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How Parliament Can Function As It Must

By A K Bhattacharya
April 25, 2023 10:13 IST
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The need for finding options for proper functioning of Parliament is of paramount importance as the frequency of the passage of Budgets and other economic Bills without discussion or debate has only increased in the last few years, notes A K Bhattacharya.

IMAGE: Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla leaves the House after a protest by Opposition MPs during the second phase of the Budget Session of Parliament, March 23, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has expressed her anguish over the way the Union Budget for 2023-2024 had to be passed by Parliament last month without any debate.

On March 23, the Lok Sabha approved the Budget, with a total annual expenditure of over Rs 45 trillion.

No discussion preceded its passage. Four days later, the Rajya Sabha returned the Finance Bill to the Lok Sabha, once again without any discussion.

The passage of the Budget was preceded by the 'guillotining' of as many as 102 demands for grants on March 23. These grants were part of the Budget and placed before the Lok Sabha for discussion.

But since no deliberation was possible, these were deemed as passed or 'guillotined' in accordance with the rules followed by Parliament.

The Appropriation Bill, which empowers the government to withdraw money from the Consolidated Fund of India to spend under various schemes and projects, was also passed quickly without any discussion.

As though this was not enough, the Lok Sabha passed about 60 amendments to the Finance Bill, mooted by the government, which included those for significant changes to taxation rules.

Note that no debate was possible on these changes and the amendments were passed by voice vote.

 

All these unfortunate developments took place because India's parliamentarians were busy settling political scores against one another on issues they believed were more important than the annual financial statement of the government, the condition of public finances, the various expenditure outlays of the Centre and the new taxation proposals.

Daily adjournments of the Budget session, primarily during the second half after recess, and frequent disruptions of the proceedings of both the houses meant that no meaningful discussion of the Budget was possible.

Members of both the ruling political party and the Opposition parties were responsible for Parliament's failure to facilitate discussion before the passage of the Budget's legislative Bills.

The purpose of this article is not just to blame those who were responsible for grinding the functioning of the country's highest legislative forum to a halt, but also to explore what options could there have been to preserve the time-honoured convention of subjecting the Budget to scrutiny by the people's representatives in Parliament.

The need for finding these options is of paramount importance as the frequency of the passage of Budgets and other economic Bills without discussion or debate has only increased in the last few years.

The Budget for 1999-2000 was passed without much discussion as the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government lost its majority in the Lok Sabha before the end of April 1999, and the Budget had to be passed by May 13.

Thus, the ruling coalition and the Opposition political parties agreed to bury their differences on the question of allowing the Budget to be passed without any debate or changes to what was presented by then finance minister Yashwant Sinha.

A few years later, the demands for grants proposed in the Budgets for 2004-2005, 2013-2014 and 2018-2019 were passed without any discussion, according to data maintained by PRS Legislative Research.

And now the Budget for 2023-2024 has also been passed without any discussion.

So, what can be done to subject the Union Budgets to a proper discussion and scrutiny by parliamentarians? Remember that this basic requirement of a proper debate over the Budget should be met under all circumstances.

The first step that must be taken to prevent this rot from becoming deeper and more widespread is to acknowledge that allowing legislative Bills and Budgets to be passed without discussion is problematic for a functioning democracy.

So far, the government does not seem to be seriously bothered that such a problem exists and must be resolved.

What began during the Covid years as an isolated development, with important legislative Bills like those meant to usher in reforms in agriculture being passed without subjecting them to a proper debate, is now threatening to become a regular practice.

It was not just the Budget this year, even a dozen amendments to the Competition Act were passed by voice vote without any discussion.

Clearly, expressing concern or anguish over the passage of the Budget without debate is not enough.

India needs concrete remedial action on this front.

And the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha must take the lead in this regard.

It is time these two functionaries, entrusted with the task of conducting legislative business in the two Houses, got together and prepared an action plan to fix this serious problem.

What could be the contours of such an action plan that is both credible and effective?

A beginning could be made by strengthening the existing parliamentary committees so that they could vet all legislative Bills including the Budget.

If parliamentarians do not allow the sessions in both Houses to be conducted in a manner that legislative business on the agenda is concluded smoothly, the Lok Sabha Speaker and the Rajya Sabha Chairman could set up committees consisting of members of Parliament to examine the key issues and proposals in the Budget, and indeed in other important legislative Bills.

Let these committees be directed to conclude their deliberations and assessment of the Budget and legislative Bills outside the floor of Parliament but within a given time frame, so that these could be shared with the government.

It would be equally important for the government to constructively respond to the recommendations made by these committees.

The government may still continue to ignore those suggestions and the Budget could be passed without any changes. But three positive benefits would accrue.

One, the deliberations of these committees would be recorded as views of members of Parliament, and the government's wisdom in ignoring or accepting them would become a matter of public debate and analysis.

Two, parliamentary institutions would get a boost.

And three, subjecting the Budget to a review and scrutiny by these committees would ensure at least some oversight, when Parliament ceases to perform its basic functions of discussing and debating the government's decisions.

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A K Bhattacharya
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