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How Parliament must deal with disruptions

It should look beyond the punishment model of dealing with disruptions. And while a change in procedure will help, it is the spirit of accommodation and compromise that will provide a long-term solution to interruptions
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In 1992, former President KR Narayanan described indiscipline and disorder in the legislative bodies as “Infantile disorders or the measles of the middle-age” which “...are bound to pass, but pass they must, otherwise the system will be in mortal danger”. (Hindustan Times)
Updated on Dec 25, 2021 07:26 PM IST
ByChakshu Roy

There is one word that describes Parliament in 2021: Disrupted. Last year, the national legislature was missing during the coronavirus pandemic, and only met for 33 days. This year, people hoped it would make up for lost time. The expectation was that the institution would devote itself to addressing the challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic and other vital issues such as tensions with China. But the Lok Sabha (LS) and the Rajya Sabha (RS) were in session for only 59 days, 11 days less than planned for the year. And even on the days that the two Houses met, there was no shortage of subjects to derail their functioning. Throughout the year, political parties traded charges about who was responsible for violating the sanctity of our legislature.

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru spelt out the role of political parties in our democracy. He said, “We prize the parliamentary form of government because it is a peaceful method of dealing with problems. It is a method of argument, discussion and decision, and of accepting that decision, even though one may not agree with it. However, the minority in a parliamentary government has a very important role to play. Naturally, the majority, by the mere fact that it is a majority must have its way. But a majority which ignores the minority is not working in the true spirit of parliamentary democracy.”

At the beginning of the winter session, there was hope that the repealing of the farm laws would pave the way for debate. But those hopes were dashed with the suspension of 12 RS Members of Parliament (MPs) for their disorderly conduct in the previous monsoon session. And therein lies the problem with the institutional response to disruptions. Simply disciplining MPs has not, and will not, address the issues of decorum and disorder in the two Houses. Only systematically addressing the imbalance between the government and MPs, combined with bringing certainty to legislative functioning, can solve disruptions.

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The two Houses of Parliament have detailed rules of procedure that guide every aspect of their functioning. The legislature hasn’t overhauled these rules for the last 50 years, and they tend to skew in the favour of the government.

For example, MPs ask questions to the government and get it to respond during Question Hour. It is the most visible aspect of Parliament holding the executive responsible for its work. MPs have to submit these questions 15 days in advance. And it makes sense because the government would need time to find the required information and formulate its response to their queries. But the rules don’t extend the same courtesy to MPs.

In the recently concluded winter session, the government pushed through Parliament the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021. It links electoral roll data with Aadhaar ID and allows the updating of electoral rolls four times a year. The bill was not part of the government’s legislative agenda that it announced at the beginning of the session. So, it came as a surprise to the Lok Sabha MPs when the government expressed its intention of introducing and passing the bill on December 20. The bill was then passed by the RS the next day while MPs questioned the government’s urgency in getting the bill passed and urged for its detailed scrutiny by a parliamentary committee. Ideally, legislators should get adequate time and not just a day or two to study the bill in detail to formulate their views on it. Parliamentary rules prioritising government business leads to resentment in MPs.

It then brings us to another concern regarding the certainty of legislative functioning. There is no fixed process for scrutiny of laws by Parliament. Some legal proposals get passed in minutes, and others remain pending for years. The oldest bill pending in the RS was introduced by the government in 1992, and seven others have been pending for 10 years. Also, there is no fixed process of legislative discussion. Some laws only get debated on the floor of Parliament. Others go through rigorous scrutiny by a parliamentary committee. For example, four bills were sent to parliamentary committees for detailed scrutiny in the winter session. While this is a welcome step, there is no clear reason why the others, like the election laws amendment bill, were not referred to a committee. A subject committee of Parliament that has expertise on a particular ministry will examine three of the bills. The fourth one, the Biological Diversity (Amendment) Bill, 2021, will be looked at by a Joint Parliament Committee (JPC) set up for this purpose. Ideally, this bill should have been looked at by the science and technology committee.

Similarly, in 2019, the personal data protection bills should have been examined by the committee on information and technology. It was also referred to a JPC as the rules allow the minister piloting the law to refer it to a joint committee. Also, the rules give the presiding officers of the two Houses discretion in deciding which bills to refer to a committee. Ministers cite the importance of their ministry’s proposal and urge the presiding officers not to refer their bill to a committee. If a law is either urgent or essential, it should undergo an exhaustive scrutiny process and not bypass it. It would ensure that a law passed by Parliament does not fail judicial scrutiny or cannot accomplish its desired objective. When the government rushes bills, it creates further discontent among MPs.

But parliamentary procedure should not take all the blame for the laxity of parliamentary scrutiny. Laws on which there is an agreement between political parties are usually passed without any debate or without referring to a committee. And if such a law is challenged before the court, there is no material to indicate the legislature’s intent in passing such a law. To take care of both scenarios — that is, the government trying to rush, and political agreement — Parliament should change its rules to require all bills to be examined by its subject matter committees.

In 1992, former President KR Narayanan described indiscipline and disorder in the legislative bodies as “Infantile disorders or the measles of the middle-age” which “...are bound to pass, but pass they must, otherwise the system will be in mortal danger”.

In the coming year, our Parliament should look beyond the punishment model of dealing with disruptions. And while a change in procedure will help, it is the spirit of accommodation and compromise that will provide a long-term solution to parliamentary disruption. The events of this year should make political parties realise that their inability to resolve their differences is weakening Parliament.

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

The views expressed are personal

There is one word that describes Parliament in 2021: Disrupted. Last year, the national legislature was missing during the coronavirus pandemic, and only met for 33 days. This year, people hoped it would make up for lost time. The expectation was that the institution would devote itself to addressing the challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic and other vital issues such as tensions with China. But the Lok Sabha (LS) and the Rajya Sabha (RS) were in session for only 59 days, 11 days less than planned for the year. And even on the days that the two Houses met, there was no shortage of subjects to derail their functioning. Throughout the year, political parties traded charges about who was responsible for violating the sanctity of our legislature.

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru spelt out the role of political parties in our democracy. He said, “We prize the parliamentary form of government because it is a peaceful method of dealing with problems. It is a method of argument, discussion and decision, and of accepting that decision, even though one may not agree with it. However, the minority in a parliamentary government has a very important role to play. Naturally, the majority, by the mere fact that it is a majority must have its way. But a majority which ignores the minority is not working in the true spirit of parliamentary democracy.”

At the beginning of the winter session, there was hope that the repealing of the farm laws would pave the way for debate. But those hopes were dashed with the suspension of 12 RS Members of Parliament (MPs) for their disorderly conduct in the previous monsoon session. And therein lies the problem with the institutional response to disruptions. Simply disciplining MPs has not, and will not, address the issues of decorum and disorder in the two Houses. Only systematically addressing the imbalance between the government and MPs, combined with bringing certainty to legislative functioning, can solve disruptions.

RELATED STORIES

The two Houses of Parliament have detailed rules of procedure that guide every aspect of their functioning. The legislature hasn’t overhauled these rules for the last 50 years, and they tend to skew in the favour of the government.

For example, MPs ask questions to the government and get it to respond during Question Hour. It is the most visible aspect of Parliament holding the executive responsible for its work. MPs have to submit these questions 15 days in advance. And it makes sense because the government would need time to find the required information and formulate its response to their queries. But the rules don’t extend the same courtesy to MPs.

In the recently concluded winter session, the government pushed through Parliament the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021. It links electoral roll data with Aadhaar ID and allows the updating of electoral rolls four times a year. The bill was not part of the government’s legislative agenda that it announced at the beginning of the session. So, it came as a surprise to the Lok Sabha MPs when the government expressed its intention of introducing and passing the bill on December 20. The bill was then passed by the RS the next day while MPs questioned the government’s urgency in getting the bill passed and urged for its detailed scrutiny by a parliamentary committee. Ideally, legislators should get adequate time and not just a day or two to study the bill in detail to formulate their views on it. Parliamentary rules prioritising government business leads to resentment in MPs.

It then brings us to another concern regarding the certainty of legislative functioning. There is no fixed process for scrutiny of laws by Parliament. Some legal proposals get passed in minutes, and others remain pending for years. The oldest bill pending in the RS was introduced by the government in 1992, and seven others have been pending for 10 years. Also, there is no fixed process of legislative discussion. Some laws only get debated on the floor of Parliament. Others go through rigorous scrutiny by a parliamentary committee. For example, four bills were sent to parliamentary committees for detailed scrutiny in the winter session. While this is a welcome step, there is no clear reason why the others, like the election laws amendment bill, were not referred to a committee. A subject committee of Parliament that has expertise on a particular ministry will examine three of the bills. The fourth one, the Biological Diversity (Amendment) Bill, 2021, will be looked at by a Joint Parliament Committee (JPC) set up for this purpose. Ideally, this bill should have been looked at by the science and technology committee.

Similarly, in 2019, the personal data protection bills should have been examined by the committee on information and technology. It was also referred to a JPC as the rules allow the minister piloting the law to refer it to a joint committee. Also, the rules give the presiding officers of the two Houses discretion in deciding which bills to refer to a committee. Ministers cite the importance of their ministry’s proposal and urge the presiding officers not to refer their bill to a committee. If a law is either urgent or essential, it should undergo an exhaustive scrutiny process and not bypass it. It would ensure that a law passed by Parliament does not fail judicial scrutiny or cannot accomplish its desired objective. When the government rushes bills, it creates further discontent among MPs.

But parliamentary procedure should not take all the blame for the laxity of parliamentary scrutiny. Laws on which there is an agreement between political parties are usually passed without any debate or without referring to a committee. And if such a law is challenged before the court, there is no material to indicate the legislature’s intent in passing such a law. To take care of both scenarios — that is, the government trying to rush, and political agreement — Parliament should change its rules to require all bills to be examined by its subject matter committees.

In 1992, former President KR Narayanan described indiscipline and disorder in the legislative bodies as “Infantile disorders or the measles of the middle-age” which “...are bound to pass, but pass they must, otherwise the system will be in mortal danger”.

In the coming year, our Parliament should look beyond the punishment model of dealing with disruptions. And while a change in procedure will help, it is the spirit of accommodation and compromise that will provide a long-term solution to parliamentary disruption. The events of this year should make political parties realise that their inability to resolve their differences is weakening Parliament.

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

The views expressed are personal

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