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Impaired Parliament can have serious implications

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Impaired Parliament can have serious implications

The absence of serious debate in the Indian legislature can have serious implications. It will become difficult to justify the very existence of Parliament and the huge Budget allocated to it

The dysfunctionality of India’s Parliament has been a matter of concern for many years now but even the worst sceptics would not have expected the institution, which is at the apex of the country’s democratic structure, to fall to such depths as it did during the passage of the Union Budget a fortnight ago.

Normally, the Budget Session begins with the presentation of the Railway Budget, followed by a detailed discussion on the working of the Railways and passage of the Railway Minister’s budgetary proposals. The passage of the Union Budget would fall into four stages and run through the Budget Session of Parliament from mid-February to mid-May every year. After the Finance Minister presented his Budget proposals, several days were earmarked in both Houses for a general discussion on the budget. Thereafter, the Demands for Grants of several Ministries would be taken up for discussion.

In the old days, these discussions, which enable MPs to speak on the performance of specific Ministries and departments, would be spread over several weeks. Finally, at an appointed date and hour, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha would apply the guillotine (closure to the debate on the Demands for Grants) and put all the demands to the vote of the House. But this would happen several weeks after the debate on the Demands began in the House. Thereafter, the House would discuss and pass the Appropriation Bill and finally, in the later stages of the Budget Session, the Finance Bill containing the financial proposals of the Government, would be passed after much deliberation. 

These traditions have been built over the last several decades not merely to keep the two Houses active but also to fulfill an important Constitutional obligation. Parliament is mandated by the Constitution to diligently scrutinise the expenditure and taxation proposals of the Union Government. Articles 112 to 119 deal with the procedure to follow in respect of the annual financial statement of the Union Government, the Demands for Grants and the method by which Government can secure Parliament’s sanction for expenditure, supplementary demands and votes on account.

Thus, from the time the Budget is presented and till the passage of the Appropriation and Finance Bills to give effect to the Government’s expenditure and taxation proposals, MPs got at least four opportunities to address issues relating to the Union Budget. A table published in “Practice and Procedure of Parliament” by MN Kaul and SL Shakdher about the time spent by the Lok Sabha to discuss the Railway Budget, the General Budget and the Demands for Grants in 1986-87 in revealing.

That year, the Lok Sabha spent 19 hours discussing the Railway Budget and the Railway Demand for Grants; close to 20 hours on the general discussion of the Union Budget and 92 hours to discuss the Demands for Grants of the various Ministries. In all, the House spent about 130 hours debating various aspects of the Budget. The time spent in 1986-87 on various aspects of the budgetary exercise is fairly representative of how Parliament carried out this responsibility since the inception of the two Houses in 1952.        

Contrast this with how the budgetary process went through the Lok Sabha this year. After the presentation of the budget on February 1, there was a general discussion on the Budget in the Lok Sabha on February 7 and 8, lasting approximately 12 hours. Thereafter, as is the practice, both Houses adjourned to enable the Departmentally Related Standing Committees to examine the Demands for Grants relating to various Ministers.

The Houses reconvened on March 5. Since then, both Houses have been unable to function because of disruptions caused by the MPs from Andhra Pradesh who are demanding a special status for the State; MPs from Tamil Nadu who are aggrieved about defilement of a statue and several other sundry protestors.

Since there is no sign of an end to this chaos and no indication of MPs wanting to utilise Parliament’s time for discussion on the Union Budget, the Speaker decided to put the Demands for Grants, the Appropriation Bill and the Finance Bill to the vote of the House on March 14. 

On that day, the Speaker took up the passage of the Demands for Grants at 12.03 pm. She first put all cut motions to vote. These are motions given generally by Opposition MPs to show their displeasure in regard to a particular demand. It has an element of censure in it and, therefore, it is incumbent on the treasury benches to defeat these motions. The Speaker put all of them to vote in one go and they were rejected. At 12.04 pm, the Speaker announced that she was putting all the Demands for Grants to vote. The House adopted the motion. At 12.05 pm, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley moved the Appropriation Bill. The House passed the Bill after clause by clause consideration. At 12.06 pm, the Finance Minister moved the Finance Bill. This took a little longer than the other Bill because there were 21 Government amendments and three new clauses had to be inserted. Thereafter, after passage of another Budget-related matter, the House was adjourned at 12.38 pm.

In other words, the Lok Sabha devoted just one minute to give its consent to the Demands of all Government Ministries and departments — an exercise which took around 80 to 100 hours in the past. Overall, the Lok Sabha devoted just 12 hours and 35 minutes for Budget-related business which in the past took around 130 hours. This only means that Parliament has abdicated a primary responsibility given to it by the Constitution. The events of March 14 are even more disturbing because in the early days, at least 40 per cent of the Demands would be discussed in Parliament. Ten years ago, it dropped to about 25 per cent. This year, not a single demand was discussed and the overall Government expenditure in this year’s Budget is estimated to be Rs 24.42 lakh crore.

Venkaiah Naidu, the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha and Sumitra Mahajan, the Lok Sabha Speaker have time and again appealed to members, but without much success. Naidu, with a tinge of exasperation, warned MPs that if the disruptions continued, people would lose faith in lawmakers. If Parliament does not have the time or the inclination to scrutinise the Union Budget, it will find it difficult to justify its existence and the huge Budget allocated to it. Will good sense prevail? We must keep our fingers crossed!

(The writer is Chairman, Prasar Bharati)

 
 
 
 
 
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