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How to get to know Parliament better

September 05, 2011 09:50 IST

According to C V Madhukar, a senior member of PRS Legislative Research, an independent Delhi-based think-tank, 'the debate on the Lokpal Bill reflected how Parliament functions about 80 percent of the time.'

Rajni Bakshi on how we can engage better with Parliament.

Enhanced public awareness about Parliamentary procedures could be one of the fringe benefits of Anna Hazare's fast at the Ramlila grounds. Television news channels don't usually inform us about the workings of Parliamentary committees. Both the Lok Sabha and state legislatures tend to be in the news when something raucous or disruptive has happened.

This might be one of the reasons why many of the agitators wearing 'I am Anna' caps claimed that they have been betrayed by politicians and elected representatives for the last 60 years. This allegation is at best ignorance and at worst it is false propaganda.

But as the dust settles and tempers cool, it is possible that more people might now have a closer interest in how laws and policies are made.

Such people might benefit from the work of PRS Legislative Research, an independent Delhi-based think-tank that aims to strengthen the legislative process by making it better informed, more transparent and participatory.

Set up in 2005, PRS aims to 'deepen and broaden the legislative process by providing MPs the information they need for debates in Parliament.' The group also aims to synthesise feedback from a range of stakeholders to provide MPs across party lines with up-to-date information.

At present PRS is actively engaged with about 250 MPs from over 20 different political parties. According to a study by the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad, in 2008, over half the MPs surveyed were aware of the work of PRS, and about a quarter said that they regularly use research material provided by it.

The quality of debate in Parliament is generally much higher than it is commonly believed to be. According to C V Madhukar, a senior member of the core team at PRS, the debate on the Lokpal Bill reflected how Parliament functions about 80 percent of the time. This is not to suggest that the functioning of our Parliament is perfect, Madhukar added, there is need for much greater public engagement and vigilance.

"Interest from the public on any bill is very good for our democracy and the issue of the Lokpal Bill has brought this out like nothing else in the past," says Madhukar. "But law-making is a matter of nuance, where every comma matters."

So an agitation can be a powerful and effective way to place a demand before Parliament. But the actual details of legislation cannot be settled in agitational mode.

Therefore, PRS's mission includes informing the public about legislative issues being debated in Parliament and devise platforms for a wide range of opinions to be expressed. Journalists also reach out to PRS for data and analysis related to matters pending in Parliament.

For instance, if you go to the PRS's Web site (external link) you will find a wide variety of information about the Lokpal Bill in one place. This includes not only the three versions of the bill, which are available at many places on the Internet, but also Standing Committee reports on the Lokpal Bills of 1996, 1998 and 2001 -- along with details about existing anti-corruption laws and statistics on corruption cases against government officials.

Above all, there is a primer on how to engage with policy makers. In its blog space the PRS site has an extensive FAQ on different aspects of the Lokpal Bill Standing Committee -- which was earlier posted on Rediff.com

Those who want to check the progress of bills on a particular issue can go to the 'bill track' section of PRS's Web site. For example, there are currently five bills pending relating to agriculture and land. The text of each bill and its current location in the law-making pipeline is available.

In the rush of already over-busy lives most people are unlikely to engage with the nitty-gritty details of bills. They could look up Parliament updates, which summarise what's been happening -- in a more accessible way. Otherwise, much of the basic information is also posted on the Parliament of India Web site. Its 'Track your MP' section enables you to learn about any MP's activities in the current Parliament.

Ironically this vital research work is largely funded by grants from the Ford Foundation and Google.org This is partly because, as yet, few Indian philanthropists see the merit of supporting such activity. But the PRS team seems hopeful that their track record along with renewed interest in this sphere, will make it possible to fund such work within India in the near future.

Ideally, such efforts need to be supported by individual donations of varying size -- with no single donor contributing more than a certain percentage of the total.

That would be one way of fostering a deeper engagement by a wide range of people in knowing our Parliament and thus making our democracy truly more representative.

Rajni Bakshi