The Question Hour

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Parliamentary Sessions in India have a knack of attracting public attention and becoming pivotal point for discussions across the barriers of caste, creed, color, age, gender or the income group. In one sense, it truly represents the unity in diversity aspect of Indian system of governance. The Constitution of India provides for conducting of at-least two sessions in one year by way of limiting the time-gap between two parliamentary sessions for a time period not exceeding six months. However, as an established practice, generally three sessions of Parliament are conducted in a single year i.e. the Budget Session, the Monsoon Session & the Winter Session. The business conducted by the Parliament during these sessions often transpires into laws, policies and regulations or acts as a barrier to the march of majority and therefore, in both the scenarios, it maintains its importance for public. The Monsoon Session of Parliament of India, which is set to begin from 14th September, has already stoked a controversy by notifying the omission of the “Question Hour” from its daily proceedings in both Rajya Sabha & Lok Sabha. A notification issued by the Secretariats of both the Houses ahead of the Monsoon Session, in a cryptic manner, has utilized Covid-19 virus as the cause behind skipping of Question Hour along with other slew of measures aimed at upholding the norms of social distancing and preventing spread of virus through remote physical contact. The scheduled Monsoon Session has critical importance as the parliament meets for the first time since the outbreak of Covid-19 virus in India, being the longest time gap ever recorded between two session of Indian Parliament i.e., a gap of 175 days. As the opposition parties are expected to corner the government over the massive contraction of GDP ever recorded in a fiscal quarter (-23%) which is being largely attributed to the lockdown imposed to check the spread of Covid-19 virus while the same virus continues to record highest spikes in positive cases in India per day, the issues of migrant labour crises, recurrent Chinese intrusion at various points of LAC, conducting of NEET/JEE exams amid raging pandemic and the non-disbursal of GST compensation to states, the scheduled Monsoon Session could be termed as the toughest session for the current dispensation.

As a vital apparatus of parliamentary proceeding, the Question Hour is regulated under the Rules of Procedure & Conduct of Business, framed and implemented by each house of the Parliament itself, which is a constitutional power conferred upon the parliament under Article 118. The vitality of Question Hour, however, lies in its ability to outwit and out-flank the government by making protected space for members of opposition to pose questions without providing advance notice to the ministers of government, thereby implying a measure of checks and balances in institutions of governance. Numerous instances of various scandals and grafts coming to fore can be attributed to the vitality of the Question Hour, as such, it became a regular feature in the proceedings of Rajya Sabha as well, wherein it was initially held for two days in a week only.  It is for these reasons and the current nation-wide depreciating situation created by the outbreak of Covid-19, that the exclusion of “Question Hour” is being firmly opposed by the occupants of the other side of the benches. As a cosmetic measure, only un-starred questions (questions which are furnished in writing and answered by the concerned ministry in writing) are being allowed while as the starred questions and supplementary questions which form the essence of a parliamentary debate are being discarded. However, it may also be pointed out that it is not the first instance wherein the Question Hour is being skipped from a routine parliamentary session. The Winter Session of 1962, when Indo-Sino war had almost reached its conclusion, was the first instance of exclusion of Question Hour from a parliamentary session. Similarly, in 1971, the Bangladesh War prompted the suspension of Question Hour and Calling Attention Matters from the Winter Session of Parliament. Subsequently, during the nation-wide emergency declared by the Indira Gandhi Administration, at least two sessions of Parliament featured the exclusion of “Question Hour” i.e. the Monsoon Session of 1975 & the Winter Session of 1976. As pointed out, in the first two situations, the country was under the threat of war and therefore, suspension of “Question Hour” could be very-well justified. But during the dark-age of internal emergency, the suspension of “Question Hour” has been unanimously termed as a curb imposed against democracy.

In a democratic set-up, the Parliament assumes the highest regard and therefore, it is also burdened with the highest responsibility. It is responsible towards the people of its nation. Since, the outbreak of Covid-19, the dispensation became overtly engaged in devising & implementing mechanisms to curb the spread of deadly virus. As many as 900 central government notifications and nearly 6000 state government notifications issued at various stages for managing pandemic since its outbreak certify the efforts of the government machinery, albeit, only on papers. The real implementation is certified and echoed by the people of nation who find voice through their elected representatives in a democratic setup. The money spent by the Disaster Management Authority of India at various levels of governance is subject to the scrutiny of people. While majority of businesses suffered huge losses and a good number of businesses among them were subjected to closure, the blanket of emergency provisions has effectively shielded certain chosen and blue-eyed businesses houses that directly benefited in this War against Corona. The scrutiny of such elements is also necessary. And therefore, the inclusion of “Question Hour” is a must. Ironical as it may seem, but even “the exclusion of the Question Hour” was not debated or put up to democratic procedure which essentially negates the sanctity of Parliament as a democratic institution. On the contrary, the research wing of Rajya Sabha came up with the analysis of actual work done during the year 2015 to 2019, whereby it was revealed that only 40% of the time was utilized by the members of Parliament to speak while the rest of the 60% was lost to disruptions. The presentation of analysis by the research wing of Rajya Sabha is its official mandate; however, the timing of presentation has a semblance of justification on behalf of the government. In basic terms, it is creation of a counter-narrative to choke one of the important apparatus of parliamentary procedure by pointing out the utility of such apparatus in terms of numbers whereas it basically needs to be measured in terms of power it confers upon a citizen. An inference of such data could also point out towards the era of unaccountability and mismanagement of public resources by the current administration which has failed miserably to answer the genuine queries of public or hasn’t been able to utilize the time of Question Hour properly.

A functioning democracy is always tested in the times of crisis and its score is directly proportional to the methods and policies adopted by the system to manage such crisis while protecting the institutions and apparatus of democracy. Parliament of India has been widely regarded as one such institution and the citizens of India look upon it as a building housing their national aspirations. As the Monsoon Session convenes, the people expect the government to address their concerns in the most humane, genuine and democratic manner and not by stifling their voices.

Hanan Moumin is a practicing advocate.