|The recently concluded Budget Session of Parliament was, by all
accounts, the least productive in at least a decade, marked by protest,
adjournment, and very little constructive debate, let alone passage of
bills. Firstpost will examine, by way of a multi-part series
spread across a six-week span, the reasons why the parliamentary process
in particular, and the democratic apparatus in general, has failed
India's citizens. The clutch of essays, written by experts in the
Constitution and constitutional law, will investigate the defects,
introduced by design, that have enabled the degeneration of legislative
functioning. Series curated by Bangalore-based lawyer and tutor of
democracy and active citizenship, Malavika Prasad.
The primary function of Parliament is to hold the government
accountable. The Constitution states that the Council of Ministers
(Executive) will be collectively responsible to the Lok Sabha. There
have been instances in the past where the Parliament has been unable to
carry out this responsibility effectively.
The recent Budget Session of Parliament was the least productive in over a decade. PTI
Most recently, the Budget Session was washed out due to disruptions
and no business could be transacted. It was the least productive Budget
Session in almost two decades. There were severe disruptions in
Parliament owing to several demands by the Opposition parties, such as
Andhra Pradesh's demand for special status, etc. The Finance Bill was
passed without discussion and the entire budget of over 24 lakh crores
was guillotined (that is, passed without discussion). This session also
witnessed a notice for a no-confidence motion being moved against the
government. In this article, we examine some of the avenues through
which the Parliament exercises its oversight function.
Debates and motions
MPs may raise issues in Parliament through debates or motions.
Debates elicit a reply and motions entail voting. A motion may be moved
in Parliament to discuss important policies of the government and
topical concerns (such as irregularities in the banking sector). In this
Session, irregularities in the banking sector were listed for
discussion; however, it was not taken up due to repeated disruptions.
This alludes to the larger underlying problem of lack of avenues for
the Opposition to voice its concerns. One of the ways to resolve this
gap is to give the Opposition a forum to discuss its concerns. In the
United Kingdom, for instance, 20 days in a session are reserved for
discussion on subjects chosen by the Opposition. This type of
agenda-setting by the Opposition on fixed days may yield to greater
productivity in Parliament.
Apart from these, if it appears that the Council does not have the
confidence of the House, a motion of no-confidence may also be moved,
forcing the government to prove its majority in the House. As per the
Constitution, the Council of Ministers holds office only as long as it
has the confidence of Lok Sabha. If the motion is admitted, the
government is bound to vacate office.
This seeks to ensure that in a parliamentary democracy, a government
remains in power only as long as it has the support of members directly
elected by the people. Till date, 26 no-confidence motions have been
Parliament recognises the primacy of the no-confidence motion and it
is always taken up on priority over other government business. In the
Budget Session, a notice was given to move a no-confidence motion
against the government. However, the Speaker failed to take up the
motion citing disruptions in the House.
Various issues may also be debated in Parliament to discuss the
functioning of the government. In the past, such discussions have
included topics such as the agrarian crisis, rise in prices, corruption,
etc. In this session, no issues of public importance were taken for
discussion. In order to improve government accountability in Parliament,
in the UK and Australia, the Opposition forms a shadow cabinet. Under
such a system, Opposition MPs track a certain portfolio, scrutinise its
performance and suggest alternative programs. This allows for detailed
tracking and scrutiny of ministries and assists MPs in making
Every day when Parliament is in session, one hour is reserved for the
Question Hour. During the Question Hour, MPs raise questions to
ministers on any aspect of functioning or policy-making. This hour
allows MPs to question the government on its policies and is vital in
ensuring accountability of the Executive.
In the 16th Lok Sabha, Question Hour functioned for 56 percent of its
scheduled time and, 18.5 percent of the questions were answered orally.
In several years, time was lost due to disruptions in the House. In
such a situation, the Speaker has been given the powers to suspend the
disrupting MPs. In the Budget Session, this power was not exercised by
the Speaker. While Parliament can sit for additional hours to transact
other business, any time lost during Question Hour is not made up.
Parliamentary Committees are constituted to scrutinise the actions
and policies of the government in greater detail. Since Parliament has
limited time for discussing a legislation or issues, these committees
provide a platform for detailed deliberation and discussion. They
examine finances, legislation, and working of ministries. The
recommendations of these committees are not binding on the House.
However, in the past, several bills, such as the constitutional
amendment to levy GST was referred to a committee and its
recommendations served to strengthen the provisions of the Bill. In the
16th Lok Sabha, 27 percent of Bills introduced in Parliament have been
referred to a committee, which is low when compared to earlier Lok
In countries such as the UK, Bills are mandatorily referred to
committees of both Houses of Parliament. These committees have the power
to amend Bills. However, their amendments may be overturned by MPs
during a discussion on the Bill. In contrast, in India, the Speaker or
Chairman decides whether to refer a Bill to a parliamentary committee.
The National Commission to review the working of the Constitution
(NCRWC) has recommended that all Bills should be referred to committees.
The President of India has been given certain legislative powers,
such as promulgating ordinances. This may be on the recommendation of
the Council of Ministers. The Supreme Court held in 1986 that the power
to promulgate ordinance is a tool meant to be used in extraordinary
circumstances, and not as a substitute for the law-making powers of the
In the 16th Lok Sabha, 33 ordinances
have been promulgated. In some cases, the government has re-promulgated
lapsed Ordinance. For example, the Enemy Property (Amendment) Ordinance
has been re-promulgated five times. Other countries such as the US,
Canada and the UK do not confer such legislative powers upon the
Executive. In case of an urgent requirement, an emergency session of the
Parliament may be convened.
Number of Sittings
In India, even though the Parliament is entrusted with examining the
functioning of the policies and actions of the government and holding it
accountable, it does not have the power to convene itself. The
president, on the advice of the Council of Ministers, is responsible for
summoning Parliament, and therefore, indirectly deciding when
Parliament should exercise its oversight functions over the government.
In the 16th Lok Sabha, Parliament has met for 287 days over a span of
four years. In certain countries such as the UK and Australia, the
number of sittings is calendared in advance at the beginning of the
year. In Pakistan, the Speaker is required to summon Parliament if
one-fourth of the members requisition in writing. This allows for
greater business to be transacted within the Parliament itself. The
NCRWC has recommended fixing the minimum number of working days for Lok
Sabha and Rajya Sabha at 120 and 100 days respectively.
There are safeguards built into the parliamentary system to protect
against disruptions. In places where there are institutional lacunae to
fill, our Parliament may borrow from the established norms of other
parliamentary systems. Only then can Parliament hold the government
accountable and effectively scrutinise its functioning.
The author is a senior analyst at PRS Legislative Research.