EYE ON PARLIAMENT

This monsoon session is an urgent reminder of long overdue reforms of India’s parliamentary calendar

The government’s legislative agenda was declared only on Sunday, July 16.

In the next four weeks of the monsoon session of Parliament that began today, members will meet over 19 days to echo citizens’ voices and give shape to the country’s future. They will deliberate on the fine print of laws that the government is proposing. There will also be discussions on events that have unfolded in the country over the last two months. The session will give MPs an opportunity to take stock of government functioning. They will also use the highest representative forum in the country to draw attention to issues being faced by their constituents.

For any session of Parliament, there are two important things that need to be planned. The first is the sitting days of the two houses and the second is the list of legislative business to be undertaken during those days. Both of these are the responsibility of the government. The Constitution specifies that the government decides when to summon Parliament and that there should not be a gap of more than six months between two parliament sessions. Usually, Parliament meets for three sessions in a year: budget, monsoon, and winter. These dates for the session are decided by the Cabinet Committee on Parliamentary Affairs.

Fixed dates?

In 1955 a committee of Lok Sabha had recommended fixed dates for the three sessions of Parliament to the government. These recommendations called for the budget session to begin on the February 1 and conclude on May 7; the Monsoon session to start on the July 15 and end on September 15, and finally the Winter session to commence on November 5 (or the fourth day after Diwali, whichever was later), and conclude on December 22 each year. However, this fixed calendar of dates has not been followed in practice. The legislative business for a session is decided by keeping in mind the bills being piloted by different line ministries. These ministries have a say in deciding which of their bills should be brought on the agenda for a parliamentary session.

Usually, the exact dates of parliamentary sittings are declared less than a month before the beginning of a session of Parliament. The government’s legislative agenda, on the other hand, is known less than a week before the start of a session. For this session MPs received the information about the dates of the session on June 28 and the government’s legislative agenda was only declared yesterday.

Every session of Parliament is crucial for the governance of the country. Therefore it is important that its dates and schedule are decided in advance. The absence of planning of Parliament’s calendar and business directly impacts the quality of debate in Parliament. Political parties cannot choose in advance which of their MPs will participate in a particular discussion. This then reduces the time available to MPs to prepare for a nuanced debate on a legislative or policy issue. Many times MPs only get a few hours to perfect their arguments on laws that will impact the entire country. Their intervention continues to hold significance many years after the debate has ended in the two houses. These debates hold the key to interpreting the intent of Parliament while making a law. When the judiciary has to adjudicate on laws at a later date it relies on these debates in Parliament to get a sense of the legislatures’ intent on an issue.

Legislative business

The planning of legislative agenda is also reflective of the seriousness with which governments take the debate in Parliament. Successive governments have been guilty of springing legislative proposals before the two houses at the last minute. These have resulted in reducing Parliament from a deliberative institution that scrutinises laws to a body that merely rubber stamps government bills. The lack of planning of the business of Parliament also creates uncertainty about policy roll-outs in the country. For example, it was unclear as to when the Goods and Services Tax Bills would finally get passed by Parliament. Similarly, the bill which increases maternity benefits for women was stuck in Parliament for some time before both houses passed it.

In many other democracies (USA, UK, Canada) the calendar of sitting days of Parliament is fixed at the beginning of the year. In these democracies, Parliament meets throughout the year with identified dates for holidays. Our system is completely the opposite. Our Parliament meets only on specified dates and is in recess for the rest of the year. In these countries, there is clarity about the number of days that the legislature will meet. This helps in the scheduling of legislative and other business. Government Bills are slotted into the schedule of the year. Dates are identified by which each bill will pass through the different levels of parliamentary scrutiny. It gives interested stakeholders adequate time to prepare and advocate for their positions. The planning also allows for implementing feedback and creating political consensus on contentious bills.

Reforms in our parliamentary system are long overdue. The most fundamental of these reforms is planning of our parliamentary calendar. In its absence, we will continue to witness legislative processes being circumvented and the quality of debate further deteriorating in both houses of Parliament.

Chakshu Roy is head of Outreach, PRS Legislative Research.

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