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.
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)
Why the lack of children’s voices in the debate about the recent Amendment to the Child Labour Act is a matter of concern
This week witnessed a lot of debate around the Amendment to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 (“the Act”). The amendment has brought the Act in line with the Article 21A of the Constitution and the Right to Education Act. The amendment has made changes to the age of employment for children, the kinds of employment they can be hired for and the penalties for violation of the Act. However, what is conspicuously missing from the current debate (particularly in the media) are the opinions of children, especially of working children. This is extremely worrying, as the children who are at the receiving end of this Amendment do not have a voice to set the public discourse.
The original Act and the recent Amendment both acknowledge that children can (and do) perform work that is economically productive. However, it remains doubtful that children, working or otherwise, were systematically consulted when passing the Amendment and they were more likely treated as passive agents. It would be extremely unfortunate if indeed, working children had not been involved in the framing of the Amendment or any subsequent analysis of its impact as such a law would undoubtedly have a great bearing upon the lives of these children. Not only would it be high-handed, it would amount to an utter disregard of the ability of children to think rationally and formulate opinions on decisions that affect them. This could not be further from the truth as working children have demonstrated that they can participate effectively in public decision making and voice their opinions with courage.
India is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Children (UNCRC), an international treaty that sets out the civil, political, social, and economic rights of children. Article 11 of the UNCRC acknowledges that children’s relationships with adults need to move beyond children receiving protection and provision of services to also participating in decision-making in all matters that affect them. Given that India has signed the treaty, it can be assumed that the country subscribes (at least theoretically) to the view that children are not just to be seen but also to be heard.
Stakeholder analysis and involvement is commonly advocated as a tool for effective policy planning, particularly for vulnerable populations. It is only logical to first understand the needs and concerns of the target population before framing a policy that will address them. While other tools like economical analyses or scientific studies also have value, it is imperative to also seek the opinions of the people being affected. Otherwise, there is the imminent risk of providing solutions that fail to address all the concerns of the target population and may tackle a problem that the they were actually indifferent towards. Furthermore, by not being involved in the policy making process, it is quite possible that these people will not fully understand their rights and entitlements under the new policy.
The media has traditionally helped policy makers in this regard by providing a forum to spread awareness about new policies. But the media is much more than a mere mouthpiece for the government. Often described as the fourth pillar of governance after the executive, judiciary and legislature, the media can actually keep a check on all the other three. It ostensibly does this by providing enough data and analyses to the public for them to make informed opinions about government actions. Though this information does not always hold up to strict, empirical rigour, it helps create a story or a narrative about each policy. In democratic countries especially, these narratives are sources of public pressure on governments to change policies. It is impossible (and foolish) to ignore the role narratives play in ensuring accountability and moving government policies in a certain direction.
It is in light of all of this that the failure to give voice to the concerns of children becomes more stark. While the current level of information is insufficient to accurately comment on the involvement of children in framing the Amendment, what is more readily apparent is the lack of child voices in the media furor about the Amendment and its repercussions. Only isolated pockets in print media convey voices of organisations that represent and directly work with working children. If this continues, the media will be guilty of continuing to treat children as if they should be seen and not heard. Not only is this bystander status demeaning to children, it could lead to a law that is counterproductive or to a state where children are not sufficiently informed about a law that directly affects them (which the adults debating about child labour on TV or otherwise can full well exploit).
Nidhi Gupta is a Social Policy graduate from the London School of Economics and manages outreach and business development at the Takshashila Institution
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