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    South Asia
     Dec 8, 2011

Indian despair at parliamentary circus
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - In the world's largest democracy, parliament doesn't work.

Almost half of the winter session of parliament has gone by with not a single day's work being transacted.

Since the start of the winter session a fortnight ago, parliamentary proceedings have been repeatedly adjourned with the opposition protesting rising prices and the decision to allow foreign equity in the retail sector.

The winter session is due to end on December 22 and parliament has 12 sittings left in which to debate and pass 31 bills, including the Lokpal Bill to create an anti-corruption ombudsman. There are few signs that any work will get done in the coming weeks.

Even if a log jam over issue related to foreign investment in the retail sector is cleared and parliament begins work in the next few

days, it is feared that disruptions will continue. Like the 2010 winter session - deadlocked over a probe into a scandal over 2-G mobile phone spectrum licenses - this too could be a washout.

"In the last winter session [2010], zero bills were passed, in the budget session five bills were cleared, and in the monsoon session, a total of 10 bills sailed through," said M R Madhavan, head of research at PRS Legislative Research, an independent research initiative in Delhi that aims at strengthening the legislative process.

A study conducted by PRS Legislative Research reveals a steady decline in the number of hours the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, utilized for work. The eighth Lok Sabha (December 31. 1984 to November 27, 1989) met for 3,223:50 hours in five years while allotted time was 2,910 hours, thus utilizing 111% of the time allotted. In effect, it overworked.

In sharp contrast, the 15th Lok Sabha, which is midway through its five-year term, has sat for only 72% of its allotted 800 hours. Since mid-2009, when it began its term, it has passed only 57 of 200 bills planned. At least 17% of the bills passed until the end of this year's monsoon session were debated for less than five minutes, with some being passed in a mere 60 seconds.

"At its current pace, the 15th Lok Sabha may be the most disrupted" over the past 25 years, a statement issued by the PRS said. Of the 54 hours that the Lok Sabha was allotted till Friday last week, it met for just three hours. The performance of the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, was no better. It has met for just two of the 45 hours allotted so far.

An estimated US$50,000 in running expenses and in daily allowances for members of parliament (MPs) is wasted for every hour of parliamentary time lost. Even more costly to the country is the delay in enacting legislation.

Shouting, disrupting speeches, adjournments and walkouts have become the norm in India's legislative assemblies whether at the state or federal level. Legislators in state assemblies have hurled mikes and chairs at each other, overturned tables, even beaten each other up on the floor of the house. Those in the national parliament are marginally better behaved.

Parliament is the forum to debate and legislate. It is the key arena where parties articulate their positions and engage in verbal duels and debate. Airing differences, even heatedly is very much a part of a democracy. But India's political parties, when in opposition, prefer disruption to debate. Their dueling in parliament is often physical.

Disagreement with the government on any issue is now used as an excuse to stall parliament endlessly. The government is to blame partially for its reluctance to consult the opposition or build a consensus. It has pushed the opposition in the process to adopt obstructionist strategies. But parties in opposition seem to believe that they have to prevent parliament from working if they do not agree with the government.

"If parliament is not allowed to function when decisions unacceptable to some parties are taken, the elemental principles of parliamentary governance are questioned and threatened," an editorial in the Deccan Herald said.

The government has agreed to "hold back" the foreign equity in retail issue. But even if the deadlock is broken and parliament resumes work, few expect the session to proceed smoothly or any bills to be passed.

Even as work in the Indian parliament grinds to a halt and the productivity of most of its parliamentarians hovers at nil, the latter - much to the chagrin of the public - have joined hands to give themselves an undeserved status upgrade and perks.

Last week, the committee for privileges tabled a report in the house calling for lal battis (flashing beacon lights) on the cars of all MPs to allow them to speed through streets jammed with traffic. It also includes an elaborate code of conduct for officials while dealing with MPs and MLAs (Members of Legislative Assemblies at the state or provincial level. "An officer should be meticulously correct and courteous and rise to receive and see off an MP/MLA," it says.

"The MPs and MLAs ... occupy an important place in our democratic set-up .. They often find it necessary to seek information from government ministries/departments or make suggestions or ask for interviews with the officers," it says calling on officials to not ignore telephonic messages left by MPs. "The officers must call them back at the earliest. SMS and e-mails from MPs/MLAs should also be replied to promptly and on priority," the memo adds.

In a situation where few in the country have any respect for the political class, parliamentarians are resorting to forcing people to respect them. When they have reduced parliament to a circus and play the role of clowns, they want the rest of India to take them seriously.

A spate of scandals involving ministers, politicians and officials that came to the fore over the past couple of years has stoked public anger on a scale not seen before, triggering mass protests against corruption and the political class. This rage is being fueled further now by the political class holding hostage all work in parliament. The paralysis of parliament has not gone down well with an increasingly weary public. The status upgrade that legislators have given themselves is adding salt to their wounds.

Mass protests that India witnessed all of summer are likely to erupt again if parliament fails to enact anti-corruption legislation. If parliamentarians fail to roll up their sleeves and get down to serious work in the coming week, protests against the political class will be angrier than in the past. India's parliamentarians are too preoccupied with perks and privileges to even notice the gathering storm clouds.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore. She can be reached at sudha98@hotmail.com

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