As nations across the globe celebrate the International Day of Parliamentarism on Thursday, the lack of space for legislators to raise important people’s issues such as health, education, hunger, inflation and inequality on the floor of Parliament remains a big concern.

In recent years, Parliamentary debates on these topics have received low participation – if they have been arranged at all. In July 2019, for instance, a debate on malnutrition among women and children lasted for around 1 hour with only 10 participants. Just before the first wave of Covid-19, the discussion in Lok Sabha about the outbreak of the disease in Kerala lasted 27 minutes with just three participants. Another debate about the Covid-19 threat later in the same session lasted 40 minutes with only 19 participants.

The lack of participation in debates on these issues is not just matter of the individual choice of Members of Parliament but also stems from lack of systemic solutions for public engagement. As the experience of other law-making bodies across the world has shown, this can be addressed only by the government creating an enabling environment for debate, discussions, consultation and Parliamentary scrutiny.

In last three years of the current Lok Sabha, a total of 134 bills have been introduced, of which 114 have been passed. Only 13% of these have been referred to Parliamentary committees, which are meant to scrutinise and study the bills to ensure that the country has better laws and policy.

Passed without discussion

During the last Budget session in February, almost 73% of the Union budget was been passed without any discussion. This has been a recurring trend for past six years, as 76% of the Budget has been passed without discussion. In the last Budget session, allocations for the railways were discussed for only 13 minutes and the spending for road transport for 11 minutes.

Topics like fuel prices, inflation and farmers’ demands were not discussed.

Other Parliament sessions during the Bharatiya Janata Party regime show a similar trend. Both houses passed record number of Bills or approved the government’s ordinances, but the sessions lacked genuine public engagement and accountability in terms of debates, questions, and Parliamentary scrutiny.

During the monsoon session after the devastating second wave of Covid-19 in the summer of 2021, the Rajya Sabha debated pandemic management for five hours with only 23 MPs participating. The challenges thrown up by the pandemic such as Covid-19 deaths, shuttered schools, growing hunger, food inflation and joblessness hardly found any space.

Apart from the proceedings in the house, the pre-legislative consultation processes that were adopted by the same government in 2014 for Bills have been sparingly used. These processes are aimed at allowing citizens, civil society, NGOs and experts to offer comments and feedback on draft laws. But in the winter session of 2021, 60% of the total bills were introduced without any public consultation. One analysis showed that between June 2014 to May 2019, 76% of the Bills that were introduced had absolutely no public consultation. Similarly, between June 2019 to November 2021, 73% of the Bills were introduced without any public consultation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has several times called for quality debate and discussion in Parliament. To do so, the tje government’s Pre-legislative Consultation Policy needs to be implemented in full spirit. MP Supriya Sule has already introduced a private member’s bill to make his mandatory.

This would not only improve the law-making process but put India’s Parliament at par with its global counterparts: according to the Global Parliamentary Report 2022, around 70% respondents (Parliamentarians and officials) said they increase public engagement by deploying public meetings, consultations and field hearings.

Second, more innovative and technology-centric methods of increasing people’s participation need to be explored. Apart from the ability to raise questions in the Parliament, instruments like Parliamentary petitions need to be made accessible to citizens both offline and online, just like Korea and Thailand have been doing. Some provisions for this already exist for the Indian Parliament.

Third, unrestricted telecasts and media coverage of house proceedings are key to keeping citizens informed about the workings of Parliament. Television remains the main medium for most citizens to access Parliamentary proceedings. Restrictions on journalists’ entry into Parliament premises and the Press Gallery due to Covid-19 should be lifted.

Finally, the Parliament needs to function for a longer duration to accommodate a wide range of debates and discussions on people’s issues and national challenges. Former Rajya Sabha Chairman and Vice President Hamid Ansari recommended that Indian Parliament to function for around 120 days to 150 days a year, in line with national legislatures of the United Kingdom and United States of America.

Akshay Tarfe is a media specialist at Oxfam India.