Sunday, July 19, 2009

From Jawaharlal Nehru to Rahul Gandhi

Perspectives of the largest representative body in the world’s largest democracy

By Chandani Kirinde in New Delhi, India

It was from the floor of this House that the first Prime Minister of India Shri Jawaharlal Nehru addressed his nation soon after midnight on August 15, 1947 to declare the end of British rule in India.

Nearly 62 years later, among the occupants of that same legislature is his great grandson Rahul Gandhi, who along with a large number of young lawmakers now constitute the backbone of the members elected to the Lok Sabha (People’s Assembly) -all elected directly by the people to run the highest representative body in the world’s largest democracy.

As the country enters a period of unprecedented economic and social development, the country’s parliament too has evolved into a modern institution with the people and the press active players in its effective functioning.

The Indian Parliament
The fifteenth Lok Sabha which was elected two months ago has already had several firsts to its credit, including recording the largest number of female members elected to Parliament (58) and electing Meira Kumar as the first woman Speaker to be in charge of a House that is known to turn turbulent more often than not. The 15th Lok Sabha also has a record number of first-time entrants to parliament who number 282 in the 542 constituting the House. Veteran politician Margaret Alva who served four terms as a Member of the Upper House of Parliament -the Rajya Sabha- and later on in the Lok Sabha as well as a government Minister, but was defeated at the recent polls sees the changes, particularly the high percentage of women’s participation as positive for the future of the country.

“There are many new faces in the House and this augurs well for the country as we move into an era of unprecedented development. The participation of women not only at this level but even at village level in decision-making bodies is a positive development,” said Ms. Alva who now serves as the Honorary Advisor to the Bureau of Parliamentary Studies and Training (BTST).

The Bureau conducts orientation programmes for new-comers to parliament which include training to be effective MPs as well as educating them on the country’s foreign policy, economic policies as well as training in the use of computers. “All MPs in the Indian Parliament are given their official email address and the public can use electronic mail to contact the lawmaker of their area,” Ms. Alva explained.

India has a bicameral legislature consisting of two Houses, the Lok Sabha elected for a term of five years directly by the people and the Rajya Sabha or the Council of States which consists of 250 indirectly elected members; 238 representing the country’s 28 states and six union territories and 12 persons nominated by the President from among eminent persons in the fields of science, literature, arts and social services. The goings on particularly of the Lok Sabha draws much interest among the people of India, with another first to its credit; the proceedings of the Lok Sabha can be watched uninterrupted, unedited and live by millions of its countrymen with the revolutionary introduction of a Lok Sabha TV --an in-house transmitting station which began its 24-hour operation in 2006.

The Lok Sabha is the only legislature in the world to transmit proceedings of the House from an in-house facility --an idea first conceived by the former Speaker of the Lok Sabha Somnath Chatterjee whose idea was that the parliamentry proceedings should reach every home in India.

With ten robotic cameras placed at vantage points within the Chambers of the Lok Sabha, all proceedings are beamed through the in-house station giving direct access to the masses to the goings on in the House.

“There is growing awareness among the people about how parliament works as well as how their elected representatives perform in the legislature. The members too are aware they are being watched and so are conscious of their responsibilities” said Suneet Tandon, Chief Executive of “Lok Sabha TV”. He said the TV station is a public service channel and its purpose is not to entertain but to keep the people informed on issues that private stations do not devote time to.

Funding for running the channel is allocated from the annual budget of parliament and is answerable directly to the Speaker. It telecasts only public service advertisements from state run institutions. “We are not guided by commercial considerations and have no agenda. People get to see everything as it happens” Mr Tandon said. As parliament sits for an average of around 100 days a year, the staff of Lok Sabha TV have their hands full preparing programmes to transmit when proceedings are not on.

With equal air time given to government and opposition legislators, these programmes include discussions on bills pending in the House, fresh legislation as well as historic aspects of parliament itself. There are also special panelists who take part in programmes which are recorded at the five studios operating in the Lok Sabha TV station.

Parliamentary correspondents are well placed in the Indian parliament with the Press Advisory Committee (PAC) made up of senior representatives of the press appointed by the Speaker annually to look into the needs of journalists, as well as to, examine complaints against them and to ensure the smooth navigation of often shaky relations that crop up between politicians and members of the press.
The Committee works to complement the work of the Press and Public Relations Wing of the Indian parliament --a body which has been in operation since 1956-- to liaise with the press in its coverage of the lok Sabha.

“Journalists covering parliament too need to take their work seriously and be aware of the procedures followed here. Similarly legislators are expected to be aware of the rights of journalists. In this way there is better co-operation between us”, said Saroj Nagi who heads the PAC this year.

More than 400 journalists are accredited to cover the proceedings of the two houses of the Indian parliament, but to qualify for a permanent press pass requires at least five years journalistic experience of which at least a year should have been covering proceedings in the House.

“This is not a tourist spot and as we recommend the issuance of the permanent pass, we have made it mandatory these press people undergo training in parliamentary procedure to qualify for it,” she added.


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