Address by Mr. Shumsher K. Sheriff at the Conference of Secretaries of Legislative Bodies in India

RSTV Bureau

(Full text of address by Mr. Shumsher K. Sheriff, Secretary General of Rajya Sabha at the Conference of Secretaries of Legislative Bodies in India on Thursday, January 21, 2016 in Gandhi Nagar)
I

It gives me great pleasure to participate in this Conference. We are deeply grateful to have received the warm hospitality of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly here at Gandhinagar. This city, which bears the name of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of our Nation, perpetuates his memory and legacy.

Such Conferences are indeed useful for all of us to meet at periodic intervals and exchange ideas and experience about the functioning of our legislatures. Besides, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the difficulties we face in our functioning, especially in dealing with varied legislative procedures as also to share our best practices. This Conference provides a perfect backdrop to the main Conference to be presided over by the Hon’ble Speaker, Lok Sabha tomorrow, which will dwell on broad and generic issues impinging on the overall functioning of our legislatures. I am sure, what we deliberate today will enable each one of us to sharpen our focus in the multiple roles that we perform.

The Rajya Sabha, which has been in existence for nearly 64 years, occupies a pivotal position in our constitutional set-up. Along with the Lok Sabha, it has been at the forefront of strengthening our democracy and public governance through its legislative, deliberative and accountability functions. It is true that though we follow the Westminster system of parliamentary functioning yet, over the years, our legislatures have made their own valuable contributions towards evolving sound practices, procedures and conventions to suit our requirements. Through procedural changes from time to time, our legislatures have been able to respond to the demands of the time and underline their seminal significance in our body polity.

Almost a century ago, while addressing the Gujarat Political Conference on 3rd November 1917 here in Gujarat, Mahatma Gandhi outlined his vision of a Parliament for India. It is worthwhile to quote those wise and prophetic words:

What then would our Parliament do if we had one? When we have it, we would have a right to commit blunders and to correct them. In the early stages we are bound to make blunders. But, we, being children of the soil, won’t lose time in setting ourselves right. We shall, therefore, soon find out remedies against poverty… The nation today is in a helpless condition; it does not possess even the right to err. He who has no right to err can never go forward. The history of the Commons is a history of blunders. Man, says an Arabian proverb, is error personified. The freedom to err and the power to correct errors is one definition of swaraj. Having a Parliament means such swaraj.
Truly, our legislatures are living testimony to the ideals of swaraj and we need to introspect as to whether our legislatures exemplify this in ample measure.

During the period of one year since the last Conference held in January 2015 in Lucknow, there have been some important and striking parliamentary developments and events. I take this opportunity to share with you some of those developments relating to the functioning of the Rajya Sabha:

II

Sittings of the House, Disruptions and the transaction of legislative business

During the year 2015, Rajya Sabha had a total 69 sittings spread over four sessions and sat for approximately 250 hours. However, we witnessed frequent adjournments of the proceedings of the House due to recurrent interruptions and disruptions. The proceedings of the House were disrupted on a number of occasions resulting in the loss of more than 155 hours of the time of the House. Among the various reasons for disruption, it is the frequency with which certain sensitive political issues are raised in the House even though they do not form part of the listed agenda, which is causing a great deal of concern. Having identified this problem, we need to find viable ways and means to tackle this. This is a matter we all need to deliberate in this Conference, though I believe that the problem defies any easy solution. The option before us is whether to make our rules more stringent or leave it to the wisdom of the House and the good sense of the Presiding Officer to deal with instances of disruption.

We have observed that in our legislatures, though the Presiding Officers have preferred more informal accommodative ways as opposed to enforcement of parliamentary rules to discipline the Members, this approach seems to have run its course. Despite persuasions and appeals by the Presiding Officers, instances of disruption have continued unabated, thus impelling them to express their anguish and concern on the issue from time to time. The Hon’ble Chairman, Rajya Sabha while making valedictory remarks on the conclusion of the last Winter Session of the Rajya Sabha on 23rd December 2015, incisively observed:

The interruptions in the functioning of the House, though not of recent origin and sought to be justified by specious logic by different sections of the House at different times to suit their tactics of the moment, continue to result in loss of working time and neglect of listed business. It denies to the Members opportunities to seek accountability of the executive …It also reduces or eliminates the opportunities to scrutinise sufficiently legislative proposals…It reflects adversely on the parliamentary process and our commitment to it. Making an appeal to the Members, he urged them to ‘desist from approaches and practices that demean the stature of the Rajya Sabha … and make the fullest possible use of the instrumentalities of accountability and discussion available to them under the Rules of Procedure’.

Frequent adjournments of the House due to interruptions have led to loss of valuable time of the House. The continued disruption and adjournments of proceedings often push the legislative business to the brink. Disruption also touches upon the privilege of the Members and curtails their right to seek information and express themselves through many devices such as Questions, Calling Attention, Short Duration Discussion and so on. In both cases, the Executive turns out to be the biggest beneficiary with the Legislature abdicating its raison d’etre for making the executive accountable.

During the year 2015, several important Bills, though listed, could not be taken up due to disruption. Nevertheless, some legislative business was transacted and a few important legislations passed by the House during the year are placed at Annexure-I. After more than four decades, an important development of historical significance took place in the Rajya Sabha on 24th April 2015 when a Private Member’s Bill namely, the Rights of Transgender Persons Bill, 2014 was passed by the Rajya Sabha. The Bill is currently pending in the Lok Sabha.

If we take into account the figures of the questions orally answered in all the sessions, we get a dismal picture. Out of 989 starred questions listed, only 174 questions, constituting nearly 18% have been answered. Interruptions of the proceedings of the House have been taking a toll on the Question Hour. To maintain sanctity and efficacy of the Question Hour, the Hon’ble Chairman, Rajya Sabha has taken several initiatives. For instance, unlike the earlier provision, the Members now get the opportunity to ask three supplementaries in case of the absence of the original Member in whose name the question stands. This has been well received by all sections of the House. But, the concern still remains since the Question Hour itself is disrupted. Further, to save Question Hour from interruptions, normally witnessed at the commencement of the day, the Hon’ble Chairman shifted the Question Hour from 11.00 a.m. – 12.00 noon to 12.00 noon – 1.00 p.m. from November, 2014 onwards. All these raise several questions. What should be the options for the Members who lose a chance to ask Questions? True, they get the written replies from the Government; but what about their chance to ask supplementaries? Is it prudent to give such Members an opportunity to articulate their concerns through some other procedural devices, say for instance, the Special Mention in the Rajya Sabha under rule 180A and in the Lok Sabha under rule 377. Other State Legislatures may have similar rules. This Conference may like to reflect on this issue.
Performance of Parliamentary Committees

While the legislative performance remained moderate due to the disruption and frequent adjournments, the various Committees of the House remained engaged in substantive work and produced valuable reports. Various Parliamentary Committees including the Department-related Parliamentary Standing Committees presented or laid as many as 374 Reports and Statements during the year 2015.

In this context, I would also like to mention that during the year 2015, five Bills were referred by the Rajya Sabha to its Select Committees for examination and report. The details in this regard are placed at Annexure-II. This is an unprecedented figure for a single year as during the ten years from 2002 to 2013 only four Bills were referred to Select Committees of the Rajya Sabha. With the changed complexion of the Rajya Sabha where the Government does not have the majority, the Members belonging to the Opposition have been emphasising the need to refer the Bills to the Select Committees of the House, especially when these have not been examined by Department-related Standing Committees. This has put tremendous pressure on the Secretariat to provide time-bound secretarial assistance to these growing number of Select Committees. These examples also testify to the importance of the Second Chamber in our parliamentary system closely examining, scrutinising and giving a second look to the legislations passed by the other House.
There are no two views that Bills of significant public concern need deeper legislative scrutiny, for which the Select or Joint Committee on Bills are the appropriate mechanism. I recall that in the Third Lok Sabha, Late Dr. L. M. Singhvi and eight other Members of the Lok Sabha had persuaded the Business Advisory Committee to accept reference of all Bills, barring those of routine nature, to Select or Joint Committee on Bills as a firm principle. However, in practice, it could not be formalised. I feel, perhaps it is the opportune time to revisit the issue of reference of Bills to the Committees for greater stakeholders’ participation in the legislative process. All of you may like to dwell on this issue.

Amendment to the Motion of Thanks on President’s Address

One of the defining and landmark events of 2015 was that the Motion of Thanks on the President’s Address was adopted by the Rajya Sabha in an amended form on 3rd March 2015 after the amendment moved by three Members on the issue of failure of the Government to curb high-level corruption and to bring back black money was adopted by the House. This was for the fourth time in the history of the Rajya Sabha that the Motion of Thanks on the President’s Address was adopted in an amended form. The earlier occasions when the Motion of Thanks on the President’s Address was amended were on 30th January 1980, 29th December 1989 and 12th March 2001. Such amendments of the Motion of Thanks on President’s Address in the Rajya Sabha underlined the deliberative nature of the Second Chamber of our Parliament.
The Rulings and Observations by the Chair

The sessions of Rajya Sabha in the recent times, especially during the last year witnessed many Members raising procedural issues and demanding rulings from the Chair. Though on the face value, this seems to be indicative of the renewed interest of the Members on procedural matters, yet deep within it reflects the nature and composition of the House. Due to the minority position of Government in the Rajya Sabha, Opposition Members have been raising issues of procedural infirmities as a matter of political tactic. The Chair is frequently asked to give rulings.

I would like to mention a significant ruling by the Chair. For instance, on 3rd March 2015, some Members raised procedural points regarding introduction of the Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2015 in the Lok Sabha even though a similar Bill was pending in the Rajya Sabha. The Chair ruled that he could not find any provision either in the Constitution or in the rules which prohibits the introduction or passing of a Bill in Lok Sabha substantially identical to a Bill already pending in the Rajya Sabha. Subsequently, on 12th March 2015, when a motion was moved for consideration of the said Bill as passed by the Lok Sabha, a Member objected to moving the motion stating that whether the House should consider the Bill as reported by the Select Committee of the House or the Bill as passed by the Lok Sabha and transmitted to the Rajya Sabha as it was the same Bill except the difference of the year. The Chair ruled that there is no constitutional provision or rule which prohibits the listing of a Bill passed by the Lok Sabha in the Rajya Sabha even if it is substantially identical to a Bill which is pending in the Rajya Sabha.
I feel, therefore, that procedural issues are often symptomatic of hide and seek tactics between the Government and the Opposition to which our legislature secretariats must remain always alert.

Workshop on Parliamentary Procedures

Apart from the activities relating to the House, we took the initiative to organise a one day Workshop on the ‘Practice and Procedure for handling Parliamentary Business including Questions’ on 3rd November 2015. The Workshop aimed at updating officials of the Government of India on parliamentary practices and procedures besides providing them opportunity to interact with the officials of the Rajya Sabha Secretariat with a view to facilitating smooth transaction of parliamentary business. The Workshop comprised of interactive sessions, which were well received by more than 240 officials from 55 Ministries and Departments including officials of the Cabinet Secretariat. From our experience of organising the Workshop, I can share with you that a lot of coordination issues between the Government and the Rajya Sabha Secretariat on parliamentary matters, which were pending for long, got sorted out. You may like to organise such workshops to strengthen the interface between your respective Governments and Secretariats.
Discussion on Commitment to India’s Constitution as part of the 125th Birth Anniversary celebration of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

Both the Houses of Parliament at the beginning of the last Winter Session which commenced from 26th November, 2015 devoted two days in holding discussion on ‘Commitment to India’s Constitution’ as part of the 125th Birth Anniversary celebration of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. It is noteworthy that the Constitution of India was adopted on 26th November 1949 and commenced from 26th January 1950. As many as forty nine Members belonging to all political parties participated in the discussion which lasted nearly eighteen hours and reaffirmed their commitment to the Constitution. At the end of an animated discussion, both the Houses adopted a Resolution unanimously. The Resolution adopted by the Rajya Sabha is placed at Annexure-III.
Rajya Sabha Website

Like other Parliaments in the world, Rajya Sabha has made concerted efforts in adopting and harnessing Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in its day to day functioning in a systematic and focussed manner. The Rajya Sabha Website, in its bilingual format that is, English and Hindi, has contributed significantly to bring the functioning of Rajya Sabha and its Members closer to the people. The Website has been acclaimed for being user friendly, citizen centric and responsive in its web-based information and service delivery. I am glad to mention that as per the study report titled Index of Government Websites conducted in 2014 by the Department of Electronics and Information Technology with the assistance of Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, which covered a total of 895 Indian Government websites, Rajya Sabha website has been ranked at the top. This year, we shall be glad to make way for others to reach the top.

III
Conclusion

The issues that are going to be discussed here are important for all of us. I hope, this Conference will help us develop and preserve healthy traditions, conventions and practices in our legislatures. May our deliberations realise the common purpose. As Rigveda says:

संगच्छध्वं संवदध्वं सं वो मनांसि जानताम् ।
समानो मन्त्र: समिति: समानी, समानं मन: सह चित्तमेषाम् ।।

Meet together, talk together, let your minds think alike.
Common be the counsel of the assembled,
Common be the association, common be the purpose,
Associated be the desire.

I am sure, you will join me in thanking the Hon’ble Speaker and Hon’ble Deputy Speaker, Gujarat Vidhan Sabha for excellent arrangements and their gracious hospitality. We look forward to the 78th Conference of Presiding Officers to be inaugurated by Smt. Sumitra Mahajan, Hon’ble Speaker of Lok Sabha.

Annexure-I

During the year 2015, some of the Bills passed by the Rajya Sabha included the Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2015; the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulations) Amendment Bill, 2015; the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Bill, 2015; the Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupants) Amendment Bill, 2014; the Constitution (One Hundred and Nineteenth Amendment) Bill, 2013 relating to the Land Boundary Agreement between India and Bangladesh; the Companies (Amendment) Bill, 2014; the Black Money (Undisclosed Foreign Income and Assets) and Imposition of Tax Bill, 2015; the Payment and Settlement Systems (Amendment) Bill, 2015; the Commercial Courts, Commercial Division and Commercial Appellate Division of High Courts Bill, 2015; the Arbitration and Conciliation (Amendment) Bill, 2015; the Atomic Energy (Amendment) Bill, 2015; the Payment of Bonus (Amendment) Bill, 2015; the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2015; the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2015; and the Negotiable Instruments (Amendment) Bill, 2015.

Annexure-II

During the year 2015, five Bills were referred by the Rajya Sabha to its Select Committees for examination and report. These Bills included the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2015; the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Bill, 2015; the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill, 2013; the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-second Amendment) Bill, 2015 relating to Goods and Services Tax (GST); and the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, 2013. Out of these, two Bills, namely the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2015 and the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Bill, 2015 passed by the Lok Sabha on 3rd and 4th March 2015 respectively were referred by the Rajya Sabha to its Select Committees on 11th March 2015 with instructions to submit reports to the Rajya Sabha not later than 18th March 2015 so as to enable the House for consideration and passage of the said Bills during the first part of the Budget Session. Accordingly, the reports of the Select Committees on the above-mentioned Bills were presented to the House on 18th March, 2015 and both the Bills as passed by the Lok Sabha and as reported by the Select Committees of Rajya Sabha were passed by the House on 20th March, 2015. Regarding the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill, 2013, the Select Committee presented its Report to the House on 30th July 2015 and the Bill is pending in the House. Similarly, the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-second Amendment) Bill, 2015 as passed by the Lok Sabha was referred by the Rajya Sabha to its Select Committee on 12th May 2015. The Committee presented its Report to the House on 22nd July 2015. The Bill is currently pending in the House. The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, 2013 introduced in the Rajya Sabha was referred by the House to its Select Committee on 11th December 2015 and the Committee has been asked to submit its Report on the last day of the first week of the next Session.

Annexure-III

Resolution

The Chairman placed the following Resolution before the House:
“We, the Members of Rajya Sabha, in the sittings of the Rajya Sabha held on the 27th and 30th of November and 1st of December, 2015, for celebrating the ‘Constitution Day’ as part of the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Birth Anniversary celebration of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar:- Having remembered with gratitude, the commitment of the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, the pioneering and monumental role played by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and other founding fathers of our Constitution and their contribution in enabling us to adopt, enact and give to ourselves the Constitution on the 26th November, 1949, which commenced on the 26th January, 1950; and
Having recalled with appreciation, the invaluable services rendered by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly and all its members in the framing of the Constitution of India;
Do hereby solemnly re-affirm our commitment to the principles and ideals of the Constitution, and resolve to continue to –
(a) uphold and maintain the sanctity and supremacy of the Constitution;
(b) respect the constitutional institutions, their freedom and authority;
(c) protect the sovereignty, unity, plurality and integrity of our country and its democratic, socialist and secular character;
(d) maintain transparency, probity and accountability in public life; and
(e) dedicate ourselves to equality and social justice and contribute to the task of building a strong Republic.

The Resolution was unanimously adopted by the House.