convene-virtual-meetings-of-parliamentary-panels

Context: Recently, the Opposition asked the government to convene online meetings of parliamentary committees  amidst the pandemic.

Background: 

  • The functioning of the Parliamentary Standing Committees has been suspended due to the countrywide lockdown and both the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha secretariats have refused to permit meetings of the panels via video-conferencing. 
  • The Secretariats have contended that holding such meetings, where the government shares critical information, virtually could violate the confidentiality clause. 

Need of committees:

  • Parliamentary Committees serve as a forum of deliberation and are the backbone of our parliamentary system. 
  • Due to capacity and time constraints, it is not possible for Members of the Parliament to scrutinize all policies and legislation on the floor of the House. By forming smaller groups of members to examine the subjects ensure deeper deliberation and debate. 
  • It ensures that detailed scrutiny of government finances, legislation and working continues to take place even if Parliament sessions are disrupted. 
  • With a representation of members from across political parties, these committees also act as a consensus-building platform.
  • Another feature of the committee system is its engagement with relevant stakeholders and power to summon witnesses. 
  • The committees regularly seek feedback from citizens and experts on subjects it examines. 
  • After detailed discussion, the prepared reports are tabled in Parliament. These comments add value to the discourse in Parliament. The committees also publish reports on the status of implementation of their recommendations.

Parliamentary committees:

  • The Constitution of India makes a mention of these committees at different places, but without making any specific provisions regarding their composition, tenure, functions, etc. 
  • All these matters are dealt by the rules of two Houses. Accordingly, a parliamentary committee means a committee that: 
    • Is appointed or elected by the House or nominated by the Speaker / Chairman 
    • Works under the direction of the Speaker / Chairman 
    • Presents its report to the House or to the Speaker / Chairman 
    • Has a secretariat provided by the Lok Sabha / Rajya Sabha 
  • Parliamentary Standing 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). 

Types:

  • Standing Committees - They are permanent and regular committees which are constituted from time to time in pursuance of the provisions of an Act of Parliament or Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha. 
    • The work of these Committees is of continuous nature. The Financial Committees, DRSCs and some other Committees come under the category of Standing Committees.
  • Ad hoc committee - These are a group of people assembled to address a specific issue. 
    • A committee formed for a specific task or objective and dissolved after the completion of the task or achievement of the objective.

Issues with Parliamentary committees:

  • Closed-door Working - The deliberations of the committee are confidential, and evidence tendered before it is usually kept secret and made public only after the committee presents its report.
  • The absence of cameras live telecasting its proceedings discourages political grandstanding.
  • Limited Oversight - House rules do not say that all bills introduced in the House should be referred to the standing committee as a matter of course. The 14th and 15th Lok Sabha saw 60% and 71% of bills referred to committees. This number dipped sharply to just 27% in the 16th Lok Sabha.
  • Attendance- The attendance of members in committee meetings has been a cause for concern as well, which is about 50% since 2014-15.
  • Tenure- In the present format, the members are nominated to a Standing Committee for one year.However, shifting of committees every year defeats this purpose. The vice-president, as chairman of the Rajya Sabha, emphasised on the need to extend the tenure of committee members.
  • Advisory in nature - Committee’s reports are recommendatory in nature, the executive may not necessarily accept them. Moreover, the reports of the committees are not taken up for discussion in Parliament except for references in certain debates on bills.
  • Lack of expertise - Parliamentary committees don’t have dedicated subject-wise research support available. 
  • Lack of supervision: Parliamentary committees perform poorly due to a lack of supervision and executive neglect.
  • In several countries (e.g. U.K), the concerned minister appears before the committee to elaborate and defend the policies of the government. In India, ministers seldom appear before the committees but other functionaries do.

Conclude:

  • In Spite of issues associated with the committee's functioning, it is imperative not to impede its functioning amidst lockdown.
  • Like all other things, they should also work using virtual technology. 
  • Both the government and opposition must step forward to chalk out the provisions, subject to which parliamentary committees can function digitally. 

Source: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/government-trying-to-evade-parliamentary-oversight-congress/article31511707.ece

Image Source: Parliamentofindia.nic.in