Budget Session Review: Parliament In The Pandemic, Where Is The Scrutiny?

In the current Lok Sabha, only 11% of the Bills passed by Parliament were examined by a subject committee, writes Chakshu Roy.

A statue of BR Ambedkar stands outside Parliament House in New Delhi, on Sept. 13, 2020. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)
A statue of BR Ambedkar stands outside Parliament House in New Delhi, on Sept. 13, 2020. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

A simple line in our Constitution lays the groundwork for the Budget Session of Parliament. This opening line in Article 112 states that for every financial year a statement of the estimated receipts and expenditure of the government shall be laid before the legislature. This statement, commonly referred to as the Budget, is the focus of parliamentary discussion during the first session of the legislative calendar. It is usually the longest session of the year, with the two houses meeting for thirty to thirty-five days spread over three months. This year, the budget session was shorter than usual, with the Parliament meeting for 24 days.

During the first decade after independence, the budget session of Parliament used to last for sixty days. A longer session was needed to give time for most of the budget-related discussions to take place on the floor of the two houses of Parliament. With governance becoming complex a need was felt to sharpen Parliament's scrutiny of the functioning of government. It led to the setting up of subject committees in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These committees were given the responsibility of considering the budgetary demands of ministries.

Scrutiny By MPs

With committees taking on this financial scrutiny role the length of the budget session became shorter. It also led to a change in the structuring of the budget session. Now the session is split into two halves. The focus of the first is on budget presentation and a broader discussion on it. This general discussion is also an opportunity for political parties to express their views of the economic situation in the country. The two houses then take a break, to allow the twenty-four subject committees to dive deeper into the demand for grants of the various ministries.

In theory, deliberations in a committee are intended to strengthen oversight of government finances by Parliament. But evidence from this session suggests otherwise.

For example, only 50% of members of Parliament were present in the meetings of the committee which looked at the budget for the Ministry of Health. The reports of subject committees are also useful for informing discussion on the floor of Parliament. But in the case of the Department of Food and Public Distribution, the report of the committee came after the conclusion of the budgetary discussion.

With the introduction of the committee system, the entire budget is scrutinised by committees, and the budget of a few ministries is taken up for discussion in the house. This time five ministries were selected for discussion in Lok Sabha. But the people's house was only able to discuss the finances of the ministries of railways, education, and health. Their budgets added up to 24% of the voted expenditure. The remaining budget was passed without discussion.

Scrutiny By Subject Experts

Other legislative bodies around the world have taken a two-pronged approach to get a grip on economic issues. They have set specialised research offices to advise their legislatures on the government's budget and spending. For example, within a month into the ongoing pandemic, the Congressional Budget Office in the United States started working to inform the U.S. Congress about the "rapidly evolving economic and budgetary consequences of Covid-19". In many countries, parliaments have also set up specialised committees to look at complex economic challenges that their countries face.

A similar idea was mooted in India in 2002 by the National Commission to review the working of the Constitution. It recommended setting up a “Nodal Standing Committee on National Economy”, which would conduct an ongoing analysis of the national economy. The Commission was of the opinion that the findings of this committee “would help both government and Parliament in orchestrating opinion on important policy issues for building a national consensus.”

10 Days To Pass 11 Bills

It’s not just the budget that suffered from inattention. During the session, there was a visible gap in parliamentary scrutiny of government legislation.

Even after repeated demands, none of the government bills passed during the session were referred to parliamentary committees for meticulous examination.

During the session, Parliament passed an amendment to the arbitration law. Since 2015 this is the third amendment to the principal Act of 1996. The first amendment in 2015 resulted in some "practical difficulties" in implementation leading to the second amendment in 2019. None of the three amendment bills were looked at by a parliamentary committee and Parliament passed all three in less than thirty days.

In this session, Parliament took an average of ten days to pass the 11 government Bills. The fastest one was the Bill to set up a national bank for financing infrastructure development. Its passing by the two houses of Parliament took only three days.

The budget session also highlighted areas of urgent reform in our parliamentary functioning. One such area is scrutiny of government finances and keeping an eye on the country’s economy. Last year the onset of the pandemic led to changes in the government's revenue projections and expenditure priorities. The government had to present four to five “mini budgets”, as the Prime Minister called them, during the course of the year and parliament scrutiny was largely missing regarding them.

Even before this session, in the last six years, Parliament has rarely utilised its committees to scrutinise bills.

In the current Lok Sabha, only 11% (and in the 16th Lok Sabha, 27%) of the Bills passed by Parliament were examined by a subject committee.

The scrutiny of legislative proposals by a parliamentary committee has multiple advantages. The process builds a bridge between Parliament and the people. Experts and concerned citizens can get their voices heard before the committee, as happened in the DNA and the Personal Data Protection Bill. Such scrutiny can also allay fears about the intent and the working of the law, which would have proved helpful in the three farm bills.

Let 2020 Be A One-Off

Last year Parliament was missing in action. The pandemic led to the 2020 Budget Session being cut short, the Monsoon Session being delayed (and curtailed) and the scrapping of the Winter Session. Parliament is measured by its deliberations and effectiveness. This year the work of the highest law-making institution will be watched closely. After all, the country does not benefit from, and the Constitution does not expect, the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha to simply become routine approvers of government action.

Chakshu Roy heads the outreach team and leads the legislator and citizen engagement initiatives at PRS Legislative Research.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.