The Citizen’s Report on Governance and Development 2008-09 has just been published.
This is the fifth such report brought out by the National Social Watch Coalition (NSWC), comprising civil society organizations and concerned citizens in 14 states of India.
The report examines the performance of four nodal institutions of governance -- parliament, the judiciary, policy making and institutions of local self-governance. It also looks at new policies and issues like National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNURM) and Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and the many contradictions and crises faced by these institutions.
What makes this report unique is that, while there are numerous studies on the specific issue of governance, this is perhaps the first one that examines governance from the point of view of the performance of the four leading institutions. NSWC feels that how they are performing is also indicative of how governance and governance accountability will take shape in the future.
Purpose of the Report
By placing their findings in the public domain through this report, NSWC hopes to draw attention to the imbalances we are witnessing andcreate a national discourse on the all-important issues of governance at a time when a downslide is all too apparent. Especially in the functioning of Parliament, which has been witnessing a decline in the quality of legislators, the quality of legislation and the time spent on legislation.
Parliament: Dismal decline
In the section on Parliament, the report looks at various institutional dimensions: the total disregard of parliamentary protocol by MPs resulting in lengthy disruptions in the functioning of the House. The conduct of business in Parliament, marked by reduced number of sittings, insufficient apportionment of time to the main functions of
deliberating and legislating. Between 2000 -2007 the average hours of working of parliament is not even 50 Percent of the total time.
While doing so it also notes with concern the callous manner in which bills are passed. In the fourteenth Lok Sabha most bills, including some appropriation bills and the railway budget, were passed after a few minutes of discussion and at times bills were disposed of together. Even an important bill like the Special Economic Zone Act, which was viewed with considerable concern in the country, was introduced on a day that was occupied with long debates on the Right to Information Act and passed after less than two hours of discussion. In fact, non-financial business took up more than 35% of the Lok Sabha's time and over 45% of the Raj Sabha's time in during 2007-08.
The report laments the fact that only 173 MPs in the 14th Lok Sabha actually said anything on legislative issues and that the house passed nearly 40% of the Bills with less than one hour of debate. Members’ intervention in parliamentary debates is a telling indicator of their participation, the Report points that participation of younger members (in the age group of 25-45) is lower.
Disregard for decorum
Also of concern was the fact that with political parties resorting to protest politics, disruptions have become everyday affairs. Also, they and have been increasing over the years. The 11th Lok Sabha (1996-98) lost 5.28 % of its time due to pandemonium. In the 12th Lok Sabha it went up to 10.66%, in the 13th Lok Sabha to 22.4%. The 14th Lok Sabha, which commenced in June 2004, lost 22% of its time due to interruptions arising out of various political controversies. This is a shocking waste considering that each minute of Parliament costs the exchequer Rs. 26,035.
The report found that absenteeism among MPs was increasing with attendance. On examining the attendance records of the 11th and 12th Sessions of the 14th Lok Sabha, it was seen that more than 75% members are below the median point of 16 or more days of attendance. Most of the MPs attended between 11 and 15 days. The number of MPs whose attendance range from 0-5 days increased in the 12th session.
Performance of Celebrity MPs
Parliament includes some members who are well known in their respective fields/professions. They have been inducted in the houses either because they present a ‘celebrity face’ of a party or because of their popularity. None of these MP’s has attended more than 20% of the total number of days in each session.
In the Lok Sabha, celebrity MPs did not participate more than four times in the parliamentary debates in the year 2007. Five members did not participate in the debates even once. Their attendance in the committees is minimal. Seven members did not attend committee meetings at all. Five of these members did not ask even a single question.
The report draws attention to the enhanced interest of corporate bigwigs to enter Parliament. Their entry testifies to a tendency among major industrial and business houses to influence core policy directions. The report notes “conflict of interest question” which comes into play with the involvement of corporate bigwigs.
Assessing the role of the Committees
The major observations in the functioning of committee system are that in a short span of time, the standing committees produce a variety of perfunctory reports, which are not taken seriously by the government and the media. These reports are mostly based on government-supplied information, which reduces the exercise from ‘examination’ to ‘formalization’.
The analysis of the existing parliamentary committees gives some simple solutions to enrich their functioning and encounter the challenges faced by the present committee system. Firstly, there is an urgent need to rationalize the system and coordinate it better. Secondly, the select committees have been entrusted with too much of work to be done in a limited time period. Mechanism of select committees and joint select committees should be used to review the bills and the standing committees should be left with financial oversight functions.
A decline was also noticed in the quantity and quality of questions raised during Question Hour, which carries 7-8,000 Starred and Unstarred questions from both Houses in a given session. Also, in terms of the time allocated to question hour, on an average the question hour gets 9-10 percent of the total time of Parliament.
The report notes that quite often Parliament conveniently bypasses or cancels the question hour. Most of the questions pertaining to the social sector sought statistical information which could have been got through administrative channels. On the one hand if some of the questions show lack of homework and understanding on the part of the parliamentarians on the other the answers shows that casual and rudimentary approach of the ministries.
Given this scenario there is an obvious need for far-reaching reforms in the workings of Parliament. But the report feels that they must come from within because these are ethical issues that parliamentarians must themselves address.
More posts dealing with other subjects covered by the report will follow.