In world's biggest democracy, parliament doesn't work

Reuters News
Posted: Nov 30, 2011 8:44 AM
In world's biggest democracy, parliament doesn't work

By John Chalmers

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's parliament has always been a boisterous and chaotic place that, like the country itself, still somehow worked: these days, it's not even muddling through.

Proceedings have been abruptly called off every day so far since the 21-day winter session of the bicameral parliament opened last week because of the din raised by legislators bawling at each other across the floor of the house.

Open debate is treasured in the world's largest democracy. However, patience with members of parliament who head off for the day after a few minutes of bellowing is wearing thin. One TV news network asked watchers this week to answer if there should be a new rule for legislators: "No work - no pay."

An estimated $50,000 in running expenses and MPs' daily allowances is wasted for every hour of parliamentary time lost. But the biggest cost is caused by the legislature's failure to introduce, debate and pass bills crucial to the functioning of the state and its economy.

Data compiled by PRS Legislative Research, an independent organization that tracks the functioning of parliament, shows that the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had planned to pass 200 bills over the seven sessions since it was re-elected in 2009, but managed just 57.

Disruptions meant an average of 35 percent of sitting time was lost in the lower house of parliament over those sessions, and 17 percent of the bills passed there were done so after less than five minutes of debate.

"The purpose of parliamentary democracy is to provide a forum for reasoned deliberation," the Times of India fumed in an editorial. "By wrecking this very platform, MPs can neither resolve contentious issues nor do their jobs as lawmakers."

The latest stalemate in parliament has come over Singh's decision to push through cabinet a new regulation that allows foreign supermarket chains to enter the country's long-protected retail sector, with opposition lawmakers haranguing the government side from the moment proceedings get underway.

Hobbled by a string of corruption scandals, the government has dithered on reform in its second term, and Singh has lost much of his credibility as the reformer who turned India around from near-bankruptcy 20 years ago to an economic wonder.

The appearance of parliamentary dysfunction only adds to a sense of policy paralysis that puts investors off the country.

C.V. Madhukar, director of PRS Legislative Research, argues that the parliamentary rules of engagement need an overhaul. He suggests that India could take a leaf out of the rule book of its former colonial ruler, Britain, where the opposition is allotted 20 days per year when it can set the agenda.

"It's not like that in India," he said. "When the opposition wants to raise something the government has to agree."

(Editing by Ron Popeski)