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Parliamentary committees — the ‘mini Parliaments’ that vet legislation and policy changes

Modi govt has set up parliamentary committees after being slammed in the budget session, which saw a record number of bills being passed, by bypassing these panels.

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New Delhi: The winter session of Parliament has begun Monday, with over 35 bills to be taken up, including the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, and the Personal Data Protection Bill.

The nearly month-long session will end on 13 December, with a total of 20 sittings. 

While the previous budget session saw a record number of bills being passed, it was especially criticised for bypassing an important aspect of the Indian democratic system — parliamentary committees.

These committees vet proposed legislation and parliamentary rules even though their recommendations are not binding on the government. 

Following the criticism, however, standing committees were finally set up in September this year, and will begin fulfilling their functions of being “mini Parliaments”.

ThePrint explains what parliamentary committees are and the functions they perform. 

What are Parliamentary Committees?

The Lok Sabha website describes a parliamentary committee as a “committee which is appointed or elected by the House or nominated by the Speaker and which works under the direction of the Speaker and presents its report to the House or to the Speaker and the Secretariat”.

These committees are essentially miniature Parliaments in themselves, usually comprising members across party lines from both the Houses. Broadly, they are classified into two categories — standing committees and ad hoc committees. 

Ad hoc committees are appointed for a specific purpose — like the examination of a bill or inquiry into, say, the 2G scam — and exist only until this purpose is fulfilled.

On the other hand, standing committees are more permanent in nature, and are constituted from time to time in pursuance of the provisions of an Act of Parliament or Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha. 

The standing committees are further divided into financial committees and departmentally-related standing committees (DRSCs).

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Report not binding

A good deal of Parliament’s business is conducted by these committees, considering the paucity of time and the varied nature of work done by the executive body. 

Essentially, decision-making and in-depth examination becomes easier among a group of 30 rather than 700. The functioning of the committees, especially those on bills or policy changes also enables wider consultation. 

These committees often invite inputs from experts and other stakeholders. The anti-defection law does not apply to these committees and therefore, decisions might veer from party lines. 

Whenever a Bill comes up before either the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha for consideration, it is open to that House concerned to refer the proposed legislation to a select committee from within itself or a joint committee of the two Houses. 

For instance, the GST Bill was referred to a Rajya Sabha select committee.  

The motion for a committee is supposed to be moved and adopted in the House in which the Bill comes up for discussion. If a motion for a joint committee is adopted, the other House is informed and urged to nominate members for the panel.

This committee then examines the Bill clause by clause, invites experts and stakeholders for their input and then submits a report. 

These recommendations are not binding, but they do generally hold weight. 

For instance, the Consumer Protection Act 2019, which replaced the 1986 law, was passed only after an earlier version of the bill was examined by the Committee on Food and Consumer Affairs. The committee had recommended several amendments, including increase of penalties and clarity in definitions. Most of these recommendations were accepted by the government and incorporated in the 2019 Act.

Same was the case with the National Medical Commission Bill in 2017, when the Standing Committee on Health had made several recommendations to the bill. Several of these recommendations were incorporated in the 2019 law, which was passed in August this year. 

Departmentally-related standing committees

As the name suggests, these committees cover all the ministries and departments of the Government of India. However, they do not consider matters of day-to-day administration but only focus on long-term plans and policies to guide the working of the executive.

There are 24 DRSCs in total — 16 from Lok Sabha and 8 from the Rajya Sabha. Their functions include: (a) consideration of demands for grants; (b) examination of bills referred to by the Rajya Sabha chairman or the Lok Sabha speaker; (c) consideration of annual reports; and (d) consideration of national basic long term policy documents presented to the Houses and referred to the committee by the Rajya Sabha chairman or the Lok Sabha speaker.

Some of the DRSCs are the committee on commerce, committee on home affairs, committee on human resource development, committee on industry, committee on social justice and empowerment and committee on finance. 

Until the 13th Lok Sabha, each DRSC comprised 45 members — 30 nominated from Lok Sabha and 15 from the Rajya Sabha. 

However, with their restructuring in July 2004, each DRSC now has 31 members — 21 from Lok Sabha and 10 from Rajya Sabha, to be nominated by Lok Sabha Speaker and Rajya Sabha chairman, respectively. They are appointed for a maximum period of one year and the committees are reconstituted every year cutting across party lines.  

In the forthcoming sessions, most of these committees will be headed by BJP MPs and the ruling party members will be in majority in all the 24 DRSCs. 

In the Rajya Sabha, opposition members will chair 5 of the 8 DRSCs. The opposition had headed four committees during the past two years. In Lok Sabha, BJP MPs will head 10 DRSCs. 

Chairmanship of the DRSCs is normally decided by the strength of various parties in the House but as per reports, there have been deviations.

At present, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor is set to head the committee on information technology, Congress MP Anand Sharma will head the DRSC on home affairs, Congress MP Jairam Ramesh will head the committee on science, technology, environment and forests, while BJP MP Bhupendra Yadav will head the committee on personnel, public grievances, law and justice. 

Financial committees

Financial committees are of three kinds — the estimates committee, the public accounts committee and the committee on public undertakings. 

The estimates committee has 30 members, all from the Lok Sabha. This committee suggests alternative policies for efficiency in administration, examines whether the money is well laid out within the limits of the policy implied in the estimates, and suggests the form in which the estimates will be presented to Parliament. 

Both the public accounts committee and the committee on public undertakings have 22 members each — 15 elected from the Lok Sabha and seven from the Rajya Sabha. 

The public accounts panel examines the statement of accounts showing the appropriation of sums granted by Parliament for the expenditure of the Government of India, the annual finance accounts of the government, among others.

The committee on public undertakings examines reports and accounts of specific public undertakings, reports of CAG on public undertakings and other aspects of functioning and efficiency of public undertakings.

Other standing committees include committees such as the business advisory committee, the committee of privileges, committee on absence of members from the sittings of the House, a committee on empowerment of women, committee on papers laid on the table, committee on subordinate legislation, library committee and joint committee on offices of profit.

Ad hoc committees

Ad hoc committees are appointed for a specific purpose and they cease to exist after they finish the task assigned to them and submit a report.

These include advisory committees and inquiry committees. Advisory committees include select and joint committees on bills. Inquiry committees are constituted to inquire into a specific issue and report on it — for example, the committees on 2G Scam and the Bofors deal. 

Some of the other ad hoc committees are the railway convention committees, the committee on the provision of computers to members of Lok Sabha, committee on ethics, committee on food management in Parliament house complex and joint committee on security in the Parliament house complex.

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