Parliamentary debates: Significance, issues and the way forward – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

Parliamentary debates are the cornerstone of a truly vibrant democracy. It’s through such tools that a democracy ensures Parliamentary scrutiny of Executive’s decisions. Without debate and discussion, a democracy is reduced to a body without soul.

Since independence, Indian Parliament has witnessed thorough, wise and constructive debates over various laws and issues.

But over the years, disruptions rather than debate have become the norm.

A few months back, Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana had expressed his unhappiness at the increased lack of debates in the Indian parliament, and in the State Assemblies.

The lack of debate is particularly evident when most of the 20 Bills cleared in the last Monsoon session (Jul-Aug 2021) of the Parliament were passed only with a voice vote and without any debate.

Let’s try and understand this issue in detail.

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What is the significance of Parliamentary debates?

– Improving the quality of decisions: Parliamentary debates indirectly contribute to the quality of democratic decisions. Debates involve deliberations over diverse perspectives which enable selection of most widely accepted views. The very existence of debates can be seen as a system for monitoring elected officials.

– Raising issues of public interest: It allows MPs to voice the concerns and interests of their constituents, and they can also speak about issues brought to their attention by the public.

– Reduces the burden on Courts: Parliamentary debates help the courts to comprehend the intent and object of the laws in a better way. The burden of the courts while interpreting or implementing the laws is less. They have a clear picture of the purpose behind the making of a particular law and what the legislature thought while making the law.

– Accountability: The Opposition performs its duties of holding the government accountable via Parliamentary debates and discussions. These debates help to implement the accountability process, forcing ministers to speak, to listen to criticisms and to answer them.

What are the rules and frameworks regarding debates?

Parliament’s extensive framework presents many opportunities for robust debate, discussion, and dissent.

During the Question Hour, key data on the operations of the government is up for public scrutiny.

– Adjournment Motions allow members to propose urgent topics of national interest which, if admitted by the Speaker, are discussed and debated in lieu of any other agenda of the House.

The process of passing a Bill, is also a powerful tool for MPs to represent diverse interests.

Rules:

Since 1952, the rules required MPs not to interrupt speeches of others, maintain silence, and not obstruct proceedings during debates.

Newer forms of protest led to the updating of these rules in 1989. Now members should not shout slogans, display placards, tear away documents in protest, play cassettes, or tape recorders in the House. In practice, all these rules are disobeyed frequently.

What has been the trend with respect to the Parliamentary debates?

Presently, both Houses sit for an average of 67 days annually.

Compare this to the First, Second, and Third Lok Sabha (1952- 1967), when they sat for an average of 120 days annually.

– As per a PRS report, the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19) lost 16% of its scheduled time to disruptions, better than the 15th Lok Sabha (37%), but worse than the 14th Lok Sabha (13%).

The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution recommended that Lok Sabha should have at least 120 sittings in a year. Rajya Sabha should have 100 sittings.

What are the issues/challenges hindering the debates?

– Parliamentary disruption: Disruption in Parliamentary debates has become a frequent phenomenon these days. The amount of time lost due to disruptions in Parliament has also steadily risen from 5% of working time in the truncated 11th Lok Sabha (1996-97) to 39% in the 15th LS (2009-14).

– Disorderly conduct by MPs: Members of Parliament often indulge in disorderly conduct, disrupting the proceedings due to various reasons like, 1) dissatisfaction because of inadequate time for airing their grievances, 2) an unresponsive attitude of the government and the retaliatory posture of the treasury benches, 3) political parties not adhering to parliamentary norms and disciplining their members, 4) The absence of prompt action against disrupting MPs under the legislature’s rules.

Recently, 12 Opposition members of the Rajya Sabha were suspended for the entire winter session for their protest on August 11, the last day of the previous monsoon session.

– Politics by parties: Whenever a controversial issue comes up, the government backs away on debating it, leading to Opposition MPs violating the conduct rules and disrupting the proceedings of Parliament. Since they have the support of their parties in breaking the rules, the threat of suspension from the House does not deter them.

What are the implications of lack of debates in the Parliament?
Lack of Parliamentary debates has the following implications:

There is lack of proper clarity in the laws. Legislations with a lot of gaps and a lot of ambiguities are passed. The purpose of the laws is not clear to the courts, creating a lot of litigation, inconvenience, and loss to the government as well as to the public.

Shorter Parliamentary sessions due to frequent adjournments and leniency in the scrutiny of the Bills diminishes Parliament’s efficiency. Without debates, Members of Parliament will not be able to demand answers to critical questions or discuss vital issues with supplementary queries.

– Disenchantment of the people: Lack of debate and deliberation on important bills and laws means people have started to get disenchanted with the Parliamentary process as a whole. They are also disappointed in the MPs for their non-performance.

– The absence of the debates leaves the Government unchecked, wherein it can pass any legislation as per its desire and without discussion.

– Impact on the Constitutional Right: The right to ask questions flows from Article 75 of Indian Constitution. It says that the Council of Ministers shall be collectively responsible to the House of the People and people of the country in general. So a lack of debate in the Parliament infringes upon this right.

What is the way forward?

There have been many suggestions:

– A concept of no work, no pay could be adopted for members. But this would affect only members who depend on their salary.

– Embrace the Shadow Cabinet model, like in the UK. It is for the political parties to ensure responsible behaviour of their members, whether in the opposition or the ruling party.

The opposition parties should have the opportunity to debate and highlight the significant issues. Currently, government business takes priority, and private members discuss their topics post-lunch on a Friday. The country can introduce the concept of opposition days, as done in the U.K and Canada.

– Parliament Disruption Index: In 2019, Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman suggested evolving a ‘Parliamentary Disruption Index’ as a measure to monitor disruptions to reduce “incidents of indiscipline”.

A code of conduct for members to minimise disruptions, especially relating to suspension for entering and protesting in the well of the House.

Frequent disruptions reflect the nature of Indian democracy as being dysfunctional. Thus, there is a need to strengthen the working of the Indian parliament.

Conclusion

Parliamentary debates should not be viewed as a distraction or waste of time. They are a barometer of public mood and must be respected as such, by both the ruling side and the Opposition. The essence of democracy is letting others express their opinions, however unacceptable we may find them.

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