Debate guillotined: Growing erosion of legislative accountability

It took the Lok Sabha only 30 minutes last week to introduce and pass by voice vote the Finance Bill and the Appropriation Bill with a spending plan of Rs 89.25 trillion. This included budgetary demands from 99 Union ministries and departments and over 200 amendments. This was unfortunate and is a reflection on the eroding legislative accountability of the executive. With the Rajya Sabha paralysed this session due to Opposition protests, the Finance Bill, classified as a money Bill, will be considered passed if the Upper House does not return it in 14 days. 

There was nothing illegal in this as the Speaker of the House, Sumitra Mahajan, put the Bills to “guillotine” — a decision she is empowered to take if the House is unable to discuss and debate the budgetary provisions within the stipulated time. But the end result was that all outstanding demands for grants were voted on by the House without any discussion or legislative scrutiny. This was the first time in years that the Lok Sabha did not discuss and vote on even one demand for grant. In the recent past, Budgets were passed without discussion in 2003-04 under the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and in 2013-14 under the second United Progressive Alliance government, when all demands were guillotined. State Legislative Assemblies, it seems, have taken a huge inspiration from these two examples, going by the increasing number of cases of state Budgets being passed after application of the guillotine.  

At one level, it might be considered only a technical issue — after all, the current NDA government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party has a comfortable majority and it is unlikely that the Opposition will be able to win a vote on a particular demand for grant. But the purpose of the legislative process is to allow for debate and discussion. That was missing as the government appeared happy to show up the Opposition as disruptive and took advantage of the din in the House to rush through the decisions. On its part, the Opposition, too, should share the blame. By disrupting the House frequently, it wasted an opportunity to force the government to explain how the budgetary provisions intended to reduce farm distress, or why there was a decline in the allocation for the National Health Mission. The government could have also been asked to provide the exact funding details of the National Health Protection Scheme, claimed to be the world’s largest government-funded health care programme.

The detrimental impact of weak legislative oversight did not end there. The use of the guillotine to pass the Finance Bill meant there was no discussion on the sharp increase in the salaries, daily allowances and pensions of Members of Parliament with effect from April 1. Notwithstanding the current focus on curbing corruption in public life, this year’s Finance Bill retrospectively amended the already repealed Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (2010), or FCRA, which legalises all foreign funding to political parties over the previous 42 years. The move will protect the country’s two leading political parties. It is unfortunate that the Lok Sabha did not think such issues need detailed discussion and debate — a classic case of collective abdication of democratic responsibility by both the ruling party and the Opposition.

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