By Maju Varghese
The Constitution of India has accorded the Parliament the supremacy among the three organs of the Union government viz legislature, executive, and judiciary. Parliament not only makes the laws but also enables the citizens to participate in controlling the government. The Parliament applies various oversight mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability in the system. The two mechanisms available in our country are questions and debates on the floor of the house and various committees which scrutinise the public finances and policies.
The budget session of the Parliament was held between January 31 and April 12, 2017. The session had a recess between Feb 10 and March 8, 2017, during which the standing committees examined the demand for grants from various ministries. The session was convened in the context of upcoming assembly elections and also of post demonetisation distress.
This session was important for many reasons. The budget was introduced on February 1 instead of the last working day of February as per the tradition. The government claims that advancing the presentation will result in necessary legislative approval for annual spending plans and tax proposals could be completed before the beginning of the new financial year. According to eminent economist Arun Kumar, early presentation of Budget will help the entire exercise to get over by 31 March, and expenditure, as well as tax proposals, can come into effect right from the beginning of new fiscal, thereby ensuring better implementation.
Besides advancing the date, the government decided from this year to merge Union Budget and Railway Budget. Earlier, Railway budget was presented first followed by the general union budget. Another interesting development this year is doing away with the distinction of the plan and non-planned expenditure in the budget-making monitoring difficult on capital infusion in developmental planning.
The budget session held 29 sittings for 178 hours in total in which 24 bills were introduced, and 23 bills were passed. Members raise 560 starred questions and 6440 un-starred questions during this session.
Some Major debates in the Parliament
The budget session saw the introduction of some major bills and discussions around those. These are: The Finance Bill, 2017; The Specified Bank Notes (Cessation of Liabilities) Bill, 2017; Bills related to Goods and Service Tax; The Payment of Wages (Amendment) Bill, 2017; the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2017; the Mental Health Care Bill, 2017; and the Employee’s Compensation (Amendment) Bill, 2017.
Analysis of Questions in Parliament
During the budget session, about 6440 un-starred questions and 560 starred questions were admitted in the parliament. However, the lack of interest in the functioning of the IFIs was evident as just 7 questions asked on the topic in Lok Sabha out of 5203 questions, and 7 in the Rajya Sabha from the total 5064 questions. The break-ups of the questions are given below.
Rising NPA’s and Parliament
The debate on Non-Performing Assets continued to be debated in the parliament with many parliamentarians raising the issue through questions. There were about 18 questions asked in the Rajya Sabha and 21 questions in Lok Sabha. K.V Thomas, then chairman of the standing committee on public accounts, said that the current non-performing assets stood at 6.8 lakh crore or 6.8 trillion of which 70% are those of big corporate houses. There were debates on the bad bank and how the banks could be cleared of the mounting NPAs. Interestingly, the same bankers who were asking the state to take care of their bad debts came against debts being waived off for farmers who are facing an acute crisis due to a variety of reasons leading to suicide deaths.
New trend of undermining democratic institutions
The Parliament is witnessing a new trend of bypassing Rajya Sabha in important matters including amendment of acts where both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha is responsible. The introduction of the Finance Bill first with 10 amendment of acts and later to change 40 different acts including Reserve Bank of India Act as well as the Representation of the People Act was according to opposition first in the history of Parliament itself. This act has robbed the Parliament its right to refer the bill to a standing committee or to scrutinise it clause by clause as to every amendment and the power of Raja Sabha to discuss, propose and incorporate amendment.
The very fact that the finance bill is a money bill gives the option of not incorporating Rajya Sabha view in the bills. All the five amendments passed in the Rajya Sabha was not incorporated into the finance bill, and it was passed as such. Centre has got 22 Money bills passed in Lok Sabha ignoring the Rajya Sabha, and this has kept a bad president for the functioning of the democracy as such.
Executive legislation through Ordinance rather than legislation
The ordinance is an independent legislation brought out by the Executive; it is the wisdom and authority being exercised by the Executive. An Ordinance can only be done in extraordinary situations when the houses are not in session or a critical condition. The Ordinance encroaches the right of the parliament in law making.
The government seems to issues ordinance after ordinance despite the fact that this could be brought before the parliament for legislation in the first instance. According to the PRS Legislative, the government in the last three years has promulgated 27 ordinances, including the ones on land acquisition, demonetisation, payment of wages bill, etc. Many of the ordinances were promulgated multiple times. It is interesting to read the observation of the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court observation in Krishna Kumar Vs State of Bihar delivered on January 2, 2017, that promulgation of ordinances is a fraud on the Constitution and a subversion of democratic legislative processes. The latest subversion is the Banking Ordinance, on which the finance minister refused to share details of the ordinance before Presidential assent.
While there were interesting debates in the parliament this session, it seems some of the issues are not being captured in the discussions. This includes life and livelihood issues of people who are getting displaced/ affected by development projects, investments of bilateral and multilateral agencies including World Bank, Asian Development Bank, IFC and new development banks like New Development Bank, Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, etc. A point to make in this regard is about New Development Bank, a multilateral Bank initiated by BRICS nations. There seems to be no real engagement of the Parliament in influencing the nature of the Bank given that Mr K. V. Kamat is the chief of the Bank. The Bank is in the process of developing its policies with regards to the environmental and social framework, disclosure policy, etc in their lending.
The other major lack of oversight is on negotiations in the trade policy. India is Negotiating a free trade agreement, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – RCEP  in the Asia Pacific region. According to India FDI Watch, “In the past four years and to this day, no text has been made available to members of the public, parliamentarians, civil society or media,”. The trade negotiations are happening under a veil of secrecy where Parliament and parliamentarians are kept in the dark.
Parliament does not have an institutional space like Standing Committee where trade negotiations, Indian investment abroad and Multilateral and Bilateral investments to India and its effects on Indian policy environment is being discussed. The failure of the Standing Committee to come out with a report on the demonetisation in this session with full facts and figures were a let down on the process particularly when it was announced that it would come out before the end of the budget session.
 The finance bill is for ordinarily introduced to give effect to financial proposals of the Government of India for the following fiscal year and not to make permanent changes in the existing laws unless they are consequential upon or incidental to the taxation proposals.
 RCEP is a 16-nation trade pact that includes the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with China, Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, a region that accounts for 46 percent of the world’s population and that produced nearly 30 per cent of global GDP in 2016.