7 PM Editorial |Issue of Dropping of Question Hour in upcoming Monsoon Session of Parliament| 4th September 2020

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Issue of Dropping of Question Hour in upcoming Monsoon Session of Parliament

Dropping of Question Hour and Starred Questions and issue of executive accountability to legislature.

Introduction:

India is a Parliamentary democracy where the executive is accountable to the electorate through a legislature which in turn is periodically elected by the people. This accountability, which lies at the heart of democratic governance, is implemented through procedures put in place by the legislature.

What are the procedures through which the executive can be held accountable by the legislature?
  1. Lawmaking: Delineating the powers of the executive.
  2. Controlling the National Financesthrough approval of taxation and expenditure proposals.
  3. Having discussion on matters of public importance.

Each of these functions is discharged, daily or periodically, during sittings of the legislature and cover questions, adjournment motion, calling attention motion, half-an-hour discussion, motion of no confidence, questions of privilege, etc.

Among these instruments of accountability, the daily ‘Question Hour’ has an unmatched criticality.

Question Hour: The Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business provides that the first hour of every sitting shall be available for the asking and answering of questions. Questions are of 4 types: Starred, Unstarred, Short Notice and Supplementary Questions.

Starred Questions: Questions to which answers are desired to be given orally on the floor of the House during the Question Hour. These are distinguished in the printed lists by asterisks.

Unstarred Questions: Questions to which written answers are given by Ministers which are deemed to have been laid on the Table of the House at the end of the Question Hour.

Short Notice Questions: Such questions can be asked orally in the House and are asked by giving a notice of less than 10 days.

Supplementary Questions: These are questions which arise out of a Minister’s answer to a Starred or Short Notice Question. These can be asked with the Chair’s permission immediately after the Minister has answered the main question, for the purpose of further elucidating any matter of fact.

Why is the question hour critical?

The reason for its criticality includes:

  1. It is regularly available on a basis of equalityto every Member of the House, Rajya Sabha or Lok Sabha.
  2. It covers every aspect of government activity, domestic and foreign.
  3. Also, the government of the day has to give the public a view of the performance of both of its elected representatives and of the Ministers.
  4. Since questions are generally ‘pointed, specific and confined to one issue only’, they tend to elicit specific informationfrom the government.
  5. Even otherwise the information so made available adds to public information essentialto informed debates on matters of interest or concern.

For these reasons, Members of Parliament and the interested citizens attach much importance to questions in Parliament and have been taken aback by the government announcement that there will be no Question Hour Sessions in the Parliament. The stated reason for this is the situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why is citing the pandemic for curbing Question Hour, a disturbing effect?

The deletion of ‘Question Hour’ from the announced agenda of the day is baffling because it is viewed as curtailment of the right to question the government.

Subsequent clarifications have however stated that the Unstarred Questions will continue to be received and answered and that the change will relate only to Starred Questions and the Supplementary questions emanating from them that require to be answered orally.

However, even that seems to have a jarring effect on the whole procedure of accountability.

Why are starred questions important?

Many times, verbal camouflage in answers are used to hide information instead of unravelling them. The Oral Supplementary questions seek to unravel these. It is a form of verbal gymnastics not unknown in daily life. So, instead of repressing the whole procedure, other options could have been explored.

What options could have been explored?

The procedures could have been changed to allow a starred question on the pretext that follow-ups should be given in writing. These follow-ups could have been answered the next day.

Conclusion:

The Chairman and the Speaker unquestionably have the final word on matters relating to the proceedings of their respective Houses. However, the test of a functioning democracy is its ability to face crises — social, economic, political — and seek correctives premised on institutions of democracy. A resort to what has been called ‘the politics of avoidance’ does not help the process. Executive accountability upfront cannot be allowed to become a thing of the past. The presiding officers, so,  could have explored alternatives.

Source: The Hindu

Mains Question:

1.The question hour holds immense significance in the context of accountability in Parliamentary form of governance. Discuss.

 

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