How Parliamentary Debates Sometimes Shape India's Economy with Chakshu Roy

On this episode, journalist Puja Mehra speaks to Chakshu Roy about challenges faced by members of parliament in contributing to economic policymaking

13 May 2024 12:00 PM GMT
In this conversation, journalist Puja Mehra speaks to Chakshu Roy about challenges faced by members of parliament in contributing to economic policymaking, the importance of research support, the limitations of the parliamentary system and much more.
Chakshu Roy is an expert on the rules and procedures of Parliament and its functioning. He anchors programs to strengthen the capacity of legislators at the centre and state level. He supports civil society organisations to engage with legislatures and has trained journalist groups about tracking the functioning of Parliament and State Vidhan Sabhas. He has also been involved in setting up the first comprehensive database of state legislation in the country. He writes regularly on legislative issues and about the strengthening of the institution of Parliament.


Do you want to tell us about the different styles of parliament and how that, what that results in, in terms of policy making or influencing policy?

00:19 CR: Across the world, there are multiple ways in which legislative institutions function, and two of the most commonly used systems are a presidential side type of system and a parliamentary or a Westminster style of functioning. Now, the Presidential side of system is very interesting because in that particular system, for example, like in the United States, the president and his ministerial colleagues, if I have to use an Indian characterisations, they are not, you know, part of the legislature. So, quote unquote, the government is not part of the legislature. And what the government brings to the legislature if it gets defeated, it does not really impact their continuity in office. So, to give an example, if the US president is not able to get their budget passed in the US Congress, they will not be out of office. But in a parliamentary style of system, the prime minister and his ministerial colleagues are elected members.

So, for in India, the prime minister will be a Lok Sabha member or a Rajya Sabha member, and all his colleagues will also be members of either houses. And in the Westminster style, which is the one that we follow, where the government is part of the legislature, if the government is not able to get its budget passed, then it is assumed that the government does not have the confidence of the legislature, in our case, the Lok Sabha, and then it results in the government going out of office and it being replaced by another government which commands the confidence or a majority in the house.
Now, it brings very interesting takes on policymaking, on budgets. In the US, there is a lot of give and take to ensure that the budget gets passed. In India, it is more of a survival of government question. So, on some occasions there is give and take. On some occasions, if the government has the numbers and is comfortable in Lok Sabha, those things get passed quite quickly. So those are roughly the two broad legislature styles that are there, and they bring their own unique perspectives when it comes to economic policy and law making. 3:17 Pooja: And also in the US, they have this excellent style, I feel, of research support for members, which I believe we should be having, but we don't exactly. Is that right?
3:38 CR: Yeah. So, what you're referring to are two arms of the US Congress. One is called the Congressional Research Service, and the second is called the Congressional Budget Office. Now, what the Congressional Research Service does is it's a part of the Library of Congress and it has a staff of 600 people. It has lawyers, academics, experts in areas on economic, foreign policy, strategic affairs and whenever a congressman or a senator needs information on a particular subject, they can reach out to the Congressional Research service and the CRS will provide that information. And the information that will provide will be non partisan and will be objective and analytical.
The Congressional Budget Office does something similar, but focuses mostly on the budgetary aspect of the role of the US Congress.
4:39 In addition, congressmen and senators also have their own staff. So, I think a congressman or a senator gets about ten to twelve people that they can hire on their own staff. And depending on their interest areas and their legislative priorities, the staffer will then support the Congress or Senator with research, with inputs on those matters. And one last thing, and one of the things that possibly that I didn't mention when we were talking about the two different styles between a presidential system and a Westminster system was that in the presidential system, for example, in the US, again, legislation is actually initiated by individual Congressmen and Senators. In the system that we follow, legislation is always initiated by the government minister, and that is the legislation that carries through parliament.
5:50 Pooja: But we have private member bills. No? Like I remember, Jayanth Sinha had moved a private member bill on an economic policy matter.
5:58 CR: Yes, we do have. So, our members of parliament are lawmakers, and as lawmakers, they have the right and the prerogative to move private member legislation. The only point to be observed there is that private member legislation never get passed. I think the last one that got passed was only passed in Rajya Sabha. It was in 2015, a Bill for Transgender Rights by Rajya Sabha, member of Parliament Tiruchi Siva. It didn't get passed in Lok Sabha. But you're right. We have private member legislation, and private member legislation acts as an indicator to the government as to what individual members of parliament are thinking.
And I remember I was reading some parliament debates and one of Atal Bihari Vajpayee's private member bill was around limiting corporate contributions. So, I think he introduced a private member bill, which then led to was the genesis in the amendment to the Company Law about corporate contributions to political parties.
7:18 Pooja: Which year was this?
7:20 CR: I think this is, this goes way back. Should have been the 60s and the seventies. I'm happy to check and, you know, give you the details so that you can put it in the show notes.

7:29 Pooja: Right. And so he did not want. We are digressing from our main topic. I know, but I'm curious and I'm sure listeners would be, too. So, what was his argument? What should be the channel for funding politics?
7:42 CR: No, his argument was not the channel for funding, but his argument was as to how much of a company’s resources can be, you know, given to political parties if a company wanted to support. So that's what his argument was.
Pooja: Interesting. And, you know, I wanted to say that before this, when we were talking about the US system, I sometimes, when I have to write about something related to US policy, or especially if it has repercussions for Indian policy, I do sometimes read their papers and they are actually very, very good sources of information, even analysis, like you were saying. So how is it in India? How do MPs in India and political parties gather the information and knowledge and analysis required, especially for economic policy making?
8:45 CR: You're starting me onto a topic that I have some very strong opinions on, so I'll try to be as objective as possible. I think one of the… every system has scope for improvement, and so does the Indian parliamentary system. But one of the things that, or actually, two things that are there in a parliamentary system which are very unique to us is that our Members of Parliament, who are supposed to guide legislative debate that will impact the lives of a billion plus people, have very little resources when it comes to debating economic policy matters.
So, a Member of Parliament will get maybe, you know, allowance to hire one personal assistant, and the job of that personal assistant is to, you know, receive people pick up the telephone, book, flight tickets, so on and so forth, but not really legislative research. And members of parliament across the world, including India, come from a diverse set of backgrounds, so not everybody will be an expert on an economic policy issue. But when that issue gets debated in parliament and their party asks them to weigh in on that subject, then they will be woefully unprepared.

10:26 And this then brings to that other problem with our unique to our parliamentary system to a certain extent, which is that, Puja, assume that you are a member of parliament and there is a piece of legislation that your political party wants you to speak on. Now, you might be completely opposed to that economic policy principle, but let us say that if your party supports it and tells you to speak and vote on it, then you don't have a choice. So, you have to keep your personal and intellectual things aside, and you have to support what the party says.
Now, this really kind of then ensures that Members of Parliament, the voices of Members of Parliament, get reduced in Parliament itself. And they can only raise these kind of issues within their party forums. But when it comes to debating in Parliament and voting in Parliament, they have to follow the instructions given by their party. And, you know, the system is called the Anti Defection Law, and it really stifles the voice of Members of Parliament and how they can intellectually contribute to policymaking of all kinds in parliament.
11:58 Pooja: Do you want to give some examples of how this plays out?
12:03: CR: Okay, so, for example, a controversial piece of legislation in the last Lok Sabha were the three farm bills. They were brought in as an ordinance first, and then, you know, they were brought in as bills in the house. Now, if you look at the occupation as provided by Members of parliament, I think about 200 members of parliament would have listed their occupation as farmers.
Now, a piece of legislation which deals with the policy issue of farming, I'm sure these 200 members of parliament would have an opinion. And these members of parliament are spread across the political parties. Some of them might have liked some of the provisions within those three… might not have liked it, but they didn't have a choice. If their party was supporting the farm bills, then they'd have to keep their years of experience as farmers aside and supported. And if they wanted to support the farm bills and the party was opposed to it, then they would have to do the same. So, it would not have dependent as to, you know, what. They knew, what their expertise was, but it depended on what their party took the decision as.
Now, which is something, you know, that doesn't happen in a or doesn't happen so blatantly in a US kind of a system. Now, their Members of Parliament are free to, you know, choose to support or oppose a piece of legislation proposed by another of their colleagues. And the parties have to work really hard. So even if a party has a majority, you know, in the house, they have to. But a party is not able to convince its members to support a particular policy proposal, they really have to work hard to convince them. Sometimes they're able to convince them through political means by saying, you know what, we'll help your re-election efforts. Sometimes they'll say, listen, you help us on this particular piece of legislation, and we can see that you're piloting another piece of legislation that is close to your heart. And we garner support for that. So there's that room for back and forth. There's that room for negotiation. There's a room for give and take, which our system of Anti Defection Law does not really allow for.

14:39 Pooja: And it seems to me that it is this and not positive funds that probably affects how much research inputs individual MPs use. Because I mean, frankly, a lot of our MPs are very rich, so they don't need to depend on money being given to them as MPs for them to employ a fulltime research assistance.
15:05 CR: Yes, but you know, I personally feel that members of parliament, irrespective of, you know, what kind of financial background that you come from, should have adequate research support or access to adequate, you know, research support, which is world-class analytical. Why should only Members of Parliament who are rich have access to research otherwise?
Pooja: No, No
CR: I'm just making a hypothetical kind of an argument. What I'm trying to say is this is an institution al issue and it needs to be addressed. Yeah, yeah. That's the limited point. I don't disagree.
Pooja: No, I agree with you. And what I was trying to say is that we don't see it in practice that even people who don't have the constraint of financial resources are not going out of their way to educate or inform themselves on economic or any policy matter, because what's the point? You know, they will. They're going to have to toe the line of the party. But that brings us to the question of, do political parties have good research wings, especially on economic policy, or, you know, it's just sort of politics that decides everything. 16:21 CR: So, I think the Anti Defection Law, obviously, is a clear, you know, clear obstacle so as to say for our Members of Parliament to participate effectively in parliamentary debates. So, you're absolutely right on that. Constraints of funds or non-constraints of funds is a different matter. Then the second part of it is how do political parties, you know, come to decision making on the stand that they're taking?

So different political parties might have different ways of doing it. So, I think some political parties have created economic policy cells, which is then supposed to advise the political party on economic policy matters. Some smaller parties do not have a research cell or an economic policy cell. So, I think it kind of varies across political parties.

But I also wanted to flag, you know, another small aspect, which is as to how do members of Parliament, or how do constituents like you and me view our Members of Parliament? And I was, a few days ago, I was speaking to a senior Members of Parliament, and this Members of Parliament echoed what a number of our legislators actually think, which is that their constituents really are not as focused on their role as lawmakers, and their constituents really want their MPs to solve their problems.

And what this Members of Parliament said that, listen, I am more of a customer service agent for the people who vote for me and the people who come from my area, rather than a lawmaker for them.

So that's another, you know, that's another insight as to what the incentives or, you know, non-incentives for a Members of Parliament is. And many Members of Parliament will very openly admit that a great parliamentary debate may or may not get them re-elected to parliament, but attending adequate number of funerals and weddings will definitely ensure that they come back to parliament. So, what should be the incentive for a member of parliament to say, oh, you know what, I will research. Even though I don't have any research staff, I will still research and formulate an opinion on an economic policy issue. Even though my party may not agree with the stand that I might take and I might not be allowed to speak, I'll still research and inform myself, even though all of this work will not ensure that I get a party ticket and I get reelected. So, I think it's interesting as to how we think of Members of Parliament and what Members of Parliament are up against when it comes to contributing on economic policy issues.
19:31 Pooja: That said, our parliament, since before independence, has rich history of parliamentary debates, although some people say that the quality has not stayed like what it used to be... Even the amount of debates, I mean, the number of debates that take place, the amount of time that parliament sits, is all less than what it used to be. And we'll come to that data. But what are your favorite economic policy debates that led to some change, at least in policy or the final shape of the legislation?

20:09 CR: So, I think, Pooja, there is debate on the floor of the house, and then there is negotiations that are back and forth that take place outside of a camera, and both have an equal role in shaping legislation and policy. And sometimes the debate is also there to put on record what a particular member of parliament felt.
Now… And you and I have spoken about this in the past, there was a seven-minute speech on demonetisation, which was given in Rajya Sabha by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. And it was a short intervention, but it was a very powerful intervention. During the speech, he says that he agrees with as to the Prime Minister's objectives of why the demonetization was done, which was to address black money. But he says, then he goes on to say that, but the impact that it will have will be not only a short-term impact, but a long term impact. And then he, in a very dry kind of quotes and says that in the long term, all of us are dead. But that was a very powerful intervention because it kind of highlighted as to what he thought about the impact of demonetization is going to be.
21:53 So, for me, that was a very interesting intervention. It came from a former prime minister. It came from somebody who had played a series of increasingly important roles in our country’s economic… In shaping our country's economic policy. So, I think that debate, for me, really stood out just in terms of the clarity of the intervention that it was made. I think,
Pooja: For your next example, let me also interject here and say that you're absolutely right. I agree with you. In this short intervention, he put out an estimate of what he thought was going to be the impact on the GDP. He did eventually, you know, his estimate did eventually come out to be correct. He used very powerful words, which he's not known for. You know, he's normally seen as a mild-mannered person, but he used words like organized loot, you know, while speaking about the Prime Minister sitting across the aisle, speaking about a policy that the Prime Minister had just two days before, a few days before that know, put his entire political capital behind. And then he made one factual point, which nobody could have responded to, which he said that I would like the Prime Minister to give me the name of even one single country in the world that has allowed people to put their money in the bank, deposit their money in a bank, and then not allowed them to take out that money from the bank.
And, you know, the camera span on the Prime Minister. And he really did not have an answer for that. So what that did, I think, was that there was a lot of debate going on outside of parliament in the, in the country… This course, you know, the former prime minister actually lent his weight to all the analysis that was going on.
23:54: CR Yes. And I think that is what parliament is supposed to be, a forum for an exchange of ideas, an exchange of what people think about certain issues. And good parliamentary interventions also are about not only pointing out faults, but also about providing suggestions.
And the other kind of debate that comes to my mind is from 2014 to 2019, there was this period where there were policy legislation that came in and it brought Mr. Chidambaram and Mr. Jaitley, two very eminent lawyers and also two very eminent parliamentarians who had long stints in parliament across each other, and where both of you know, both of them kind of responded to each other.
And again, I think in our previous conversation, we were referring to the GST debate, and maybe, you know, if your viewers have the time, we should put the link, sorry, our listeners, if they have the time, we should put a link in the show notes to that debate where Mr. Chidambaram points out things as small as drafting errors to much more consequential things about rates of taxation and how they should be.
And then he also goes ahead and talks about the fact as to the government should not take the route of a Money Bill to avoid debate in the Rajya Sabha. So that was another interesting debate for me because some of the things that were said in the debate, the government did come around to that, and you would have covered the debate extensively during your time. To me, that also stood out.

26: 06 One final example before we move on is while we have given examples of what happens on the floor of the house where the debate is actually taking place, there are also a number of examples of debate off camera. So, I remember reading a number of news reports when the Land Acquisition Bill had to be passed, I think it was the year was 2013 and the government wanted to pass it, the opposition parties wanted certain concessions before they could support it. And one of the concessions that was asked for was that people whose lands were getting acquired should have the option of, instead of getting paid out in one go, they should have the option of leasing out their land for a long time so that they could get monthly payouts as lease rentals. And to get that legislation passed, the government had put in a provision towards the end to put out that lease provision in the law. So, I think parliamentary debates are very instructive when it comes to looking at economic policy issues.
27:27 Pooja: No, I agree with you. In fact, both the examples that you have given remind me of my reporting time, especially the GST one. Let me share an anecdote with you. When the Constitution Amendment Bill, which was not the UPA bill, the UPA had also presented a bill which they could not pursue. But when Mr. Jaitley presented a bill, when the Modi government was in office, negotiations were going on, because in the Rajya Sabha, the government did not have the numbers and they needed to depend on the opposition.
And the opposition had a fairly clear idea, like you're saying, Mr Chidambaram had articulated it, of what the GST should look like. And these negotiations were also going on in the empowered committee of state finance ministers, where they were not as yet, they hadn't arrived at consensus. So, because the opposition had very good, very welcome, I shouldn't say good, but I should say very sharp ideas, they had thought about it. So Mahirta asked me to get an interview from the opposition on what they thought this needed to do. So, I started meeting different opposition leaders. And one of the opposition leader I met was Mr. Anand Sharma, who was a senior member of the Congress party in the Rajya Sabha. And I spoke to him about about what the Congress party's position on the GST was. And to my surprise, when I went to see him, because he gave me time to see him in the parliament office. And when I went to see. See him there on the table, on the centre table, next to his cup of coffee or tea or whatever it was, was a big Government of India envelope with his name on it. And below it said, from Chief Economic Advisor, Arvind Subramanian. So, I suspect what had happened was that the government had actually sent the report of the… You know, the finance ministry had asked the chief economic advisor to make a report on the GST, and the government had actually sent it to the opposition, you know, as a way of building consensus and getting the opposition's view.
But if you saw the debates that were going on on the floor of the house and if you saw news headlines, this part was not visible at all. You know, and because I happened to see that envelope, I sort of had a different line of questioning for both the government and the opposition.
And I wasn't as surprised when very quickly they all came around and the bill got passed.
29:52 CR: Yes. And I think, and I think, you know, these are some of the things that help build trust in the fact that there can be give and take in political discourse and there can be an exchange of ideas. But I think when we're talking about policymaking at a national level, these are things that you cannot leave to leave only to personalities. These are things that you cannot only leave to one set of Members of Parliament versus the other set of Members of Parliament. What needs to happen is that there should be much more institutionalized processes so that, irrespective of who the personalities are, the outcome of that process is generally, you know, good, because there's a lot of cost to doing any kind of policy in a reactive manner or in a quick manner just to get it passed. And there are a number of examples. Right. And for a minute, let's not…. I mean, I'll take an example which is slightly not fully connected to the economic policy area.

31:18 So there is this law in India which says that cleaning of unsanitary latrines is prohibited to be done by humans. Right? So there's this deplorable activity called manual scavenging, where humans have to get inside gutters and they have to clean the gutters, or they have to, you know, clean the unsanitary latrines. And people die in that process because, you know, sewers and gutters have a number of noxious gases. You breathe that, there's no protective equipment, and you die. Since 1996, you know, parliament passed a law and said, you know, this is something that we will not allow, and manual scavenging is banned. Now, it's easy for parliament to make a law. You can make a law in parliament in under ten minutes, if possible. If you have the numbers in the house, you can make a parliamentary law in ten minutes. But just because parliament made a law in the nineties, manual scavenging did not end. People were still dying. Parliament made another law that then said, oh, you know what? The last law that we made was not working very well, so we have to make another law. And then they had to make a third one.

32:40 Now, how do we ensure,…..( voice blank) and this is the key part when it also comes to economic policy making, if you're going to do something which will have an impact at a national level, that process should be slow, that process should be deliberate, that process should be. (Voice blank ) And that process should not simply depend on the fact that there will always be, you know, members of parliament who are trained in finance, are trained in law, and they'll be able to take those corrective steps. Parliament should have adequate processes which will always make sure that, irrespective of who the people are, the laws that parliament will make will always turn out to be well. Otherwise, we'll also end up in situations wherein parliament will make a law. So back in the day, you might have also covered this. There was law on retrospective taxation. That law got made….The companies went to court, the companies won. Some of them went into arbitration and tried to seize the assets of the Government of India, which were located in foreign countries. And then that law had to be reversed. Should we be in that position just because policymaking was not as deliberate?

34:07 So, my only thing about debate in parliament is that, yes, debate in parliament is going to be political, but political debate should not cut short the process of how we should be thinking about economic policy making or any kind of policymaking to be fair. We should have more avenues for scrutiny. We should have.

So, you know, that Arvind Subramanian anecdote that you shared is so powerful because very often legislation comes to parliament at the very last minute. The amount of information that the government has, it does not share with Members of Parliament. Now and then there's that information asymmetry. So, the government has, you know, the cabinet note, the minister has the cabinet note that was prepared, but that cabinet note is not available to Members of Parliament. So how do you ensure that Members of Parliament who are anyways, you know, restricted by Anti Defection Law, paucity of time, not winning elections, are, have enough information that can help them be good parliamentarians? So, you know, when we started.. talking about this conversation about what should be the role of parliament in policy making… Parliament should have an active role. Parliament should be looking at economy, you know, every month. But parliament does not sit for more than 45, 50 days a year. So, if that's not going to happen, you know, how do we expect parliament to be doing its job effectively in guiding the country for the future?

36:07 Pooja: Yeah, no, you've said many things. You know, first of all, I want to say not everybody is Mr Jaitley who will ensure that a government report is shared and discussed with opposition behind the scenes so that there is better informed decision making all round. Secondly, like you gave the example of laws having to be made again and again, you know, just having the numbers in parliament and quickly passing laws. We've seen, again, again, it does not substitute for, to use your word, deliberative policy making and law writing. We've seen, to use your examples, we've seen the Land Acquisition Bill Act, which was passed by a previous government and then the UPA government and then the Narendra Modi government wanted to amend it. They had an ordinance, they repromulgated the ordinance several times and they were forced to let it lapse. The same thing happened with the three farm laws, which became acts, but then, you know, they had to be repealed. So, there is really no substitute. You know, even, even a majority government, you know, sometimes has to do these one step forward, two steps back, and therefore putting in adequate work in the process…. Like you're saying, investing in the process, there is really no substitute for it.

The other point that you've made is, which is that parliament is not sitting for a good number of days. Two things I want to understand. One, has it always been like this, or are we seeing an improvement, or are we seeing, you know, what is the trend been over the years, over the decade since Independence, and not just in terms of time, but also in terms of quality, you know, of debate, of what goes on in standing committees, parliamentary committees, the kind of inputs that MPs are giving when they are standing up to speak. What is the overall quality and quantity of debate and discussion going on in parliament? 38:15 So, modern legislature, so to say, started in India in 1921. We had the 1919 Government of India act reform and legislature started. Now, from then till Independence, you know, in our… When we were governed by the British, this legislature was meeting for about 55, 60 days a year. After independence. I think for the first 15 years, parliament was meeting anywhere between 100 to 120, sometimes 125 days a year. So roughly about, you know, five odd months they were there deliberating in Delhi on budgets, on legislation and a whole range of other subjects. But slowly parliament started deteriorating when it came, when it comes to the number of days of sitting. And we were talking about private member legislation earlier, a number of Members of Parliament actually put out private member legislation saying parliament should be meeting 120 days a year. We are not meeting enough. Parliament should be meeting 120 days a year. The situation has now come that in the last 20 years, I think Parliament first was meeting about 60 - 65 days a year. Now that number has come down to 50 to 55 days a year. Now, for a country as big as India, which has an enormity and a complexity of policy issues, is that adequate time for parliament to be sitting?
Now, the response of successive governments is that the reason parliament has been sitting less is because we have parliamentary committees. And now these committees have taken the load of discussion from, you know, the main parliament debate that you see in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. So, these committees are meeting throughout the year, so parliament does not need to meet throughout the year.
40:38 My only contention is that debate in committees is not supposed to be a replacement for a debate in the house. Debate in committees is of a very different nature. Debate in parliamentary committees is of a technical nature. It is across, you know, it is behind camera, sorry, it is behind closed doors. So, members of parliament don't have to always to the party line. There are a number of people who are called as witnesses who can then share… So, for example, if you were called, you would be able to share your expertise on economic policy issues and things that you have covered. But that doesn't mean that debate on the floor of the house is not important. Both of them should have equal primacy, because parliament is also supposed to be a mechanism where people can see as to what their public representatives are doing and what their views on a particular piece of legislation are. And debate in parliament is also important for a very simple fact…If a matter goes to court regarding a particular piece of legislation, one of the things that the courts would want to look at is what was parliament's intention when it was debating that particular piece of legislation? And if we pass legislation quickly, either without debating it in the House or without debating it in committees, then the courts will not be able to gather that legislative intent.
42:19 So I think not only has the number of days reduced, what it has also done is that it has reduced the time available for people to reflect on issues. It has, you know, if something comes to you one day before and two days later, you're supposed to form an opinion on a piece of legislation which is runs into sometimes 50, sometimes 100 pages with legalese, and you have nobody to help you out other than possibly search on the Internet for information, then perhaps that might not be a good way for a country of a size to be doing policy formulation or formulation of laws,..

Pooja: and especially on economic policy legislation, at least, my impression is I find that two things happen. One, discussions are listed at the last minute, so that, like you're saying, isn't adequate time for people who are going to speak to prepare. And two, you know, there isn't significant, at least in the case of the budget clause by clause discussion. You know, very quickly, the entire document is put for voting and either passed or amended, and we don't see that robust on the floor give and take of ideas, exchange of ideas, which would otherwise enrich the legislation. And sometimes governments, sitting governments, have to pay the price for it by having a passed law being required to be repealed.
43:58 CR: Yes, absolutely. I think a couple of years ago, I was looking at a piece of legislation wherein every piece of legislation, towards the end, has a statement of objects and reasons. It tells as to why that legislation is being brought about. And I think this particular piece of legislation was on amending the Arbitration and Conciliation Act. And it said that, you know, we made a change in 2015, but we have to make a change again, because the 2015 change that we made was having some practical difficulties. Now, that should not happen, because one part of our conversation was contrasting with what happens in other countries.
44:49 Now, yes, committee deliberations are important. What happens in those committees is also extremely important. So, for example, very often I see that in the US, the Governor of the Fed comes and testifies before Congress. Now, in India, that is a rare occurrence. Now, if we had a parliamentary committee, we currently have a parliamentary committee on finance. But let's say if we had a parliamentary committee, on national economy. …And I think the National Commission to review the working of the constitution, which is popularly called the Venkatachaliah Commission, has actually suggested that there should be a parliamentary committee on economy. Now, assuming for the sake of argument that there was a parliamentary committee in economy, which had Members of Parliament who were interested in economic policy areas, interested in the national economy, could it be possible for the RBI governor to come and testify about the state of the economy twice a year right now? Would that not increase parliament's understanding of what's happening in the economy and parliament's scrutiny of how the government was doing on different economic parameters?

46:08 So I think somewhere down the line, we have to think also innovatively. We'll have a new parliament in a few months, and if we are thinking of a parliament and a fresh start on the next set of policymaking ideas, we should also have a conversation around what will be parliament's role on it. And do we need to reimagine some part of that?

Pooja: What you're saying reminds me of what a former RBI Governor once told me. He said, Puja, most people in India assume that it is Reserve Bank of Government of India. It is Reserve bank of India. It's not Reserve Bank of Government of India. And second thing, what you're saying is absolutely right. I think because the standards of parliamentary debate, of legislation is not what it used to be… in the 24, 25 years that I've been covering policy, I'm seeing that the quality of drafting of legislation, thinking through issues before they legislate, has been declining on a lot of matters. In fact, many matters that are just in the domain of the ministries and doesn't even go to parliament. They seem to, and we often write this, you know, they seem to act first and think later, because it's just so easy to keep going back again and again and do a lot of flip flop rewriting, revising, updating, because, you know, the minister will just stand up and, you know, parliament will just, you know, through voice, vote, sort of approve it.
And it's just so easy to keep rewriting for legislators and for policy makers who write these laws. But what they don't realize is, you know, what this means for business and economy, which gets affected by each sentence that goes into those laws.
48:06 For instance, my number is not updated, but last I checked, the various GST laws. There are many GST laws. There have been more than 900 notifications and amendments, etcetera, in just five years of there being a GST. Now, how is any business expected to operate when there is going to be so much change?
So, you know, thinking things through, thinking before acting, most certainly must be the way to go about it. Before we wind up is there anything else you want to bring to our attention?
48:48 CR : I think the subject of thinking about policymaking, and especially parliament's rule, is critical because a lot of the policy making is done in the background. So, the government will form commissions, the government will consult experts, and the government will do a certain amount of due diligence before it will bring legislation to parliament. But only when economic policy, legislation or legislation of any kind comes before parliament is that that when public's involvement in understanding really begins and how do we ensure that that process is strengthened? I think that's a key part of it.
And I think that any process, usually, if it is well defined, it has a number of opportunities for public feedback, consultation, deliberation, that usually strengthens the ultimate product. As long as people have enough time and people have given adequate resources, they're able to really say that technically this is what will result out of it. And after that, we can put ideology on it and we can put politics on it. And, you know, then the law of, you know, parliamentary democracy will prevail. But we should definitely ensure that any step, and, you know, this is. And what happens in parliament has a long-term implication. And I'll leave you with one last example, and this is an example that I use very, very often. From Independence till 2017, bamboo was classified as a tree. And that meant that you could not cut bamboo. So, everybody in the northeast, you know, and bamboo grows really fast and people depend on it for economic livelihood, they sell it, they use it in construction, a whole range of things. But till 2017, if you cut bamboo, that means you are cutting a tree. And there was a legal implication, there was a fine, you had to take permission. That is the impact of legislation.

2017 onwards, bamboo was reclassified as a grass. One word change from a tree to a grass makes a huge difference. So now you can cut bamboo and do whatever you want with it. But till that time, you know, and it took us from independence till 2017 to say, oh, you know what? Bamboo is a tree. But now, if you classified as a grass, that's going to make a whole range of difference. So that is the power of legislation. That is the power of what economic policy can do for you. And we shouldn't take that lightly. We should have adequate processes to ensure that our outcomes are designed for national interest.

Updated On: 13 May 2024 3:00 PM GMT
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