In world's biggest democracy, parliament doesn't work

DELHI Thu Dec 1, 2011 1:42pm IST

The parliament building is pictured behind marigold flowers on the opening day of the winter session of parliament in New Delhi November 22, 2011. REUTERS/B Mathur

The parliament building is pictured behind marigold flowers on the opening day of the winter session of parliament in New Delhi November 22, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/B Mathur

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DELHI (Reuters) - India's parliament has always been a boisterous and chaotic place that, like the country itself, still somehow worked: these days, it's not even muddling through.

Proceedings have been abruptly called off every day so far since the 21-day winter session of the bicameral parliament opened last week because of the din raised by legislators bawling at each other across the floor of the house.

Open debate is treasured in the world's largest democracy. However, patience with members of parliament who head off for the day after a few minutes of bellowing is wearing thin. One TV news network asked watchers this week to answer if there should be a new rule for legislators: "No work - no pay".

An estimated $50,000 in running expenses and MPs' daily allowances is wasted for every hour of parliamentary time lost. But the biggest cost is caused by the legislature's failure to introduce, debate and pass bills crucial to the functioning of the state and its economy.

Data compiled by PRS Legislative Research, an independent organisation that tracks the functioning of parliament, shows that the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had planned to pass 200 bills over the seven sessions since it was re-elected in 2009, but managed just 57.

Disruptions meant an average of 35 percent of sitting time was lost in the Lok Sabha over those sessions, and 17 percent of the bills passed there were done so after less than five minutes of debate.

"The purpose of parliamentary democracy is to provide a forum for reasoned deliberation," the Times of India fumed in an editorial. "By wrecking this very platform, MPs can neither resolve contentious issues nor do their jobs as lawmakers."

POLICY PARALYSIS

Amid the logjam, lawmakers found time on Wednesday to call for their status to be upgraded on a list of India's VIPs. A committee submitted a report that called for MPs to have flashing lights put on their cars that would allow them to speed through the country's clogged streets, local media reported.

Another recommendation was to teach civil servants to be more courteous to politicians, after "recurrent instances" of protocol violations, the Press Trust of India reported. The committee expressed its "displeasure" at lawmakers' ranking, which was "much below their status", the news agency said.

The latest stalemate in parliament has come over Singh's decision to push through cabinet a new regulation that allows foreign supermarket chains to enter the country's long-protected retail sector, with opposition lawmakers haranguing the government side from the moment proceedings get underway.

Hobbled by a string of corruption scandals, the government has dithered on reform in its second term, and Singh has lost much of his credibility as the reformer who turned India around from near-bankruptcy 20 years ago to an economic wonder.

The appearance of parliamentary dysfunction only adds to a sense of policy paralysis that puts investors off India at a time of slowing growth.

C.V. Madhukar, director of PRS Legislative Research, argues that the parliamentary rules of engagement need an overhaul. He suggests that India could take a leaf out of the rule book of its former colonial ruler, Britain, where the opposition is allotted 20 days per year when it can set the agenda.

"It's not like that in India," he said. "When the opposition wants to raise something the government has to agree."

(Additional reporting by Matthias Williams, editing by Rosalind Russell)

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