Vice President Venkaiah Naidu wears his enthusiasms and frustrations on his sleeve. But being the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, a parliamentary chamber where he served as member and minister for long years, adds to his annoyance. He is irked by what he sees as the irresponsible attitude of some members and apathy by a larger number. Exasperated that parliamentary committees were not getting full attendance and that members skipped the meetings, he mooted a harsh resolution. He felt the absentee members should lose membership of Parliament if they continuously ignored parliamentary committees and did not take an active part. But the Constitution prescribes that a member can be removed only if he is continuously absent from the house for 60 days if he has not taken the permission of the House to remain absent. Thus signing the attendance register once in 60 working days protects the membership.
While consultative committees attached to different ministries where the minister concerned briefs the committee members on the initiatives and achievements of his ministry, the parliamentary standing committees came into existence in 1990s thanks to the initiative of then-Speaker Shivraj Patil. He was dismayed by the way Parliament was voting Demands for Grants of ministries without even a minute's discussion either because of the paucity of time or disruptions. The committees where ministers do not appear consider the budget proposals and grants, and also important legislation proposed by the concerned ministry, and give unanimous reports to the Parliament. The committee system, which functions away from public and media attention has been hailed as a way of orderly scrutiny of legislative proposals, where both officials and outside witnesses are examined by the committee members.
Based on their strength in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, political parties allot members, so that every member who is not a minister gets a chance to be in one or two committees. However, barring the active chairmen and a couple of members who study the subject the level of interest has come down, and there is reliance on parliament officials to do the main drafting of the reports.
The NDA government has also been actively trying to control the outcome of important committees. Thus the standing committee on finance, which was headed by a Congress member, is now led by a BJP member. Shashi Tharoor, one of the regulars of the external affairs committee, was upset he had been deprived of its membership, even though he was later made the chairman of the committee on information technology. When Speaker Om Birla nominated Tharoor to the committee belatedly, the member was not keen on the membership. Even though the ruling party is keen to have control, two of its activist Lok Sabha members - Nishikant Dubey from Jharkhand and Shivkumar Udasi from Karnataka - had made finance ministry officials sweat in the previous Lok Sabha. Now, Dubey, an MBA continues in the finance committee, but Udasi, an engineer-cum-construction magnate, is giving nightmares to bureaucrats in the energy ministries.
But continuous attendance is not insisted by the Constitution and the parliamentary rules even in the chambers of Parliament, let alone in its committees. Members can sign the attendance register during the course of the day, thus making it unnecessary to be present when both houses convene at 11 am on working days. MPs can also skip the more interesting sections of the proceedings like the Question Hour, Zero Hour and important debates.
On many afternoons, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister and whips have a tough time to get enough members for the quorum - which is just ten per cent of the total membership. Members argue that they have to visit ministers and departments to get their constituency work done, as the working hours of the Parliament are almost the same as that of the government.
Among political parties, it is the CPM which has an active research wing to assist its members, drawing on the research of the associate organisations and support of large number of left-leaning experts in different institutions. The BJP and Congress have also research departments, but both need to build big. But more than punishment, persuasion would be a better alternative to ensure not only attendance but active participation in committees. In recent years, members are paid to have parliamentary research assistants to provide inputs to them for committee work.