In Parliament

Bad habits die hard. The 15th Lok Sabha, which made a good start last session, went back to the practice of walk-outs and disruptions. The winter session started with two days of no work, as several MPs demanded that the new sugarcane pricing policy be rolled back. After assurances from the government that the contentious clauses would be dropped, the House worked smoothly for three weeks. Then, much of the productive time of the last week was lost on a combination of protests related to Telengana and rising food prices. Lok Sabha adjourned one day ahead of schedule.  In all, the House lost about a sixth of the scheduled time.

The agenda announced by the government included passing of 25 bills and introduction of 61 bills. However, only 13 bills were passed and 19 were introduced. In Lok Sabha, eight out of the 15 bills passed were not discussed at all. Indeed, on the last working day, five bills were passed within eight minutes.

Rajya Sabha’s performance was better: 88 percent of scheduled time, and only two bills out of 13 bills passed without discussion. Indeed, Rajya Sabha asserted Parliament’s authority over government’s wishes on two occasions. First, the House did not permit the withdrawal of the Lotteries Prohibition Bill in the absence of a new bill to regulate lotteries; the government chose to withdraw the withdrawal motion. Second, the House constituted a Select Committee to examine the Commercial Division of High Courts Bill. This bill seeks to set up fast-track division benches in High Courts to adjudicate disputes of value over Rs 50 million, and was passed by Lok Sabha without any discussion.

Question hour

The presence of MPs during Question Hour came in the spotlight on November 30, when as many as 17 out of 20 questions went unanswered as the MPs who raised the question were absent in Lok Sabha. During the session, 440 questions were listed for oral answers, and 131 were called in the House. Of these only 87 were answered, as the respective MPs were not present in the ouse for the other 44 questions. The importance of Question Hour was highlighted by the Vice-President in his valedictory to Rajya Sabha, when he called this “an important instrumentality through which information is elicited and the Government’s accountability ensured”. In an important development, Rajya Sabha modified its rule to require ministers to answer questions orally even if the questioning MP was absent; this will enable other MPs to ask supplementary questions and hold the government to account.

Government Bills

Other than the financial business (supplementary grants), Parliament passed 13 bills this session. The Essential Commodities Amendment changed the pricing of PDS sugar purchased by the government. The Payment of  Gratuity Act was amended to include teachers. The Representation of the People Act was amended to ban exit polls during the election period. The Legal Metrology Bill provided a framework for the regulation of weights and measures used in all transactions.

Importantly, there was little progress on many bills that were slated to be discussed or introduced during the session. The Seeds Bill, pending since 2004, regulates the manufacture, sale and distribution of all seeds. Also important for farmers and consumers is the Pesticide Bill, 2008. The Action Taken Report on the Liberhan Commission promised action on the Communal Violence Bill, 2005 but this was not taken up. The standing committee submitted its report recommending that the Women’s Reservation Bill be passed – though with dissenting notes from two MPs from Samajwadi Party.

The government had planned to introduce 61 bills but managed to introduce just 19. The “missing” list includes the bills related to land acquisition and rehabilitation of displaced persons, bills to regulate the pension sector and forward trading in commodities, the Equal Opportunities Commission Bill, the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill, the Educational Tribunals Bill and the Copyright Amendment Bill.

Private Member Bills

Any MP may introduce a bill, called private member’s bill, which are used to flag issues. Two private member bills attracted attention this session. In Lok Sabha, JP Agarwal has introduced a bill that seeks to make voting compulsory in all elections conducted by the Election Commission. The discussion on this bill was not concluded and shall continue next session. Incidentally, the Gujarat Assembly recently enacted a law that requires all registered voters to vote in Panchayat and Municipal elections.

Rajya Sabha completed discussion on Mahendra Mohan’s bill that proposed to amend the Constitution to require Parliament to meet at least 120 days every calendar year, and all state assemblies to meet 60 days. Currently, Parliament is convened by the President as advised by the Prime Minister. Though several MPs supported this bill in their speeches, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister said the move was impractical. On his request, Mr Mohan withdrew the bill.

Conclusion

Given the recent performance of Parliament, it is difficult to disagree with the sentiments expressed through Mr Mahendra Mohan’s bill. Though it may be impractical to legislate that Parliament meets regularly and transacts   business in a “parliamentary” manner, it is important that it fulfills its responsibility of making informed laws and holding the government to account. As we enter the year 2010, our wish for the new year is that our MPs do not belie our hopes and aspirations.