Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Do We Need Parliamentary Democracy?

Updated: June 26, 2010 10:47 am

Had the country’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru been alive today and witnessed the goings on in the “Temple of Democracy” he would definitely have been put to shame and even wondered whether this country did deserve this after the hard fought freedom struggle. Over the years it has been seen specially since the mid-1980s that parliament which was meant to be a source of debate and information has been reduced to a place where street battles and agitational politics is resorted to by members attempting to score some brownie points.

            As was seen in 2007, 40 per cent of legislative bills were passed with less than one hour of debate and this has been a cause of concern for those who are strong votaries of

Parliamentary democracy as this kind of behaviour of members has eroded the credibility of our legislatures as effective institutions capable of delivering public goods and contributing to effective formulation of laws. Even though several leaders including former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee have always held the question hour to be sacrosanct but it is indeed a sorry commentary that not much effort has been made to ensure that it went off smoothly for party interest always overtook other issues.

            Now the presiding officers of both Houses are considering shifting the question hour from the first hour when it is taken up soon after the houses assemble for the day to some other time. It would indeed be a sad commentary were this to happen. Were the question hour to be taken up in the post lunch session, it could be even worse than what happened in the last winter session when 28 MPs absented themselves from the Lok Sabha during question hour leading to its collapse. One wonders whether the members do realise the amount of money spent on conducting business and the human effort that goes into preparing the answers to the queries raised by them and to the supplementaries put by them. As was calculated recently that it costs Rs 1.23 crore to run a day’s session of Parliament. An estimate by the Lok Sabha Secretariat said every minute of the session costs the exchequer Rs 23, 083. Today, because of inflation, the costs would have only gone up.

            On February 24, 1951, a Member, RK Sidhwa, had stated that the Question Hour then cost Rs 6,000 per hour or Rs 1,000 per minute. Later, on April 20, 1963, the House was told during a discussion that a day’s sitting of the Lok Sabha cost Rs 25,000. The then Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, told the Rajya Sabha on December 6, 1966, that every hour of Parliament cost the nation Rs 18,000 or Rs 300 per minute. It may be recalled here that on April 3, 1981, the then Minister of State for Finance, SS Sisodia, said that based on the notional number of working days (excluding second Saturdays, Sundays and 16 closed days) the average expenditure on Parliament worked out to Rs 3.39 lakh per day or Rs 48,000 per hour.

            Apart from the financial implications, there are the countless man-hours that goes into the preparation for the question hour as government officers alongwith ministers have to compile the answers and for this an entire army of officials is deployed. Of course there are also many members who are serious about business and many of them and their supporting staff burn midnight oil to prepare the questions, special mentions, notices of calling attention motions and various other Parliamentary devices to elicit vital information from the Government on behalf of the people they represent. All this stupendous effort comes to a naught when the House stands adjourned without transacting any business.

            It was seen in the recently concluded budget session of Parliament that question hour could not be taken up for four days in the Lok Sabha and seven days in the Rajya Sabha in the second part of the session as opposition sought to raise various issues. The idea of shifting the question hour gained ground during the budget session when 115 working hours out of 385 of both the Houses were lost due to frequent disruptions and walkouts. What is indeed a poor commentary on the performance of Parliament is that of the total 620 starred questions admitted during the budget session in the Rajya Sabha, only 92, or 14 per cent, were called in the House while in the Lok Sabha, only 12 per cent of starred questions received a verbal response.

            As a leading newspaper in its editorial said about the move to shift question hour that at every discussion on the subject MPs insist question hour is sacrosanct, promise to shun disturbing it but politicians’ promises ever prove worthless. Yet, even if this is a true reflection of declining standards of legislature functioning, can a decades-long tradition be scrapped only to accommodate the antics of less-than-worthy parliamentarians?

            In fact, rather than talk of shifting of question hour, it is high time leaders of political parties starting from the top Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and his party colleagues like veteran leader         Mr Pranab Mukherjee as also leaders from other political parties like Mrs Sushma Swaraj, Mr Basudeb Acharia, Mr Gurudas Dasgupta, Mr Sitaram Yechury and Mr Arun Jaitley and not to forget the Yadav triumvirate of Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Yadav sat down and chalked out a code which would ensure that this crucial hour of Parliament is not disrupted by their party colleagues in their “over enthusiasm.”

            However, the Rajya Sabha Rules Committee sought to resolve this issue by amending the rules under

which in order to put question hour to maximum use, even if the mover of the question was absent, it would be taken up. Under this initiative, if the main questioner is absent, the Chair will allow three other members to put supplementaries during question hour, considered an important avenue to get the government’s response on various issues. But, the Lok Sabha witnessed a rather embarrassing situation during the last winter session when question hour collapsed on November 30 when 28 members who had given notices for questions were absent. An examination of the statistics truly reveals the rapid fall in standard of parliament and arouses the debate whether we need the temple of democracy.

            In 2008, for instance, Parliament passed 16 of the 36 bills, barring finance and appropriation bills, in less than 20 minutes, most of them without discussion. The amount of time spent on debating a Bill has dwindled over the recent years. In 2005, seven legislations were passed in less than 20 minutes. Nine Bills in 2006 and 14 in 2007 were passed within such a brief time-frame. Looking back on the performance of the previous Lok Sabhas. The first Lok Sabha spent the maximum time of 48.8 per cent on debating legislations. By the eighth Lok Sabha, the time devoted by both Houses to legislative business shrunk to 24.9 per cent and the figure dropped even further to just around 20 per cent in recent years. Interestingly, the Rajya Sabha has been spending more time on legislations averaging around 25 per cent.

            Between 2006 and 2008, the number of Bills passed without any discussion or barely any debate by the Lok Sabha rose from 17 per cent to 41 per cent. On the other hand, the number of legislations debated for two hours or more dropped from 39 per cent in 2005 to 24 per cent in 2007. The Elders, however, passed only 32 per cent of Bills without

discussion. One in every four Lok Sabha MPs and one in two Rajya Sabha MPs participated in some debate on a Bill.

            In 2008, the Lok Sabha worked for just 46 days during the entire year, the lowest ever. The only other years with less than 60 sittings were election years of 2004 and 1999. The average number of Lok Sabha sittings has been 97 per year. The number of Parliament sittings has also witnessed a steady drop from 1950s when it had crossed 140. The attendance of MPs too would have been the lowest in 2008 but for the trust vote, when it peaked to nearly 100 per cent. People may not have forgotten the daily din and disruption during the 14th Lok Sabha between 2004 and 2009. The house witnessed several unprecedented events that showed the Indian parliamentary democracy in poorest light.

            It appeared that even the house proceedings being telecast live failed to have any impact on the members for it seemed to be having an different result as members became even more physical forcing an exasperated Speaker Somnath Chatterjee to observe. “The nation is watching you, please conduct yourselves as honourable members,” as the house proceedings plunged into chaos at the drop of a hat. The chaos climaxed during the trust vote in July 2008 when currency notes allegedly given as bribes to some BJP members were brought to the house and emptied on the floor.

            The monsoon session of Parliament was called off four days ahead of schedule. The Lok Sabha lost as many as 41 working hours and Rajya Sabha 42 working hours. The question hour could not be taken up by the Lok Sabha on eight days and Rajya Sabha on seven days. Parliamentary Affairs Minister PK Bansal said the Lok Sabha lost 70 hours or 36.6 per cent of its scheduled time due to walkouts and disruptions while Rajya Sabha lost 45 hours or 28 per cent of its time.

            The session began on February 22 and ended on May 7 with a month-long recess. A study by Delhi-based PRS Legislative Research said the “total productive time in Lok Sabha was 138 hours or 66 per cent of scheduled time, while it was 130 hours, or 74 per cent, in Rajya Sabha.” During the Winter session in 2009, the productive time in Lok Sabha was 76 per cent and it was 88 per cent in the Rajya Sabha. The government could only get six of the 27 planned Bills cleared during this session, the biggest of the year. Half of the Bills were passed without discussion due to pandemonium on issues such as price rise, Women’s Reservation Bill and the IPL controversy, says the study.

By Sri Krishna

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