Amartya Sen suggested in a speech on Monday that Parliament should be made aware of the number of deaths caused by its inability to get work done. The Nobel economist was obviously referring to the costs of inaction on the proposed food security law, but the principle can be extended to other areas as well.
The current Lok Sabha has been the least productive Lower House in Indian parliamentary history, and there are no signs that the unending cycle of disruptions is going to stop any time soon. These interminable disruptions have ensured that few Bills have been passed in recent years when compared with the volume of pending legislation. Important laws on food security, land acquisition, corporate affairs and the goods and services tax are needlessly stuck. In all, more than 100 Bills are trapped in the parliamentary quagmire.
What is even worse is the breezy manner in which some work occasionally gets done. The Finance Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha last week with no debate, after the opposition parties walked out. It means the government budget equivalent to about one-sixth of the gross domestic product sailed through with no discussion at all. Last year, the sexual harassment Bill was cleared in around 15 minutes in a country where gender violence is on the rise.
The inability to clear pending legislation is an obvious failure, and the argument that most proposed legislation is anyway discussed in standing committees is a weak defence. And it is not just a question of high-profile laws. A non-functioning Parliament also means that individual parliamentarians cannot ask the government questions that matter to their constituencies, something as simple as a new train station or an irrigation project.
There has been a robust blame game on since 2009 whenever the issue of parliamentary failure is raised. The government says the opposition is irresponsible while the latter insists that matters would be smoother if an arrogant government reached out across the aisle. This blame game has become quite tiresome. The key issue is that the failure of parliamentarians to do their job imposes costs on citizens. This is what economists would describe as a serious principal-agent problem.
This problem is usually solved in the corporate sector by employment contracts that ensure that managers act in the best interests of shareholders. There have been similar suggestions in India to link parliamentarians’ pay to attendance and work done, but that will at best be a weak incentive. The only answer is more vigilant citizens who do not vote for inactive parliamentarians.
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