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Scrutiny
  
The ‘Lower’ house!
Acts of violence and protest, disregard of proceedings and lack of interest in participation have become shameful characteristics of our Members of Parliament. In that light, our Constitution needs to reconsider the immunity being given to our MPs and tighten the laws
15/03/2012

The Parliament, in any democracy, is the very essence of the latent principles and policies of a nation. It not only represents the stature of its political system but is also a condensed reflection of the society at large. Contrarily, in India, the Parliament is witnessing several acts of pandemonium and violence and unfortunately, they have become more of a norm than an exception. Despite the inception of an Ethics Committee to study Parliamentary proceedings in 1997, which later came up with its list of suggestions detailing the ‘Rules of Procedure’ required to be incorporated in the proceedings, our Parliament and certain state legislatures keeps setting new standards in hours spent walking out and opposing anything that moves. Of course, part of it is what is accepted as essential for democracy to function – the opposition walking out to show their disagreement being one of them. But clearly, many other parts (populating the well of the house to ensure no work gets done, shouting, jostling, even violently attacking others members – as has happened in certain state legislatures) are clearly beyond even accepted standards of unparliamentary behaviour. What then should be the code of conduct that Parliamentarians in India should be forced to follow?

Many matured democracies have laid down and instituted clear and basic codes of conduct for their parliamentarians.

Many democracies across the globe have tagged the usage of derogatory words including liar, dumbo, coward, hypocrite, traitor, et al during house proceedings as offensive, and their usage was banned during the proceedings. Since then, many countries have laid down strict rules against usage of such and similar terminologies. Countries like Canada, US and UK consider usage of such words as evidence of contempt against the houses of government and have provisions for imposing fines and punishment (or both) on the accused. Any inappropriate behaviour or misconduct can invite legislative penalty under censure. To be precise, in the US, the term censure is defined thus, “A motion must not use language that reflects on a member’s conduct or character, or is discourteous, unnecessarily harsh, or not allowed in debate.” Specifically, article I, section 5 of the US Constitution states that every senator “shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members” and may “punish its Members for disorderly behaviour.” In Australia, under the contempt of Parliament rule (unparliamentary language), a fine of up to $5,000 and six months imprisonment can be imposed on individuals crossing the line. On the same lines, Hong Kong and UK consider contempt of the Legislative Council as a criminal offence. They may expel and can even prosecute the defaulters.

So what’s the formal code of conduct that exists for Indian Parliamentarians? Interestingly, India has no formal code of conduct regarding the behaviour of its MPs. A number of attempts have been made, committees have been constituted and recommendations gathered for installing a proper code of conduct; but no concrete steps in terms of converting these recommendations into legislations could be taken, primarily because of opposition from the MPs themselves.
Apart from using offensive language, another blot on the face of the Indian Parliament is the average attendance of MPs in the Lok Sabha. In the 2009 winter session, the average attendance of the MPs was 66%; with only 15 MPs securing full attendance and only 45 MPs having an attendance of more than 95%! There has been no apparent urgency among MPs to attend, as there is neither any stipulated minimum requirement of attendance in the Indian Parliament, nor does there exist any penalty for prolonged absenteeism. But then, even the United States has no such minimum specified attendance criteria for members of the house. Then again, in spite of having no minimum attendance criteria, the absenteeism ratio in US is much lower than India; pegged at 13% on an average, while in the 111th Congress, the figure was a mere 4%. Canada is better on these accounts. In Canada, there is a minimum requirement that MPs cannot miss more than 21 days in a session. In case they do, they have to shell out a daily fine of $120 for the misses. Recently, the Russian Parliament passed a law and imposed fines and penalties to punish absent lawmakers. In Germany, it is mandatory for members of the Bundestag to participate in their sessions. In Israel, a member of the Knesset is not allowed to miss a session without any valid reason while in Ghana, a member of parliament is asked to vacate his seat if found absent without permission.

Talking about the number of bills passed in the parliament, the picture there is quite obscure as well, though it doesn’t sound as surprising looking at the state of affairs discussed so far. There were, in total, 24 bills on the roster to be introduced in the last winter session of the Lok Sabha, out of which 17 were passed. But those were passed in the mere nine hours for which duration the session was possible. That was because of repeated disruption of both the houses by the opposition parties and the boisterous protests against the 2G spectrum scam. Other major disruptions in our Parliamentary history have included a 13 day protest by BJP in 1996 (when former telecom minister Sukh Ram’s residence was raided by CBI); disruption in the aftermath of the Ketan Parekh scam in 2001 and disruption with respect to the Bofors kickback case, which paralysed our Parliament for one and a half days. The estimated cost of running the Parliament per minute is Rs.40,000; which means that for every single day that the Parliament got stalled, the country lost a whopping amount of Rs.20 million directly. And one hasn’t even talked about the opportunity costs arising from the other bills not getting discussed.

Losses get multiplied exponentially if such costs are considered, as the introduction, debate and passing of bills could have improved the administration of our land. According to PRS Legislative Research, the incumbent government tried to introduce as many as 200 bills in the last seven sessions, but was able to get only 57 passed. In the last seven sessions, a humongous 35% of the business hours were lost due to disruptions. Lastly, the travesty is not complete without this startling fact that 17% of the bills were passed with less than five minutes of debate. Contrast this with the length of sessions that take place in developed countries, which are typically not less than 140-150 days per year.

By:- Sray Agarwal
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