South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

By Mushtaq Ahmad

IN Pakistan’s parliament, more than 80 per cent of the questions raised are killed in the speaker’s chamber, lapse, go unanswered or are transferred due to the absence of the ministers concerned.

Motions, call-attention notices and points of orders go unheard, while debates on vital issues bear no fruit.

The chairs’ directives and ministers’ undertakings are rarely implemented, while the government decides to carry on with parliamentary proceedings even when there is no quorum. How, then, is an MP to prove his or her worth on the floor of parliament to the voters?

These deficiencies show that there is something amiss with the manner in which our parliament operates. Western parliaments faced this problem throughout the Cold War and South Asian parliaments face it today. Other countries, notably the United Kingdom, took radical steps to reform parliamentary practices in order to make the institutions more vibrant, professional and accountable. The moving spirit was to keep people’s hopes alive in the institution of parliament and connect them with its performance.The democratic system and its institutions inherit multiple deficiencies and flaws. Parliaments in particular have to be conscious in this regard since people want rapid betterment in their lives but do not accept radical changes in the status quo.

Parliaments, therefore, must absorb public wrath for natural mistakes and lapses. Indeed, people all over the world often irresponsibly reprimand parliament and parliamentarians even though these are the sole custodians of human rights. The Scottish parliament, for example, came into being as the epitome of modernisation: easily accessible and flexible. In just about four years, however, citizens became critical.

Similarly, the UK’s younger citizens appear to be dissatisfied by their parliament’s performance. According to the book How Parliament Works by Robert Rogers and Rhodri Walters, the turnout in general elections registered a 15.5 per cent decrease between 1992 and 2005.

The BBC once broadcast a radio programme on the ‘parliament is dead’ theme.

Growing public suspicion over the ultimate benefits offered by parliament to ordinary citizens convinced the UK to reform the system.

In 1997 the Labour government initiated parliamentary reforms that were considered by various committees on modernisation, liaison, procedure and public administration. They continued work throughout the Labour years, until it lost elections this year.

The committees included Hansard’s Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny, the Commission to Strengthen Parliament and the Putnam Commission on Parliament in the Public Eye. Additionally, a number of academic and media forums were involved in parliamentary proceedings and their scrutiny. As a result, UK parliamentarians started performing their tasks under the tight scrutiny of not only their counterparts and commissions but also citizens, observers and the media.

Under these initiatives, the number of parliament’s annual working days and daily working hours were increased. Oral questions were allowed, the format of written questions was changed and proportional time was allocated for each point of business. Following the reforms in the UK, European parliaments and the Inter-Parliamentary Union also launched multiple reform programmes.

This wave of parliamentary reforms inspired South Asia too, and certain procedural changes were incorporated into the rules of business in the parliaments of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

However, their impact remains negligible. In the UK, for example, parliamentarians essentially meet for 150 days a year, five days a week and for eight to nine hours a day. In South Asia, the lower and upper parliamentary houses generally meet for less than 70 to 90 days a year while the day is no more than five hours long. An MP in the UK can ask five written questions as well as oral questions, while the prime minister replies to questions for half an hour every week.

A strong parliamentary committee system makes the UK parliament a highly skilled and professional entity, while the electronic network for public participation in the proceedings is marvellous in European democracies. In Pakistan, the architects of the 1973 Constitution envisaged a comprehensive legal framework for the smooth and productive functioning of parliament but it failed to flourish due to the imposition of martial laws.

In Pakistan, the rules allow an MP to ask eight questions a day, which could potentially amount to over 2,000 legal questions a day. In practice, however, the total number of questions in the admitted list does not exceed 40 or 50 in the National Assembly and 20 to 40 in the Senate. A decline in members’ interest in the proceedings of parliament was witnessed during the earlier regime when, according to the Four-Year Performance of the National Assembly of Pakistan 2002-2006, published by the NA Secretariat, out of the 41,000 questions received between 2003 and 2006, only 4,500 questions were answered. The ratio of rejected motions is very high — over 90 per cent in the National Assembly.

The current chairman of the Senate has taken multiple initiatives to transform the dormant house into a vibrant entity, and admitted 295 out of 300 received motions for discussion. Senate service rules are being formulated at his orders, the compartmentalisation of various cadres in the Senate is being eliminated while amendments in the rules of procedures are in the final stages.

Moreover, the replacement of obsolete information networks is under way, as is the construction of committees’ offices and an administration block. Private buildings hired outside Parliament House have been dispensed with and surplus vehicles auctioned, depositing millions of rupees in the national exchequer. Furthermore, various development projects for connecting the Senate with citizens have been undertaken.

Despite all this, the pace of accomplishing the agenda for change still appears desperately slow because of the tug of war between vested groups and lobbies. This long-standing reality has ultimately caused citizens to feel alienated from their parliament.

It is necessary to break through the status quo and bring about shifts in the traditional paradigm. To this end, a wide-ranging and deep-rooted network for public participation in the proceedings needs to be developed urgently. Ethics, monitoring and evaluation committees should be constituted without any loss of time to scrutinise the performance and conduct of parliamentarians and civil servants. Those who lie, fail to perform their duties or mislead parliament must be punished, which is only possible through parliamentary reforms.

The writer serves in the Senate of Pakistan.

Source: Dawn – 01.06.2010

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