Truncated Monsoon Session clocks highest productivity in 20 yrs, but Opposition cries foul over breakneck speed of legislation

On average, Lok Sabha discussed a Bill for 1.5 hours, and Rajya Sabha discussed a Bill for just about an hour before passing it

Ananya Srivastava September 25, 2020 18:37:44 IST
Truncated Monsoon Session clocks highest productivity in 20 yrs, but Opposition cries foul over breakneck speed of legislation

Representative image. PTI

On Wednesday, the Parliament concluded its one of the shortest but most productive Monsoon Sessions in 20 years, as contentious bills were steamrolled through both houses while an indignant Opposition protested inside and outside Parliament. The Parliament passed as many as 25 Bills in the short monsoon session (excluding the appropriation bills), of which 17 were new legislations introduced during the same session.

Both Houses had also cut out the Question Hour and only written replies were given to unstarred questions. The Question Hour is usually held during the first hour of the sitting where members can ask the government questions related to any department and the concerned ministers are obliged to reply.

The Zero Hour, where members raise matters of urgent public importance or make special mentions, was curtailed to 30 minutes only. This is the space on the Parliament forum where MPs usually raise issues related to their constituencies.

During the session, private members' business which is usually taken up on Friday evenings was done away with in both the Houses to save time. During private members' business, Bills brought by individual members (not necessarily from the Treasury benches) are introduced and debated.

Most productive session in 20 years or 'murder of democracy'?

The Lok Sabha could hold only 10 sittings as against the 18 planned, yet it clocked a 145 percent productivity while working over the weekend as well and sitting beyond midnight on two consecutive days during the session.

The Rajya Sabha likewise reported a 99 percent productivity, in what was perhaps one of the stormiest sessions it has seen in recent years.

During this session, while the Rajya Sabha met in the first half of the day, the Lok Sabha assembled at 3 pm. A total of 25 bills were passed in both Houses, while one draft law, the Major Port Authorities Bill, 2020 was passed in Lok Sabha on the last day but could not be taken up in the Upper House.

However, the impressive productivity figures were in stark contrast to the atmosphere in the House and how the Opposition perceived it. For example, this was the first time in history that a no-confidence motion was brought in against the Deputy Chairman of the Upper House. The motion, however, was rejected by Chairman Venkaiah Naidu.

Besides, more isn't always better. Productivity statistics are in essence a calculation of the number of hours the House functioned against the total working hours during the Session. But more bills being crammed into the tiny 10-day session also meant less deliberation and debate on matters of key public importance and policy reforms, many of which will upend status quo and impact citizens in a big way.

On average, Lok Sabha discussed a Bill for 1.5 hours, and Rajya Sabha discussed a Bill for just about an hour before passing it, according to PRS Legislative. In the Monsoon session, 20 new Bills were introduced (excluding the Appropriation Bills). Of these, 17 Bills (85 percent of the introduced Bills) were passed within the same Session, which meant that Opposition MPs got that much lesser time to study those legislations and offer valid criticism of the government's proposals.

A major bone of contention in the current session were three farm-sector bills that have now replaced ordinances promulgated earlier in the year.

Read more about the key farm-sector bills here

The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Law, The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Law and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Prices Assurance and Farm Services Bill, saw farmers' organisations blocking highways in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh. Meanwhile, Shiromani Akali Dal, one of oldest National Democratic Alliance ally exited the government over the issue.

But the government impelled the legislations in both houses the same day they were introduced. Lok Sabha discussed and passed the three labour codes within a total duration of three hours, and Rajya Sabha did so in 1 hour 45 minutes.

In Lok Sabha, where the government enjoys a brute majority, the bill was passed by a voice vote despite appeals from various Opposition MPs to refer the bills to a Standing Committee.

Rajya Sabha, where the distribution between Treasury and Opposition benches is more equal, witnessed bedlam as two of the three bills were introduced on Sunday; but the bills were passed nonetheless by a voice vote amid unprecedented drama. The telecast of proceedings was put on mute on the Chair's instructions.

The opposition cried murder as demand for division of votes (or a physical vote) was denied despite the long-standing tradition that the Chair obliges even if a single MP challenges its verdict on a voice vote. The pretext for the decision was that the House was not in order.

Soon after the decision, agitated Opposition MPs rushed to the Well, attempted to tear up the rule book and tried to snatch the Deputy Chairman's microphone. Eight MPs were suspended for "unruly behaviour" following the ruckus.

Read more about Sunday's proceedings here

Trinamool Congress MP Derek O'Brien termed the events 'murder of democracy' while the Congress insisted the day would be marked as a 'black day' in history of Indian democracy.

"Suspension won't silence us. We will stand with farmers in their fight. Deputy chairman throttled parliamentary procedures yesterday. Suspension of MPs exposed the coward face of the BJP. People will see through the attempt to divert attention from their undemocratic actions," said CPM MP Elamaram Kareem, who is among those suspended.

Opposition parties like the Congress, CPIM, Shiv Sena, JDS, TMC, CPI, and the Samajwadi Party held a protest on the Parliament premises with placards that read "Murder of Democracy", "Death of Parliament" and "Shame, shame".

The Opposition insists that a physical vote was avoided because the government knew it did not have the numbers in the Upper House to pass the bills. O'Brien claimed to have proof of the 'cheating' in the Upper House.

However, there exists an alternative theory to the Opposition's behaviour in the Upper House.

An India Today article suggests there may have been a "method to the madness" that ensued in the Upper House. The article cited the Rajya Sabha's attendance diary and the various political parties' stated positions to conclude that the government could have had more numbers than the Opposition in Rajya Sabha. The reasons for this varied from fence-sitters among the Opposition ranks to absentee MPs who were avoiding Parliament due to old age or COVID-19.

Nonetheless, if such were the case, the number crunchers in the Opposition benches surely must have realised that too and hence they orchestrated the chaos to ensure a physical vote could not be conducted. So, the bedlam, in essence, served more than one political purposes in the House of Elders.

For the Opposition, the pandemonium ensured that their numerical weakness is not exposed, while the government not only passed the bill but also scored a political point as the dramatic visuals of the Opposition MPs jostling the Chair may not be easily forgotten by the public. The fence-sitters, meanwhile, were the biggest gainers as they escaped a vote which would have definitely demystified their stance to the public and robbed them of the opportunity to play on both sides.

The India Today article quoted above also mentioned that Opposition MPs introduced three dozen-odd amendments to the Bills but the Opposition did not even move more than 30 of these amendments.

If the Opposition had the strength and the will, the better route would have been to remain seated in their places and force the Chair to hold a physical vote for each of those amendments. In the best-case scenario, some of these could have stuck with the third front's support and changed the bill for the better. In the worst case, the Opposition would have tested the government's strength every step of the way on contentious legislation. Instead, it played into the government's hands by boycotting the Session, when other big-ticket reforms were still pending for discussion.

The Opposition's boycott ensured that the passage of another controversial reform, the three labour code bills, was a smooth sail for the government.

In total, the Rajya Sabha passed 15 bills in the last two sittings, and seven of these were passed just on the last day within three hours.

Monsoon Session highlights a withering trend of sending bills for expert review under Modi govt

Away from the public eye and the drama around Opposition boycott, a more subtle point that went under-reported was the government's reluctance to allow further scrutiny of the bills through Parliamentary Standing Committees.

"Parliamentary Committees are basically miniature parliaments in themselves, comprising members across party lines from both the Houses. But they are so much more – committees can call for and examine witnesses, look into the minutiae of an issue, and give detailed recommendations, but most important, they allow a member to speak her mind on an issue without the need to toe the party line," according to an article in Hindustan Times.

According to PRS Legislative, no bill was referred to a standing committee in the Monsoon Session. In fact in the 17th Lok Sabha, so far only 10 percent of the introduced Bills have been referred to a committee even when the list entailed contentious issues like amendment to RTI and UAPA acts, labour code and farm sector reforms.

The Narendra Modi-lead NDA's record was equally abysmal in the 16th Lok Sabha when only 27 percent of the Bills were sent to the standing committee. The UPA, by contrast, sent 60 percent bills for review in the 14th Lok Sabha and 71 percent bills in the 15th Lok Sabha.

This seems to be a direct result of a majoritarian government ruling the country. Heavy-duty reforms can be pushed through easily, with or without the Opposition's support and with little scrutiny. The BJP does not even need its own allies in the Lok Sabha to power through a bill, which grants it the imperium to pass all money bills without hiccups. Consensus-building among parties, an important function in Parliamentary democracies, has lost its currency.

Even though the report of these committees are not binding on the Centre, for a majoritarian government, the scrutiny and time involved in referring bills to a committee may seem both tedious and disadvantageous. But a trend to completely bypass that procedure is inimical to the health of democracy, especially in important matters where threadbare discussion is simply not possible on the floor of the House.

No Question Hour

The Lok Sabha website describes the Question Hour, as an important parliamentary tradition that allows the government to sense the pulse of the nation.

"Questions enable Ministries to gauge the popular reaction to their policy and administration. Questions bring to the notice of the Ministers many loopholes which otherwise would have gone unnoticed. Sometimes questions may lead to the appointment of a Commission, a Court of Enquiry or even Legislation when matters raised by Members are grave enough to agitate the public mind and are of wide public importance Executive accountability to the legislature is enforced through questions in Parliament," the Lok Sabha website states.

It is also deemed as a way to enforce the Executive's accountability to the legislature.

However, this year, citing paucity of time, the Centre decided to do away with the tradition completely. Needless to say, the move drew criticism from Opposition MPs who have time and again accused the government of stomping on the Parliamentary traditions.

Trinamool Congress MP and Floor Leader in Rajya Sabha Derek O'Brien said Opposition MPs will lose the right to question the government.

"Pandemic an excuse to murder democracy," he said in a tweet while alleging that the government did not even give the MPs enough time to draft pertinent questions.

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said, "I said four months ago that strongmen leaders would use the excuse of the pandemic to stifle democracy and dissent. The notification for the delayed Parliament Session blandly announces there will be no Question Hour. How can this be justified in the name of keeping us safe? Questioning the government is the oxygen of parliamentary democracy. This government seeks to reduce Parliament to a noticeboard and uses its crushing majority as a rubber-stamp for whatever it wants to pass. The one mechanism to promote accountability has now been done away with."

DMK MP Kanimozhi said, "The BJP government's decision to suspend the Question Hour for an entire session conveys just one message – 'Even elected representatives have no right to question the government'."

With inputs from PRS Legislative

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