Recently the Chairman of Rajya Sabha issued a direction to extend the sitting hours and change the timing of Question Hour in the Upper House. Beginning with the Winter Session, which starts on November 24, Rajya Sabha will meet from 11 am to 6 pm, an hour more than its typical sitting hours. Question Hour will be scheduled from 12 pm to 1 pm, which was earlier held in the first hour of meeting. Members of Parliament (MPs), in addition to their legislative capacity, play an important role to keep the government accountable. One mechanism for them to hold the government responsible for its policies and actions is Question Hour in Parliament. During Question Hour, MPs raise questions to Ministers on various policy matters and decisions. Currently, all MPs can submit up to ten questions for every day that Parliament is in Session. Of these, 250 Questions are picked up by a random ballot to be answered each day that Parliament meets. While 230 Questions are answered in writing by Ministries, 20 Questions are scheduled to be answered orally by Ministers on the floor of the House. When a Question is answered orally by a Minister, MPs are also able to ask him/her two Supplementary Questions as a follow up to the response given. Therefore the proper functioning of Question Hour allows Parliament to be effective in its accountability function. Over the years Question Hour has become a major casualty to disruptions in Parliament. The last decade has seen a decline in the number of questions answered orally on the floor of the House. Rajya Sabha had tried to address this problem in 2011, when Question Hour was shifted to be held from 2 pm to 3 pm, but this was discontinued within a few days. The 2014 Budget Session saw both Houses of Parliament work for over hundred percent of their scheduled sitting time. However, while Question Hour functioned for 87% of its scheduled time in Lok Sabha, it functioned for only 40% of its scheduled time in Rajya Sabha. In 13 of the 27 sittings of the 2014 Budget Session, Question Hour in Rajya Sabha was adjourned within a few minutes due to disruptions. It was as a result of these increasing disruptions in the Upper House that the change in timing of the Question Hour and extension of its hours of sitting were proposed. While the Rules of Procedures of Rajya Sabha designate the first hour of sitting for Question Hour, they also allow the Chairman of the House to direct otherwise. It is using this Rule that the Chairman of Rajya Sabha, Mr. Hamid Ansari, issued directions for the Question Hour to be shifted to noon. It now remains to be seen whether this change in timing of Question Hour in the Upper House will be sufficient to allow for its smoother functioning. Sources: M.N. Kaul and S.L. Shakdher, Practice and Procedure of Parliament, Lok Sabha Secretariat, 6th Edition, 2009 Rajya Sabha Rules of Procedure, Rajya Sabha Secretariat, 2010
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.
The Lok Sabha adjourns today for a three-week recess. The Rajya Sabha is scheduled to adjourned on March 18. Here’s a brief look at the activity of Parliament this session (data till March 15): Productive Hours: The session has witnessed more than its fair share of disruptions. In the 14 sitting days, over 22 hours has been lost to interruptions in the Lok Sabha and over 26 hours in the Rajya Sabha. The number of productive hours so far is 53 and 50 hours in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha respectively. [Click here to compare with previous sessions.] The session began with protests by the Opposition, putting pressure on the Government to schedule a debate on price rise. After the presentation of the Budget, the protests revolved around the petroleum price hike. The disruptions in the Rajya Sabha were on account of the Women’s Reservation Bill, which resulted in the suspension of seven MPs. On March 9 the Rajya Sabha was adjourned five times, before the passage of the Bill. Legislative business: This session, the government had listed 63 Bills for introduction, 16 pending Bills for consideration and passing and 10 pending Bills for consideration and passing if their Standing Committee reports are submitted. Other than financial business transacted, which includes passage of Demand for Grants and Appropriation Bills, the only legislation that has been passed so far is the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha. The Lok Sabha also has passed one Bill that replaces an Ordinance - the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Bill. In the 14 sitting days, the House has spent 6 hours on legislative business. Question Hour: Another important aspect of parliamentary business is the Question Hour. Interestingly, the Lok Sabha rules were amended before the start of this session to ensure that the absence of MPs does not result in the collapse of Question Hour. However, the amount of time spent on questions in both Houses this session has remained under 5 hours.
Unlike the Parliamentary system, the concept of 'question hour' or 'question time' doesn't really exist in the American legislature. Here's an interesting report done by the Congressional Research Service on the possibility of a question time in the US. From our point of view, the report is interesting because it reviews the existing provisions for a Parliamentary Question Time in different countries (India isn't mentioned), and considers the pros and cons of such a system. The report concludes: "Whether the question period would be successful in a system of separated powers depends in large part on the attitude of its participants and on the format the question period ultimately assumes. The question period has the potential of involving more rank-and-file Members in the policy-making process, and improving the means of communication between executive departments and the Congress. It also could harden relations between the Congress and the Executive, and might increase the level of partisan controversy in Congress." There's even an online petition among a few american bloggers to push for a question time in the US. Read about it here. In this country of course, parliamentary questions are an established feature of the work of Parliament. Parliamentary questions cover a huge range of topics and can be an mine of information and data about government policy. The Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha sites put the complete text of all parliamentary questions (and the responses to them) online.