Cost of a non-functioning parliament

The impact of a non-functional parliament goes beyond mere attendance or the cost incurred to run the houses of the parliament – Varun Ramachandra(_quale)

“An Introduction to Parliament of India” is a document produced by Dr. Yogendra Narain a former Secretary-General of Rajya Sabha to acquaint the lay reader with the organisation and functioning of the parliament. (The pdf can be accessed from the Rajya Sabha website). The document describes the parliament variously as: a magnificent manifestation of democratic ethos, a body that encourages nurturing and participatory democracy, a body that has functioned as the ‘grand inquest’ and ‘the watchdog’ of the nation.

One must remember that the primary function of the Indian parliament is to enact laws. In addition, the parliament is also entrusted with the duties of discussing the finances of the nation and people’s grievances through various parliamentary mechanisms that are in place. To accomplish these tasks, the parliament is in session 3 times each year for the budget session, the monsoon session, and the winter session. The parliamentary committees however transact throughout the year.

The current Lok Sabha(16th) was scheduled to meet for its monsoon session between 21st July and 13th August 2015. This session has been a complete dud i.e., no meaningful business was transacted in this session. For various political reasons, the opposition stuck to boycotting the session, the ruling party failed to negotiate, and the speaker suspended 25 members of the parliament for ‘persistent and wilful obstruction’ of the house.

A simple assessment shows us that the parliament has lost 33.3 per cent of the available time this year. Pedantically speaking, the present Lok Sabha, the lower house, has lost 6.67 per cent of its total available time in the parliament.

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Naturally, the din in the media is about how a non-functioning parliament is a waste of taxpayers’ money. Various numbers based on the parliament’s budget are bandied to drive home this point. Flippant statistics about the price of the food being served in the parliamentary canteen, salaries of the members of the parliament is discussed too. While these are all valid assessments, the real story remains untold.

The impact of a non-functional parliament goes beyond mere attendance or the cost incurred to run the houses of the parliament.  For instance, the list of important bills that were scheduled to be passed during this session included The GST bill, the child labour amendment bill, the prevention of corruption bill and the right to fair compensation and transparency in land acquisition bill to name a few.

Each of these bills are likely to have a profound impact on the way India will progress over the next few years. Various news reports have suggested that the introduction of GST has the potential to add anywhere between 1 – 2 per cent to India’s GDP (an addition of 20 billion to 40 billion dollars). The prevention of corruption bill which deems the act of bribing a public servant a criminal offence can dampen the flow of unaccounted money in India. Lastly, the child labour amendment bill can enable a large number of children — who are bound by the shackles of employment — to attend school.

With respect to the land acquisition bill, the government and the opposition had a chance to debate the fundamental questions on property rights and land titles. Instead, theatrics has taken center stage, leaving the voters and the public in a state of confused frustration.

Therefore, the actual cost of the parliament not functioning is the 2 per cent that would have been added to the GDP thanks to GST, the lack of education of those kids who are working instead of going to school, and the addition of unaccounted money into the economy thanks to corrupt public servants. Economists term this as “opportunity cost” — the value of the alternative that is given up. When viewed through this lens, a non-functioning parliament has far reaching consequences on the economy, society, and democracy.

Along with the passing of the aforementioned bills, the parliament was also scheduled to introduce several other important bills in this session. An important aspect of law making that is worth our notice is that enacting laws and implementing them takes time. There is a delayed effect and the real impact of a law is palpable only after several months of its enactment. Now that the session is washed out (for all practical purposes) these bills will be introduced at a later stage, discussed and passed/withdrawn even further in time.

Needless to say, the rhetoric around the loss of taxpayers money due to the parliament without regard to opportunity costs is penny wise and pound foolish. Perhaps, it is also wise for our parliamentarians to read “An Introduction to Parliament of India” with care.

(The author would like to thank MR Madhavan from PRS Legislative research for his inputs)

Varun Ramachandra is a policy analyst at the Takshashila Institution — a Bengaluru-based independent think tank and school of public policy. He tweets @_quale

Image credits: Simantik Dowerah (Creative commons)

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One Response to Cost of a non-functioning parliament

  1. Tushar Shah October 1, 2015 at 2:44 am #

    Why the author has no word about dysfuctional parliamnet before 2014 ?

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