A five-member Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court last week reserved its judgment on whether courts could rely on Parliamentary Standing Committee reports without violating the privileges of Members of Parliament.
Trying to stonewall the issue, Attorney General K K Venugopal told the court that reliance on Parliamentary Standing Committee reports would mean that it puts MPs to judicial scrutiny. While the Chief Justice of India maintained that the PSC report can be judicially taken note of, the AG said the contents of the reports could not be taken note of. The Bench was hearing a PIL filed by Kalpana Mehta who had questioned the safety and efficacy of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines used for preventing cervical cancer.
Two pharmaceutical companies producing vaccines to prevent cervical cancer also opposed the plea that the apex court looks into the report of the parliament committee which had brought out certain facts about the vaccine. Senior counsel Colin Gonsalves who appeared for the PIL petitioner told the court that they only wanted to place before the court the relevant PSC report and that they were not saying that it has evidentiary value but there is no harm in the court taking due note of PSC reports. Some experts are of the view that the PSC reports have evidentiary value unless otherwise proved wrong.
While the court is seized of the matter and its judgment is expected any time now, two other crucial aspects pertaining to parliamentary standing committee deliberations need to be revisited in public interest. They are: how to plug conflict of interests in the panel recommendations and the need to open up its deliberations to the media to ensure greater transparency, openness and accountability of the executive and legislature.
Irrespective of the party in power, year in and year out, Parliament witness disruptions and adjournments causing loss of crores of rupees to public exchequer. A redeeming feature, however, is that the two dozen odd PSCs quietly do a commendable job, without rancour or ruckus. When the House is in recess, the committees get busy deliberating on bills of various ministries and departments and scrutinising the demands for grants. The standing committees, a mini Parliament in themselves, more than compensate for the delay and disruptions and produce tonnes of recommendations for the consideration of the government. Each of these committees has 30-odd members from both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha across the political spectrum.
A sitting of the committee may stretch between four to seven hours a day. Ordinarily, political differences do not manifest in the committee and no member takes a partisan stand. The committees can summon officials and experts if need be to seek their views on subjects before submitting their recommendations to the government. Though the reports are not binding on the government, the latter is supposed to table an Action Taken Report (ATR). Some law makers had in the past demanded that follow-up action by the executive must be made mandatory. Earlier, there was no system of ATRs, but Somnath Chatterjee as Lok Sabha Speaker during UPA I prevailed upon the government to ensure that within six months the concerned ministry/department table ATR on the committee recommendations.
However, the good work being done by the PSCs is besmirched by conflict of interests and lack of openness. There is a tendency among industrialists doubling up as law makers to misuse this mechanism to further their personal or business agenda. Some of them have managed to become members of key committees, such as Defence, Finance, IT, Railways, Power and Petroleum. Much has been written about how they lobby and use their clout to get into to the committees that deal with matters relating to their business interests and manipulate policy decisions. Though no law prevents an MP from becoming a member, he or she can recuse from a meeting if its subject matter involves conflict of interest, but rarely does one witness such ethical pangs; alternatively the law maker can also swap the committee. In 2009, V. Kishore Chandra Deo who headed a special parliament panel had recommended that law makers should be denied placement on PSCs that scrutinised matters relating to their business or personal interests but in vain; the powerful lobby of vested interests apparently prevailed.
Similarly, the past attempts to open up PSC proceedings to the media had been scuttled. A decade ago, former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee had flagged the issue and L K Advani, then leader of Opposition, had endorsed the proposal, but the matter did not move forward. Five years later Chatterjee’s successor Meira Kumar also tried to bring in Glasnost in the PSC, but the move did not get necessary traction as many law makers expressed apprehensions that allowing media to sit through the meetings when evidences are recorded could be counterproductive as MPs and bureaucrats deposing before the panels may not be frank in the presence of media. The committees often summon officials of various ministries to cross-examine them on subject matter. Similarly, honest MPs who sometimes speak against party lines before the in-camera meetings may not to do so in front of journalists, it is feared. To the credit the AAP government, the Delhi assembly last year became the first legislature in the country to open committee proceedings to the media. A Special Inquiry committee set up to probe the alleged irregularities in sports bodies that are administering cricket and hockey in Delhi was thrown open to the media.
Suspended BJP MP Kirti Azad and former cricketer Bishen Singh Bedi had made their statements before the panel. The nine-member committee heard their testimonials in front of rolling cameras. Advanced countries, including the US and UK, allow media to be witness proceedings of their parliamentary committees. These are essential steps for securing openness and transparency and go a long way in shoring up accountability of the government.
The author is an independent Journalist.