The Budget Session of Parliament has been on from February 22nd and will continue till May 7th , but with a little over a week left of the session, it begs the question – where has been the debate? Rather – what has Parliament been debating ?
Nearly every day these last few weeks, we hear about adjournments to Parliament due to disruptions by the opposition – from IPLgate to MP’s demanding suspension of Question Hour over the phone tapping issue. But while Parliament has been busy creating a ruckus over Shashi Tharoor, IPL, and the phone tapping scandal – some of the bigger questions affecting millions of people have remained unasked. Have we forgotten what the main functions of Parliament are?
In a recent article, MR Madhavan of PRS legislative research had pointed out that "Parliament’s main functions are legislative, oversight-related and representative; its mandate does not primarily include investigative work”. Parliament is an important forum where critical public debate can incur and elected representatives get an opportunity to ask the hard questions on behalf of the people they are accountable to and in turn get asked questions for which they in turn are accountable.
Yet a look at last year’s Budget Session gives a clear idea of the lack of adequate debate on the social sector - issues that affect millions of Indians on a day to day basis. Of the nearly 5400 questions asked during the session last year, only 5 percent of them were asked to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 4 percent to the Ministry of Human Resource Development and a meager 2 percent to the Ministry of Rural Development. This is despite the fact that the government spent Rs 3,98,828 crores in 2008-09 on the social sector according to the revised estimates by the Economic Survey.
Even in terms of the type of questions asked some of the big issues remain unaddressed.
For example, while elementary education constitutes over 50 percent of total allocations for education, most of the questions last year pertained to higher and university education. Moreover, questions continue to be concentrated on access and coverage issues – enrolments, construction of new building etc, with quality education receiving a lesser priority. This is despite the fact that the ASER report released earlier this year had found that while 96% of children in rural India in the age group of 6-14 years are now enrolled in school, the quality of education is still quite poor. However, in the entire budget session last year, there were only 15 instances where questions related to teachers were asked – with 8 of those relating to recruitment and only 3 relating to quality including teacher trainings.
Similarly, while rural development particularly NREGA ( now MGNREGA) has been receiving a huge push in terms of money allocations – it received Rs. 36,750 crores in 2008-09 – up from Rs. 14,220 in 2007-08 – there were only 39 instances of questions relating to it.
In the backdrop of rising food prices and huge problems in effective targeting of ration cards ( from July 2000 till December 2009 – 53 lakh fake ration cards in West Bengal, 10 lakh in Andhra Pradesh and 7 lakh in Gujarat have been discovered and destroyed and there probably exists many that are yet to be discovered)- even the issue of Public Distribution System and Food Security got only 31 questions. Rural drinking water and sanitation, another major problem – received 16 questions. With numerous disruptions during the Session this year, this record may be worse.
As the Budget Session enters its last week let’s try and remember what the main functions of the Parliament are and leave the investigative work to the already existing bodies who have the required skills and expertise such as the CBI, CID’s, Enforcement Directorates etc, and start asking some of these questions.
Avani Kapur is Researcher and Coordinator, PAISA Project at the Accountability Initiative