Parliament seems poised to reduce its Budget session virtually to a farce. The general budget was, no doubt, presented to the Lok Sabha on February 28. As always, the public galleries were packed to capacity. But the Opposition benches were eloquently empty following their clash with the Prime Minister and his unfortunate remarks accusing them of supporting the terrorists. The Finance Bill, too, was introduced and a vote on account passed to enable the government to draw monies from the Consolidated Fund until the budget is finally voted. But the Opposition members were again not there when the Finance Minister, S B Chavan, replied to the general discussion on the budget and the vote on account was passed. The budget demands of the individual Ministries and Departments are now under discussion. But, as things stand at present, Parliament may discuss this time no more than six or six ministries as against at least ten in the past, a poor record in itself. Regrettably, the demands of an overwhelming majority of Ministries and Departments will get guillotined and voted without enforcing the principle of accountability.
Two things have mainly contributed to this dismal development. First, the zero hour and all that has come to pass at noon following the question hour from 11 am to 12 noon. Much of this time has been taken up by sharp clashes between the Treasury Benches and the Opposition on the Prime Minister’s aforementioned remark and, thereafter, over the Thakkar Commission report. Second, the recent penchant of the House to give itself unscheduled holidays, described by conscientious MPs as a scandal. (Remember, MPs now get Rs 10,000 pm free of tax in salary and allowances.) For the first time, Parliament gave itself a Holi recess of as many as 10 days. Last week it gave itself another recess from April 13 to 18, by declaring Thursday and Monday as holidays and combining these with Ram Navmi on Friday and Mahavir Jayanti on Tuesday. The government tentatively allotted 17 days for budgetary demands. The House will now be left with only six days when it reassembles on Wednesday. All the demands are due to be put to vote at 6 pm on April 26, before the Finance Bill is taken up for final consideration. The demands of only the Energy Ministry have been voted so far.
The ruling Congress-I will no doubt plead not guilty and argue: “We were all set to discuss at least thirteen Ministries as set out in the Lok Sabha Bulletin. But the Opposition has upset the schedule by raising all manner of irrelevant issues and wasting so much time of the House. We are helpless.” However, the Government is not as helpless as it may make out to be in keeping with the new culture of riding rough shod over conventions. Given the will, a way can still be found to make the budget session meaningful and uphold the fundamental canon of democracy: no taxation without representation. For one thing, the government could extend the session by a week or more. There is already a proposal to extend it by three days. It could also extend the daily sitting by three hours, namely from 6 pm to 9 pm even though there will be few takers for this among our soft MPs and even softer Ministers. (In Britain, the House of Commons meets at 10 am and the sittings normally go on until 10 pm and often up to midnight.) But neither of the two courses will meet our requirement under which we have given ourselves more and more of controls and Government.
The answer (if we sincerely want one) lies in switching over to the Committee system. Happily, the Speaker, Mr Balram Jakhar himself advocated such a switch in January 1986 at the Commonwealth Speakers Conference. Even more important, the Prime Minister accepted the proposal in principle, Specifically, Mr Jakhar proposed that Parliament be made more effective with vis-à-vis the government in regard to the budget in the first instance. He suggested that the House as a whole should limit itself to only a general discussion on the Budget. It should, thereafter, adjourn and divide itself into Budget Committees of 45 members each to scrutinise the demands for grants of all the Ministries and Departments in depth. Every member would be associated with one or more committees. In fact, a memorandum proposing the setting up of ad hoc Budget Committees for pre-voting scrutiny was even placed by Mr Jakhar before the Rules Committee of the Seventh Lok Sabha in its last year. Sadly, the Committee did not take any decision. Instead, it passed on the buck to the Eighth Lok Sabha mindlessly.
The Prime Minister, Mr Rajiv Gandhi, reacted favourably to the idea on January 20, 1986, when queried on the subject by some newsmen at Rashtrapati Bhavan. The matter, he then said, was under consideration. But a decision could not be taken “so as to be effective from the coming Budget session.” He explained that the problem was that the Opposition had not quite accepted the Speaker’s suggestion. It wanted a discussion both in the Committees and in the House “which would be duplicating work.” Ultimately, it had to be decided by the members themselves. Questioned further, he replied: “We are coming to some sort of final stage.” Unfortunately, little has been done in the matter by the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Mr HKL Bhagat, who should have followed the Prime Minister’s view actively with the help of the speaker and the Secretary-General, Dr SC Kashyap. The Speaker still favour’s Budget Committees for a meaningful consideration of the demands for grants since, in his view, even a good Budget debate, spread over hours, does not yield desired results.
The Opposition may have demanded separate discussions both in the Committees and in the House, as was the Prime Minister’s impression earlier, in 1986. But it continues to be most keen to discuss all the Ministries and Departments before the demands are voted. In fact, Prof. Madhu Dandavate, now the leader of the Janata Dal in the House, wrote a letter to the Speaker on February 18 last year to make too points: First, he conveyed his unhappiness over the application of the guillotine year after year and suggested that the Committee system be adopted for a discussion on the Budget demands for which time has not been available. Said he: “I wish we can adopt it this year itself.” Second, he also raised an issue which deserves greater attention of our people and the media. He pointed out that the demands for grants of the Finance Ministry itself had never been discussed. He wrote: “Members did not, therefore, get the opportunity to highlight the inadequacies of the Ministry and discuss matters such as FERA violations, emergence of unaccounted money as a very potent element leading to corruption in high places…” He concluded: “I am sure you are anxious to improve our working.”
Significant developments have taken place in several countries during the last few decades. In Britain, fourteen new Committees were established in 1979 in addition to eleven existing Committees like the Public Accounts Committee. These Committees are designed to oversee the principal Government departments and the semi-public bodies associated with them – and make Ministers and their civil servants fully accountable to Parliament. The criticism of the Committees about Departmental expenditure is assured a hearing in the House for three days every session. The Commons’ Speaker, Mr Bernard Weatherill told the Commonwealth Speakers Conference in New Delhi early in 1986: “As a result, for the first time in at least half a century, the House is carrying out its functions of examining details of Government expenditure on a systematic basis … By feeding authenticated facts into Parliament, they have raised the level of debate on the floor of the House. They have taken advantage of the talents of back benchers and given a new career to Committee Chairman…. Importantly, they have encouraged cross-party initiatives within the Committees and thereby helped to moderate the extremes of party conflict.”
The Committee System has also been introduced in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In Canada, the House of Commons has 20 Standing Committees, 14 of which are functional, having jurisdiction corresponding closely to the activities of the Government Departments and Agencies. In New Zealand, several reforms were introduced in 1985, including the adoption of a new Select Committee System. Gambia is closely studying the possibility of introducing it. Some other Commonwealth countries are also evincing interest. But they are eager to know of the problems that the Committee System possibly creates. Lord Hailsham and Mr Weatherhill conceded at the Speakers Conference that the Committee System tended on occasions to take the debate away from the House to the Committees. It also threw a major burden on the Ministers, who were required to come before the Select Committees and be grilled by a small group of members for anything up to two hours. Mr Weatherhill, however, added: “It must be a heavy strain upon them. But as the speaker of the Commons, I would not be too worried about that.” The reason? “It does effect the future of Government policies.”
Nehru was clear about Parliament’s control over the purse, conscious of the fact that the first big battle of democracy was fought successfully in Britain on the question of the right of the King to impose taxes on the subjects at will. He, therefore, cut down the guillotine to the minimum. He achieved this by securing the cooperation of all sections of the Lok Sabha as the leader of the House. In 1960, for instance, discussion in regard to the following five heads alone were guillotined: Atomic Energy, Department of Parliamentary affairs, Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and the Vice Ppresident’s Secretariat. The number shot up by three times to 15 in 1967, 25 in 1980 and over 35 in 1988. At one stage, Nehru accepted a suggestion for a discussion on the “guillotined” Ministries and Departments on the basis of their annual reports presented to Parliament—after the Finance Bill was voted. Let Mr Rajiv Gandhi devote much-needed thought to the problem now countenanced by Parliament and prove by action that he stands for the democratic values preached and practiced by Nehru. Ad hoc Budget Committees should be set up immediately remembering one basic fact: Parliament has not only the right but the duty to see that they money voted is well spent – and not wasted. —INFA