banking transactions, etc.
- MPs are also part of Consultative Committees, and Parliamentary Fora, which are not governed by the rules of procedure of Parliament. Outside the parliament, they provide an informal space to engage with the government.
- Consultative Committees are established by the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs and are attached to ministries, including agriculture, defense, railways, etc
Why the mechanism of parliamentary oversight is under question?
The parliamentary oversight has been in question for its inefficacy to censor government on important matters.
- The Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have not had quality debates and discussions even on bills let alone about matters of general public importance.
- Earlier, parliamentary committees, with a mandate for scrutiny and oversight, used to effect useful amendments to the Bills and train parliamentarians in law-making.
- The number of Bills that have been referred to parliamentary committees has shrunk dramatically, from 71 percent in the 15th Lok Sabha to 25 percent in the 16th Lok Sabha, and zero in 2020.
- None of the recent pieces of legislation including removal of article 370 and carving out two union territories out of Jammu and Kashmir state) were processed by a House committee.
- The last Bill that was referred to a JPC was The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Second Amendment) Bill back in 2015
- several key bills have been passed as Money Bills, despite not being fit to call so. The passing of the Aadhar bill is a case in point.
- ordinary Bills are not discussed properly, either because of the last-minute introduction or lack of time for debates.
- When they are discussed, the discussion is more of a formality and procedure. The anti-defection law is one of the hindrances to parliamentary scrutiny. As the MPs have to follow the whip of their party, it negates any meaningful discussion on many important issues.
- While in the summer of 2019 (considering both houses), out of 40 Bills, four were passed on the same day they were introduced, in the corresponding session in 2020, three of the 22 Bills were passed the same day.
- Among them were The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 that was opposed by Opposition MPs.
Pandemic time oversight
- Parliament met in September after 175 days and just short of the constitutional limit of 6 months. Parliamentary committees did not meet for four months.
- This is in contrast to many other countries where technology has been steadfastly to enable members to participate from home.
- In this period, over 900 central and 6000 state government notifications have been issued which are related to managing the pandemic. This is in addition to notifications on other subjects. The absence of a functioning Parliament or Committees means there has been no check on government action.
- Due to the pandemic, the question hour was canceled in the recent parliament session.
What are the effects of a lack of effective parliamentary oversight?
- The lack of parliamentary oversight is harmful to the parliamentary system of government so much so that it will lead to the degeneration of democratic principles.
- Without parliamentary scrutiny, the parliamentary form loses its soul as the check on executive is the foundational principle of the parliamentary form of government.
- Without parliamentary scrutiny, the parliamentary democracy will turn into a de-facto executive autocracy.
- It will lead to the hasty passing of bad laws without any scrutiny which is ultimately harmful to the public interest.
- Even in the financial field, the parliamentary scrutiny has lacked teeth and important documents like budget have been passed by frequent use of guillotine motion.
- Lack of parliamentary oversight means no effective role to the Rajya Sabha. As Rajya Sabha represents the interests of the federal units, their concerns may be side-lined in the parliament. The classic case is the passing of the farm bills. Despite the opposition of many states and regional parties, the bills were passed by the Rajya Sabha with a voice vote not even through counting of votes.
- It also leads to the erosion of the rights of the people. It can be seen through the example of the Aarogya Setu App. In contrast to the UK where the use of such kind of app during the pandemic was made subject to law regulating that app, in India, it was made mandatory through executive orders.
- The Aarogya Setu App has many privacy and data storage issues (right to privacy is a fundamental right under article 21). But the parliament or its committees are yet to question the government over the issue.
- The parliament is not only a censoring body but should also lead the debate on various issues like unemployment, economic slowdown, pollution, crimes, etc. But the opposition has failed in its duty to use parliamentary mechanisms innovatively and hold the government accountable.
- More than that, the Opposition has also sought to politicize the issues and negate any effective discussion which let the government to divert the attention to less important things.
- Speakers and Chairmen of the respective houses are perhaps the most important agent of parliamentary oversight. Through their powers to run the house, they subject the executive to the scrutiny of the house.
- But in recent times, their performance of duty is under criticism due to their inability to hold proper debates, allegations of bias towards the government etc.
- Lastly, the lack of parliamentary scrutiny means the fraud on the confidence reposed by the people. It will lead to a lack of confidence in the people in democracy itself.
- A 2017 CSDS report on “The State of Democracy in South Asia” showed that the percentage of the interviewees who supported democracy has dropped from 70 percent to 63 percent between 2005 and 2017, and that the percentage of those who were satisfied with democracy had declined even more, from 79 percent to 55 percent — 47 percent of the graduates surveyed shared this view.
What is the way forward?
- The primary role of the parliament is to deliberate on the issues concerning the people of India. It is a place where the destinies of 135 crores is decided. It must work in true spirit.
- The government of the day needs to understand that without parliamentary scrutiny, it loses important checks to their actions and any scope for improvements in bills and actions is negated.
- The main agents of scrutiny, the parliamentary committees must do their duties and scrutinize every bill they get on the parameters of constitutional mandate.
- The presiding officers must be unbiased and work without any fear or favor. As they are the final authority within the house, their working impacts the working of the house the most.
- The Question hour and motions must be used effectively by the MPs. As the MPs are from different walks of life and they are not well-versed with the working of the house, there can be a training session at the beginning of a tenure of Lok Sabha followed up by yearly training programs.
- The rules of the procedure may be amended to make it mandatory for the bills to be submitted before presenting well in advance. This will ensure that MPs are aware of the bill and they can enter into an informed discussion.
- There must be mandatory discussions on all major issues in the parliament and the appropriate time must be allocated to important issues.
- The parliament meets three times a year as of now. The session must work for a longer period so that issues are discussed at length.
- Due to the increasingly complex nature of governance nowadays and unpredictability of issues, there is a need to create more committees for specific issues such as the Standing committee on national economic oversight, the standing committee on digital economy, standing committee on demography etc. This will bring in a more nuanced discussion on important matters.
- There should be a periodic review of the working of the parliament and continuous improvement in rules so that there is less discretion in the management of proceedings of the house.
The parliament is often called the temple of democracy. It is so because it is one of the highest institutions where the working of representative democracy occurs. It is the soul of parliamentary democracy. Its working is critical in the governance of India and in fulfilling the promise of the preamble. A strong parliamentary oversight ensures accountable government through which the promise of a welfare state is realized. Hence effective parliamentary oversight is non-negotiable if parliamentary democracy is to perform well.
Practice Question for Mains
What do you mean by parliamentary oversight? Critically analyze the nature of parliamentary oversight in India in recent times. (250 words)