The Cost of Parliamentary Disruption

The budget session of Parliament is the longest session in the Parliamentary calendar. The session is split into two halves. The first half of the session starts with a joint sitting of both houses which is addressed by the President. In his address to both houses, he recaps the initiatives and the progress made by the government in the last year, presents a roadmap of the governments policy and legislative proposals and also focus areas for the current year. Thereafter the railway and the finance minister present their budgets. There is then a discussion in Parliament on the presidents address and the budgets. Both the houses then break for three weeks, in which the departmentally related standing committees scrutinize the budgets of the various ministries. Parliament reconvenes after the break to discuss the working of certain ministries and also to pass laws. Being the longest session of the year, a major part of the legislative function that Parliament discharges in a year, happens in this session.

This year, the first part of the budget session progressed as planned. However, the second half of the session was marred by disruptions and consequently the session was adjourned sine die two days ahead of schedule. As a result of disruptions during the second half, no financial or legislative work could be conducted. Before the beginning of the budget session of Parliament, other than routine financial business government had planned to introduce 19 Bills and get Parliamentary approval on 38 Bills. At the end of the Budget Session, 16 Bills had been introduced and 2 Bills were passed. Parliament was also supposed to debate the working of 4 ministries but none of them could be discussed.

The Chairman of Rajya Sabha, in his closing remarks on the last day of the session observed, "The experience of this Session, particularly of its second half, should induce cogitation on a number of matters arising out of the situation in which the House finds itself in its daily functioning. Three questions in particular need to be addressed. One, has the balance between deliberation, legislation and accountability been lost due to regular disruptions of the proceedings? Two, has the time not come to bridge the growing gap between the rules of procedure and the need felt by different sections of the House to voice opinion on matters of concern? This, needless to say, has to be done in an orderly manner to preserve the dignity of the House. Three, has the membership of this august body assessed the impact of disruptive behaviour on public opinion?".

The observations made by the presiding officer of Rajya Sabha are extremely insightful, specially when one looks at how the functioning of  Parliament has been dogged by disruptions over the last three years. In some Parliamentary sessions MPs from different political parties have been able to find a way of evolving a consensus and in others this has not been the case. Lets looks at the observationsmade by the Chairman of Rajya Sabha in a little more detail.

In 2010, Lok Sabha worked for 57% of its scheduled time. This was a result of the entire winter session being disrupted on the demand for formation of a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) inquire into the 2G spectrum allocation issue. In 2011 Budget Session, a JPC was constituted and the deadlock was resolved. While the year witnessed its fair share of disruptions on issues related to the anti corruption movement, Telangana, etc. the Lok Sabha was able to work for 70% of its scheduled time. However in 2012, Lok Sabha saw repeated disruptions on issues related to coal block allocation, foreign direct investment in retail and quotas for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes for reservation in promotions. Consequently Lok Sabha's productivity declined to 61%.

A decline in the productivity of Parliament impairs its ability to effectively perform the duties that have been entrusted to it by the Constitution. The constitution gives Parliament the mandate to keep the government accountable by scrutinising the working of ministries, making laws to address opportunities in the legal system, discussing and passing the budget to keep the country on a firm financial footing and representing the hopes and aspirations of a billion people. With Parliament being disrupted routinely, Members of Parliament (MPs) are not able to ask ministers tough questions during question hour to assess the work that their ministries are doing. With disruptions eating into the time available for Parliamentary business, adequate time is not available for debating legislation. As a result, Bills either get passed without effective debate or remain pending in Parliament. With Parliament meeting for a fewer number of days and with its productivity falling on account of disruptions, MPs are not able to raise matters of urgent public importance and bring it to the attention of the government.

It is easy to identify political controversies which lead to Parliamentary disruption. However these political controversies are only the symptoms and not the cause of disruption. In every democracy there would be contentious issues and the strength of a democracy would be demonstrated by the quality of debate and deliberation on such issues. For debate and deliberation to happen, Parliamentary procedure would have to evolve to enable political parties on different sides of the issue to set the agenda for debate and discuss the issue in detail on the floor of the house. This would also require Parliament to meet for more number of days in a year and sit for longer hours. This would ensure that even if the proceedings are disrupted there is still enough time for deliberations.

Our Parliamentary procedures has not changed significantly over the last sixty years. In this context there are opportunities to learn from other countries. For example, in the British Parliament, there are certain days in a week in each Parliamentary session where the opposition parties are allowed to determine the agenda for the days discussion. The House of Commons also sits for about 150 days in a year with an average sitting lasting for seven and a half hours. Currently our Parliament meet for an average of 70 days in a year and the rules provide that Lok Sabha would meet for 6 hours and Rajya Sabha for 5 hours. In any Parliamentary democracy, Parliament influences and is influenced by public opinion. It is an institution where ideas are discussed and political and ideological differences ironed out through debate and consensus building. If disruptions in Parliament continue then slowly but surely it would lead to people slowly disengaging with the institution of Parliament. In a representative democracy like ours, Parliament is supposed to be the voice of the people and people's disenchantment with the Parliamentary system would risk the relevance of this 60 year old institution of our society.