How the budget session let down the spirit of parliamentary democracy

The session saw Parliament doing a lot of work. But effective legislatures are measured by their outcomes and not by their output. It is time for the government and Opposition parties to prioritise their legislative responsibilities.

Poor planning and check-marking of the law-making process are the troubling highlights of the budget session of Parliament. These are not new in the highest legislative body’s functioning. But they are now bordering on becoming routine.

Last year, the pandemic derailed parliamentary functioning. So after a hiatus of four months, Parliament convened at the end of January for the budget session. The plan was for the two Houses to meet for 33 days. Instead, the session was cut short to 24 days. Political parties joined hands, asking for curtailing the session to campaign in the upcoming five assembly elections.

Ideally, the parliamentary calendar should be sacrosanct and its dates planned in advance. And this requires planning on part of the government, which is entrusted by the Constitution with convening Parliament. The approximate time-frame of assembly elections is known well in advance. For example, the tenure of the Punjab, Goa and Manipur assemblies will end in March next year. So elections will take place in these states in February and March 2022, clashing with next year’s budget session. So the dates for the session can be decided now and such planning will ensure that the sittings of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha don’t have to be cut short.

Since campaigning was heating up in the second half of the budget session, the benches in the two Houses were empty. Several Members of Parliament (MPs) did not turn up in Question Hour to get responses from government ministers. Average attendance in the Lok Sabha dipped to 71% and in the Rajya Sabha to 74%.

But this careful planning of the parliamentary calendar has been missing in successive governments. In 2001, during the term of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, the budget session was cut short by eight days due to state elections in five states. Again in 2011, the budget session had to be cut short because of state elections during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tenure.

Government’s legislative business also suffered because of the absence of planning. Last October, when Parliament was not in session and immediate action was required, the government used its ordinance-making power to set up a commission for air quality management for the national capital region. The ordinance was brought in because immediate action was required. But during the budget session, the government missed the deadline for getting parliamentary approval for the commission. As a result, the commission had to be disbanded. The government was also planning to introduce 19 new bills during the session. But, by the end of the session, it could only bring 13 bills before Parliament.

The other worrying aspect of the session was the lack of scrutiny of government legislation in Parliament. Since laws have a large impact on society and address legal and policy issues, they require careful consideration by subject-specific parliamentary committees. A short three-page amendment to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act passed during the session illustrates this point. Introduced last year in March, it increases the period in which abortions may be carried out to 24 weeks (age of the foetus) . It has implications for abortions for victims of sexual violence after the 24-week period. The law requires abortions to be performed by doctors with specialisation in gynaecology or obstetrics and there is a shortage of such doctors in rural areas. So it also raises the issue of access to safe abortions in rural areas.

Scrutiny by a committee, with inputs from the government and other stakeholders, would have ironed out these issues. So far, in the Lok Sabha, 11% of the bills passed by Parliament were examined by a subject committee. In the budget session, the government turned down multiple demands for sending bills to committees and it took Parliament an average of 10 days to pass the 11 bills.

The session saw Parliament doing a lot of work. But effective legislatures are measured by their outcomes and not by their output. It is time for the government and Opposition parties to prioritise their legislative responsibilities. Because better outcomes are a result of careful planning and robust mechanisms of scrutiny. Such measures will affirm peoples trust in Parliament and strengthen the foundation of our democracy.

Chakshu Roy is the head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research

The views expressed are personal