Understanding the Lok Sabha and our Members of Parliament
Many years ago, I was visiting the house of a Lok Sabha member to advocate for some provisions to be included in the Forest Rights Act. Having been a strong advocate of this Act on behalf of the indigenous tribes with whom I have worked for more than 25 years, I was trying to meet as many parliamentarians and seek their support for having this Act passed in Parliament. My meeting with this particular MP was a memorable one. Though he showed a genuine interest in understanding the plight of the forest dwelling indigenous communities, the endless stream of visitors who wanted to meet him constantly interrupted our conversation. He must have sensed the restlessness on my face and he politely apologized for this. I explained to him that I was less irritated by the interruptions but more upset by the requests that the people from his constituency came to him with. If one came looking for a plum posting, another wanted his wife’s transfer orders cancelled by the state government. Some wanted houses; others a contract to be awarded to their firm. None amongst the 30-40 people who met him within the hour ever had anything other than a personal favour to ask of him. I pointed this out to him and asked him if in his experience he was ever lobbied for a policy issue or a collective social cause. He embarrassingly mentioned that the only time someone came to him for a policy matter was when the policy actually benefited his company. He rued the fact that none came to him for any social policy or legislative matter. In fact, it did seem sad that a seasoned politician like him with years of parliamentary experience was using his time to solve the mundane and every day problems of his electorate. While I am not implying that these problems are unimportant or are not issues of concern for the common citizen, what I would like to highlight is the fact that a Member of Parliament should not be burdened with the responsibility that a Corporator or a Gram Panchayath member is mandated to address. It is indeed unfortunate that most people do not understand the role of an MP, his specific functions and how much he/she costs this nation. The sadder part is that many Members of Parliament themselves do not seem to have internalized their roles completely and only see themselves as people occupying positions of power. Before we understand how one gets elected to be a Member of Parliament (MP), we first need to understand what the Lok Sabha is and what its powers are.
Lok Sabha and its functions:
The Lok Sabha is also known as the ‘House of the People’ or the lower house. All of its members are directly elected by citizens of India on the basis of universal adult franchise, except two who are appointed by the President of India. Every citizen of India who is over 18 years of age, irrespective of gender, caste, religion or race, who is otherwise not disqualified, is eligible to vote for the Lok Sabha.
The Constitution provides that the maximum strength of the House be 552 members. It has a term of 5 years. At present, the strength of the house is 545 members. The seats are apportioned among the states based on their population. Up to 530 members represent the territorial constituencies in states, up to 20 members represent the Union Territories and no more than two members from Anglo-Indian community can be nominated by the President of India if he or she feels that the community is not adequately represented.
The period during which the House meets to conduct its business is called a ‘session’. The Constitution empowers the President to summon each House at such intervals that there should not be more than six-months gap between two sessions. Hence the Parliament must meet at least twice a year. In India, the parliament conducts three sessions each year:
- Budget session: In the months of February to May
- Monsoon session: In the months of July to September
- Winter session: In the months of November to December
How can one become a Lok Sabha MP and how does one qualify to stand for the elections?
A member of Lok Sabha is a representative elected by the voters of an electoral district as determined by the Delimitation Commission of India. In order to contest the elections to be a Member of Parliament, one should fulfill the following criteria:
- He/She must be a citizen of India.
- He/She must have completed the age of 25 years.
- He/She must not hold an office of profit.
- He/She must possess qualifications laid down by the Parliament of India.
- He/She must not be of unsound mind and should not have been disqualified by a court.
No person can become an MP unless he/she is a voter from any constituency of the State.
What is the function of the Lok Sabha and what are the powers of its members?
The powers of Lok Sabha members are conferred on them to ensure that the house functions for the purpose that it has been set up. The main functions of the Lok Sabha are:
1. Legislative: Law-making is the main function of the Parliament. All types of bills can originate in the Lok Sabha and if a bill is moved in and passed by the Rajya Sabha, it has to come to the Lok Sabha for its approval. If there is any disagreement between the two Houses, the Lok Sabha will prevail in the joint sitting with the Rajya Sabha because it has more members.
2. Financial: The Lok Sabha exercises control over the finances and has to approve the budget presented by the Government in power and ensure that money is allocated adequately and appropriately for the business of Governance. In financial matters, the Lok Sabha has a distinct superiority over the Rajya Sabha. The Money Bill can be introduced only in the Lok Sabha and cannot be moved in the Rajya Sabha.
3. Control over Executive: The Council of Ministers is collectively responsible to the Lower House of the Parliament. Thus, the government is accountable to the Lok Sabha for its acts of omission and commission. The Rajya Sabha cannot hold the government accountable to it. It is only the Lok Sabha which can force the Council of Ministers to resign by passing a vote of no-confidence against it. There are also other methods by which the Lok Sabha can exercise control over the central executive. These methods are putting questions, moving adjournment motions and call-attention motions, budget discussions, cut-motions and debates, etc. By employing any of these methods, the Lok Sabha can expose the misdeeds and inefficiency of the government and warn it against repeating such mistakes. The members are expected to oversee and monitor all the programs and schemes that the executive implements. This does not mean that they merely sit on committees approving beneficiary lists and houses and determining how local area development funds are spent. They are expected to ensure that the executive branch of the Government does its job responsibly, responsively, transparently, impartially and in line with the decisions taken by the political executive.
4. Constitutional: The Lok Sabha shares with the Rajya Sabha the power to amend the constitution.
5. Electoral: The Lok Sabha takes part in the election of the President and the Vice-President. It elects the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker and its members are also elected to different committees of Parliament.
6. Judicial: The Lok Sabha has power to punish a person on the ground of breach of privilege. It takes part in the impeachment proceedings against the President of India, and it shares power with the Rajya Sabha to remove the Judges of the Supreme Court and the Judges of High Courts.
7. Ventilation of Grievances: The members of the Lok Sabha are elected from different parts of India. They try to remove the difficulties of their respective constituencies by stating their grievances on the floor of the Lok Sabha.
8. Imparting Education on Democracy: The Lok Sabha discussions would help in raising the political consciousness of people. As the discussions in the Lok Sabha are directly telecast, the people are able to learn of different aspects of Indian politics.
9. Other Functions: The Lok Sabha discusses reports submitted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), Finance Commission, etc.
Salary and other privileges of our MPs:
We need to understand that our Lok Sabha MPs are paid well for the services that they are expected to do. The receive a monthly salary of Rs 50,000 and an allowance of Rs 2000 for every day that the Parliament sits in session. In addition to this, the members are entitled to liberal travel and dearness allowances, telephone, water & electricity allowances, constituency maintenance allowance and wages for their personal staff, etc. They are also entitled to Rs 20,000 monthly pension for the rest of their lives. These expenses being paid out of taxation revenues are reason enough for citizens to demand performance, accountability and transparency from the elected members.
Apart from the salary and other related perks, our MPs also enjoy immunity and freedom of speech on the floor of the House. They cannot be prosecuted for having said anything on the floor of the House. During session the members cannot be arrested in any civil cases.
Measuring the performance of our MPs:
Only when we understand and appreciate what our MPs are expected to do, can we as common citizens measure their performance and assess how well they are playing their roles. It is extremely important for us to know what they will be doing for the next five years as our elected representatives. Let us try to understand how well they performed over the last 5 years. The 15th Lok Sabha met for an average of around 60 days a year in comparison to around 120 days that the previous 14 Lok Sabhas did. The Winter Session of December 2013 was only for 4 hours and 31 minutes, or 6% of the schedule time. The 15th Lok Sabha has only passed 118 bills till date and of these only 27 of them (23%) were discussed for 2-3 hours. About 20 bills were passed with discussions of less than 5 minutes. As on 11th Feb, 130 bills are pending in this last session of the current Lok Sabha. Despite all this, the Lok Sabha met for only 15 minutes on the 07 Feb 2014 and was adjourned due to the Telengana issue.
We the citizens must come together and demand that our MPs bring out an annual report card clearly outlining their performance. They need to inform the people of their constituency on how well they performed against indicators like their attendance in the Parliament, the number of questions they asked, their understanding and appreciation of the different policies and laws they make, the amount of time they spend consulting their constituents, how well they oversaw the executive and a statement disclosing their income and assets. Only when we the common people continue to engage with our elected representatives even after the elections are over and continue to monitor and evaluate their performance will we be able to demand good governance from them. It is in our own interest that we do not relax but continue to demand both accountability and performance from our MPs for the next 5 years.