India's parliament too petty to get the job done

Amrit Dhillon says India's MPs seem more intent on blocking opponents than doing their duty

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 2:34am

In a subversion of its true function in a democracy, India's current parliament rarely passes laws. Instead, the government wields parliament as a weapon to stonewall the opposition, and the opposition uses it to extract concessions from the government by continually disrupting proceedings.

Parliament in India functions only in fits and starts. At least 30 important bills are pending. They have not been debated, let alone passed, because unruly behaviour by the opposition has led to whole days being lost. If parliament were a company and MPs employees, they would have been sacked long ago.

Before the current winter session began on November 22, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party to let the legislative process operate smoothly.

Yet, the unruly, noisy and chaotic scenes have continued.

This time, the logjam is over the government's decision to allow foreign supermarkets to enter the country, a move critics say will ruin small stores.

But there is always some "reason". Last time, 13 days out of the month-long session were lost owing to the opposition's agitating and demanding the resignation of the prime minister over a coal-allocation scandal. Last year, 30 per cent of parliament's time was lost to disruptions, according to the non-partisan watchdog PRS Legislative Research.

MPs are doing a great disservice to democracy, which requires a vibrant and accountable parliament, and to citizens. The bills still to be discussed will affect the lives of millions of people. They involve curbing corruption, protecting women from sexual harassment at work and protecting whistle-blowers.

One bill is set to change the rules governing how farmers' land can be bought for industrial projects - a hugely important issue for poor Indians who need adequate compensation. Another attempts to tackle hunger by letting 75 per cent of rural India and 60 per cent of urban India buy wheat and rice at cheap rates.

And as Indians become more disgusted and cynical over this permanent logjam, foreign investors are also getting fed up over the failure to pass bills to open up sectors such as insurance and pensions.

The Bharatiya Janata Party seems bent on tripping up the government instead of seeking solutions. Its MPs and those of other opposition parties were elected to do a job. In return, they receive free housing, a daily allowance, free travel, phone calls and medical care. Perhaps it's time to withdraw these privileges if they can't deliver.

There appears to be no easy solution to the paralysis. And with many citizens disgusted by the corruption of the entire political class, the portents for democracy appear bleak.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer in India