Parliamentary scrutiny of government finances should not be put off any longer

| Updated on August 30, 2020

The Constitutional requirement for a Budget session to be convened within six months of the last session, has to be fulfilled by this September

Word about the much-delayed monsoon session of Parliament, to be convened around September 14, is yet to be confirmed by the Cabinet Committee of Parliamentary Affairs. This effectively means that in the five months since March 23, when Parliament passed the Union Budget without discussion, and three months since May 12 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a Covid-19 relief package of ₹20 lakh crore, there is still no certainty over effective scrutiny of government finances. There have been media reports on logistical details being worked out by the Parliament Secretariat in accordance with social distancing norms. Political parties are apprehensive over safety arrangements, given the spread of Covid-19 in Lutyens’ Delhi. Even as the debate rages over whether Parliament can function virtually, following precedents especially in Britain where MPs voted to allow routine virtual functioning in the early stages of the Covid-19 lockdown, the critical issue in India is the near collapse of Parliamentary structures to hold government activities and policies to account. The usual practice of introduction of the Budget followed by a recess during which the departmental standing committees scrutinise the demands for grants and related proposals, was not followed this year. Normally, the standing committees scrutinise the Budget proposals for each department whereas the discussion in Parliament is restricted to mere five or six ministries. The rest, having been scrutinised by the standing committees, are set aside. The pandemic threat this year brought the Budget session to an abrupt closure. The Budget was passed without the scrutiny of the standing committees or discussion in Parliament. The subsequent financial packages have cast a doubt over the validity of the Budget proposals. There is an urgent need for Parliament to look into this issue.

The Constitutional requirement for a Budget session to be convened within six months of the last session, has to be fulfilled by this September. Usually, Parliament meets every three months but the standing committees meet throughout the year. MPs in these panels often bring their field experience to bear while subjecting policy, the bureaucracy and finances to scrutiny. TDP MP K Ravindra Kumar once famously told an evasive bureaucrat that he should stop “creating a bush and then beating around it” when he appears before a House panel. These committees, which require fewer attendees and infrastructure than a full Parliament, have inexplicably not met although the rest of the country has transited to virtual working and also progressively unlocked.

Article 85 of the Constitution is clear that the President shall “from time to time summon each House of Parliament to meet at such time and place as he thinks fit”. If the President so wishes, the session can be held anywhere — in Vigyan Bhavan or even in the open lawns of Lutyens’ Delhi — provided there is a quorum and a presiding officer. The business of Parliament should be reactivated at the earliest.

Published on August 30, 2020

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