1.Panel report on data Bill hangs fire
Five members of the Joint Parliamentary Committee have now been made Ministers
Wednesday’s Cabinet expansion by Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw five members of the Joint Committee on Personal Data Protection Bill, including its Chairperson Meenakshi Lekhi, being inducted into the Council of Ministers, raising questions over the long-pending report of the panel.
The inductees include the new Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw and Minister of State Rajeev Chandrashekhar.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information and Technology (MeitY) helms the Bill. The Bill seeks to provide protection of personal data of individuals and was introduced in December 2019 in the Lok Sabha. It was referred to the joint parliamentary panel, headed by BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi, in February last year. It is yet to submit its report.
Ms. Lekhi is now the MoS for External Affairs and Culture. The other committee members now in the Cabinet are Bhupender Yadav, now Union Environment Minister, also handling the Ministry of Labour, and Ajay Bhatt, who is the new MoS for Defence and Tourism.
Ten of the 30 members of the committee had moved amendments against a provision (Clause 35) in the legislation giving power to the Central government to exempt any agency of government from application of the Act. The members have said that this clause makes the entire Act infructuous. The 10 members are Mr. Chandrashekhar, Congress MPs Jairam Ramesh, Manish Tewari, and Gaurav Gogoi, Trinamool Congress MPs Derek O’Brien and Mahua Moitra along with Biju Janta Dal MPs Bharatuhari Mahtab and Amar Patnaik, BSP’s Ritesh Pandey, and Shiv Sena MP Shrikant Eknath Shinde. The Hindu has accessed a copy of the amendments moved by the members.
Invoking “sovereignty and integrity of India”, “public order”, “friendly relations with foreign states” and “security of the state”, the legislation gives powers to the Central government to suspend all or any of the provisions of this Act for government agencies.
In his amendment, Mr. Chandrashekhar had sought further tightening of the existing clause, adding “health emergencies”, “public safety emergencies” as the other scenarios allowing the Centre to step in to provide exemptions. He and other members also demanded that the Bill revise the definition of a ‘child’. Presently as per the Act, anyone below 18 years of age has been described as a ‘child’.
“For six months, I have been requesting a draft report of the Joint Committee on Personal Data Protection Bill be circulated to its members. Now the Chairperson has become a Minister along with 3 members. What happens now to the Committee & draft report? The new Ministers had much to say on the Bill,” Committee member Jairam Ramesh tweeted.
The Select Committee so far has held 66 meetings and its last sitting was on December 29 last year. The members were told that a draft report was ready and would soon be circulated.
Representativeness, Responsiveness and Accountability are the foundational pillars of Parliamentary democracy. In India, Parliament has broadly two functions, which are lawmaking and oversight of the executive branch of the government.
Parliament is the embodiment of the people’s will and parliamentary committees are an instrument of Parliament for its own effective functioning.
Over the years, the Indian Parliament has increasingly taken recourse to the parliamentary committee system. However, data and several other instances show that in the last few years there has been a gradual marginalisation of the committee system.
Hence, for the sake of upholding the Parliament’s primary role i.e debate, discussion and deliberation, there is need to take necessary reforms in the parliamentary committee system.
Genesis & Types of Parliamentary Committee
- Origin: As is the case with several other practices of Indian parliamentary democracy, the institution of Parliamentary Committees also has its origins in the British Parliament
- In independent India, the first Public Accounts Committee was constituted in April 1950.
- Constitutional Provisions: Parliamentary committees draw their authority from Article 105 (on privileges of Parliament members) and Article 118 (on Parliament’s authority to make rules for regulating its procedure and conduct of business).
- Types: Most committees are ‘standing’ as their existence is uninterrupted and usually reconstituted on an annual basis; some are ‘select’ committees formed for a specific purpose, for instance, to deliberate on a particular bill.
- In 1993, 17 Departmentally-related Standing Committees (DRSCs), later increased to 24, were constituted in the Parliament.
- These committees drew members from both Houses roughly in proportion to the strength of the political parties in the Houses..
- Allocation of Business: The chair uses her discretion to refer a matter to a parliamentary committee but this is usually done in consultation with leaders of parties in the House.
- The practice of regularly referring bills to committees began in 1989 after government departments started forming their own standing committees.
- Prior to that, select committees or joint committees of the houses were only set up to scrutinise in detail some very important bills.
- Some Important Parliamentary Committees in Finances: Financial control is a critical tool for Parliament’s authority over the executive; hence finance committees are considered to be particularly powerful.
- The three financial committees are the Public Accounts Committee, the Estimates Committee and the Committee on Public Undertakings.
Significance of Parliamentary Committee System
- Inter-Ministerial Coordination: They are envisaged to be the face of Parliament in a set of inter- related departments and ministries.
- They are assigned the task of looking into the demands for grants of the ministries/departments concerned, to examine Bills pertaining to them, to consider their annual reports, and to look into their long-term plans and report to Parliament.
- Instrument For Detailed Scrutiny: Committee reports are usually exhaustive and provide authentic information on matters related to governance.
- Bills that are referred to committees are returned to the House with significant value addition.
- Besides the standing committees, the Houses of Parliament set up ad hoc committees to enquire and report on specific subjects that are assigned the task of studying a Bill closely and reporting back to the House.
- Also, in the discharge of their mandate, they can solicit expert advice and elicit public opinion.
- Acting As Mini-Parliament: These Committees are smaller units of MPs from both Houses, across political parties and they function throughout the year.
- Also, Parliamentary committees are not bound by the populistic demands that generally act as hindrance in working of parliament.
- As committee meetings are ‘closed door’ and members are not bound by party whips, the parliamentary committee work on the ethos of debate and discussions.
- Moreover, they work away from the public glare, remain informal compared to the codes that govern parliamentary proceedings, and are great training schools for new and young members of the House.
A Gradual Marginalisation
- Decline in Matters Referred: According to data by PRS Legislative Research, while 60% of the Bills in the 14th Lok Sabha and 71% in the 15th Lok Sabha were referred to DRSCs concerned, this proportion came down to 27% in the 16th Lok Sabha.
- Apart from the DRSCs, there are negligible bills referred to Select Committees of the Houses or Joint Parliamentary Committees.
- The last Bill referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee was The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Second Amendment) Bill, in 2015.
- Neglected in The Matters of Great Public Importance: Some of the most momentous Acts of Parliament in recent years such as the overhaul of Article 370 that revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and divided the State into two Union Territories were not processed by any House committee.
- Recently, even after popular protests against the three Bills related to agricultural produce and the three labour Bills, that definitely deserved to be scrutinised by Select Committees of the Houses, were passed by the government only by using the majority.
- Other Shortcomings: Other issues affecting the functioning of the committees are low attendance of MPs at meetings; too many ministries under a committee; norms not followed by most political parties while nominating MPs to committees; and the constitution of DRSCs for a year leaves very little time for specialisations.