The 8 minute Parliament

indian parliament

The monsoon session has seen 20 bills passed in both Houses of Parliament, either without discussion or minimal, limited to treasury bench MPs speaking on the legislation. The Rajya Sabha has passed nine bills since the House convened on July 19 and clocked nearly 17 minutes per bill for discussion and passing, as the Centre decided to push the legislative business amidst protests by the Opposition seeking discussion on Pegasus. The Lok Sabha passed 11 bills, each on an average taking about eight minutes. Most of these bills were passed without discussion. In fact, Lok Sabha has not taken up a single issue for discussion even though these laws affect a billion people and their wellbeing.

If some one had to research when parliament last met undisturbed with a full question hour, zero hour, private members’ bills , government bills, discussions, debates, amendments – the entire gamut of parliamentary procedure, one might have to wade through parliamentary archives. According to the think tank , PRS legislative, the 16th Lok Sabha sat for lesser number of days but conducted more legislative business.

All this when we are in the process of constructing a new parliament building to replace the current heritage structure as it is too small. But given the amount of time that is used for legislative business and the number of days for which it convenes, won’t it make sense for the honourable members to just rent a banquet hall or a marriage hall ? After all , it is only a matter of a few hours, isn’t it ?

India’s claim to being the largest democracy in the world rests on the singular activity of conducting elections unfailing every 5 years barring the emergency era where it was once held after 6 years. Crores of Rupees are spent on conducting these periodic exercises. The 2019 elections which created the current parliament cost upward of Rs 50,000. The expectation of the electorate at least is that they will have a parliament where issues and concerns concerning them will be raised and then the government would address them with a sense of inclusion and statesmanship. Possibly if parliament functioned as intended, the number of protests on the streets – some of which turn violent would have come down.

One of the bills in which I had a particular interest was a new bill to deal with human trafficking in the country. The bill has much relevance as we have multiple laws dealing with multiple forms of trafficking. These laws were passed at different points of time and they often contradict each other. The ministry of women and child development circulated a draft for comments. My colleagues and I started putting together comments with a lot of enthusiasm initially. But this plummeted rapidly. The reason was that along the way we had come across an infographic which informed us that the week before parliament had passed 10 bills with a discussion time of less than 10 minutes per bill.

It may be ironical to think today of the Central Legislative Assembly, the precursor to the current parliament. This was set up by the British as a concession under the Government of India Act of 1930 as a consultative body to assist the Viceroy. The Viceroy could overrule any or all of its recommendations or resolutions. Its members were elected through a limited franchise system and many members were nominated by the Viceroy himself. Even so, the legislative proposals presented there were debated clause by clause. Sometimes amendments were proposed and even accepted by the government.

The manner in which laws are being enacted today by parliament has not gone unnoticed. Speaking at the 75th Independence Day function organised by the Supreme Court Bar Association in the lawns of the top court just last week, Chief Justice Ramana remarked on the sorry state of affairs as the absence of quality debate leaves many aspects of laws unclear and increases the burden on courts. On another occasion, during a hearing he stressed that while parliament has the right to make any law it saw fit, it was also proper to expect that before the bill would be scrutinised by members and the government would present a rationale ro explain why that law was necessary. That seems to be a fair enough ask.

Since our model of parliamentary democracy is derived much from the Westminster model of the UK, it is worthwhile to cite a few sentences from the website of the British Parliament and and I quote “ Both Houses of Parliament hold debates in which Members discuss government policy, proposed new laws and topical issues of the day. Debates are designed to assist MPs and Lords to reach an informed decision on a subject. Votes are often held to conclude a debate, which may involve passing or rejecting a proposed new law (legislation) or simply registering their opinion on a subject. All debates are recorded in a publication called ‘Hansard’ which is available online or in print.”

Looking at the guidelines, it would appear that the vestiges of these conventions are more to be found in high school and college debates in India and not in parliaments and assemblies where there is no sanctity left in lawmaking.

Shantanu Dutta is a Former Air Force Doctor and is a development worker for the last 25 years.


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