Many years ago, I was visiting the home of a Lok Sabha Member. My reason for doing so was 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 tribals with whom I have worked for more than 25 years, I was trying to meet as many parliamentarians and seek their support to have this law passed in Parliament.
My meeting with this particular MP was a memorable one. Though he showed 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 apologised 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 that 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 or her 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 with years of parliamentary experience was using his time to solve the mundane and everyday 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 Municipal Councillor or a Gram Panchayat member is mandated to address.
It is indeed unfortunate that most people do not understand the role of an MP, his/her specific functions and how much an MP costs this nation. The sadder part is that many Members of Parliament themselves do not seem to have internalised 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.
The 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 total elective membership is distributed among the States in such a way that the ratio between the number of seats allotted to each State and the population of the State is, so far as practicable, the same for all States. Up to 530 members represent the territorial constituencies in States, up to 20 members represent the Union Territories (this proportionate distribution among the states and UTs, however, is based on the 1971 Census, and not the most recent one).
The period during which the House meets to conduct its business is called a session. The Constitution empowers the President of India to summon each House at such intervals that there should not be more than a gap of six months 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 or the lower house of the Parliament is a representative elected by the voters of an electoral district as delimited by the Delimitation Commission of India. In order to contest the elections to be a Member of Parliament, one should fulfill the following criteria.
One must be a citizen of India.
One must have completed the age of 25 years.
One must not hold an office of profit.
One must possess qualifications laid down by the Parliament of India.
One must not be of unsound mind and should not have been disqualified by a competent court.
No person can become a Member of Parliament, unless that person is a voter from any constituency of the State. The normal term of the Lok Sabha is five years.
What is the function of the Lok Sabha and what are the powers of its members?
The powers of our Members of Lok Sabha are conferred on them to ensure that the Lok Sabha functions for the purpose that it has been set up for. The main functions of the Lok Sabha are:
1. Legislative: Lawmaking 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 than the other House of the Parliament.
2. Financial: The next important role of the Lok Sabha and its members is fiscal responsibility. 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 programmes 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 the 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
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 a allowance of Rs 2,000 per day for every day that parliament sits in sessions. In addition to this, the members are entitled to liberal travel and dearness allowances, telephone, water and electricity allowances, constituency maintenance allowance and wages for their personal staff among others.
Once they become a member of the Lok Sabha, 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 their performance
Only when we understand and appreciate what our Lok Sabha MPs are expected to do, can we, as common citizens understand how to measure their performance and assess how well they are playing their roles. It is extremely important for us to know and appreciate what they will be doing for the next five years when they are expected to be our elected representatives.
Let us try to understand how well they performed over the last five years. The 15th Lok Sabha met on an average of only around 60 days a year in comparison to around 120 days that the previous 14 Lok Sabhas did. The Winter Session (Part 1) that met in December 2013 functioned for only 4 hours and 31 minutes, or 6 percent of the scheduled time.
The 15th Lok Sabha has only passed 118 bills till date and of these, only 27 of them (23 percent) were discussed for 2-3 hours. Around 20 bills were passed with discussions of less than five minutes. As on date (12 February 2014), 130 bills are pending in this last session of the current Lok Sabha. Despite all this, the Lok Sabha only met for 15 minutes on the 7th of February, 2014 and was adjourned due to the Telengana issue.
That is hardly an example to set by any standards, even if one does not bring into this discussion the ignominious depths to which they took the House by their lumpen behaviour.
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 that they asked, their understanding and appreciation of the different policies and laws that they make, the amount of time that 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 completed, and 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.