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House of Lost Opportunities

The last few days have seen repeated disruptions in Parliament. In an Opinion Editorial published in the Indian Express, Chakshu Roy of PRS Legislative Research discusses the impact of the current disruptions on Parliament. His analysis points to how disruptions are an opportunity lost  to hold the government accountable and to deliberate on significant legislative and policy issues.

The second half of the budget session commenced last week with hardly any business transacted due to disruptions on different issues. This is not new. The 15th Lok Sabha has seen entire parliamentary sessions lost without any work being done. As it nears the end of its term, Parliament’s productive time stands at 70 per cent, which is significantly lower than that of previous Lok Sabhas.

As disruptions in Parliament have become routine, public reaction to such disruptions has also become predictable. Figures depicting the quantum of taxpayers’ money lost every hour that Parliament does not function start doing the rounds, and the cry for docking the salary of disrupting members of Parliament becomes louder. What does not get adequate attention is the opportunity lost for holding the government accountable and deliberating on important legislative and policy issues.

MPs are required to keep the government in check and oversee its functioning. One of the ways in which they do so is by asking ministers questions about the work done by their ministries. Ministers respond to such questions during the first hour of Parliament, which is known as question hour. During this hour, 20 questions are slotted for oral responses by ministers. Based on the response, MPs can cross-question and corner the minister by asking supplementary questions. On certain occasions, they are also able to extract assurances from the minister to take action on certain issues. When question hour is disrupted, not only are these opportunities lost, it also leads to ineffective scrutiny of the work done by the various ministries of the government. Last week, some of the questions that could not be orally answered related to four-laning of highways, performance of public sector steel companies, supply of food grains for welfare schemes, and generic versions of cancer drugs. In 2012, out of the 146 hours allocated for question hour in both Houses of Parliament, roughly only 57 hours were utilised. Since the beginning of the 15th Lok Sabha in 2009, approximately 43 per cent of the allocated time has been spent on question hour.

When Parliament is disrupted regularly, its capacity to make laws is affected. Excluding routine financial legislation, since 2009, the government had planned to introduce 390 bills. So far, it has been able to introduce only 187 of them. It had also planned to have 365 bills scrutinised and passed by Parliament. So far, 96 of them have received parliamentary approval. Disruptions in Parliament also eat into the time available for discussing a bill in the house. In Lok Sabha, roughly 35 per cent of bills were passed with an hour or less of debate, a case being the sexual harassment bill, which was passed by Lok Sabha in September of last year in 16 minutes. Some would argue that since parliamentary committees scrutinise most bills in detail, there is no harm done if the bills are not debated in the House. However scrutiny of a bill behind closed doors is hardly a substitute for spirited debates on the merits and demerits of a bill on the floor of the House. Currently there are 115 bills awaiting parliamentary scrutiny and approval. Important social and economic legislation is currently pending before Parliament. The food security bill, the land acquisition bill, the companies and the goods and services tax bill are just a few of them.

Out of the laundry list of pending bills, some are political and may be stuck in Parliament till consensus around them can be built. But there are a number of bills that are administrative in nature, and have no political undercurrents and are possibly not coming up for discussion because of the limited time that is available for legislative debate on account of frequent disruptions.

In September 1997, to celebrate the golden jubilee of the country’s Independence, a special session of Parliament was convened. At this special session, MPs had resolved to preserve and enhance the dignity of Parliament by adhering to the rules of procedure of Parliament relating to the orderly conduct of parliamentary proceedings. Last year, Parliament completed 60 years since its first sitting. To mark the occasion, another special session of both Houses was convened, where MPs had resolved to uphold the dignity, sanctity and supremacy of Parliament. Ensuring that the proceedings of both Houses run smoothly so that Parliament can discharge its responsibility effectively is the best way of ensuring its supremacy. The question that needs to be asked is whether our members of Parliament are ready to stand by the resolutions that they voluntarily adopted.