As parliament is set to meet after a 6-month COVID-induced break, the session is likely to have many firsts. We have seen media reports citing government sources that say there will be large display screens, audio consoles, ultraviolet germicidal irradiation, and working weekends. Judging by the feelers being sent out by senior ministers, one suspects that the government will use this pandemic to muzzle voices of the opposition in parliament.
But before we get to that, let’s understand what a usual five-day week in parliament looks like. Five days a week into six hours a day makes it a 30-hour working week. This can be broadly divided into two parts: government business (passing bills) and time allotted for the opposition to raise their concerns. Every day, one hour is reserved for Question Hour and 60 minutes for Zero Hour. This makes it 10 hours a week. Add to this, a ‘Short Duration Discussion’ and a ‘Calling Attention Motion’ that allow members of parliament to discuss urgent issues at length where the concerned minister has to give some sort of a response on the floor of the House. In normal times, this would add up to roughly 15 hours a week, with the other 15 hours left for government business. Simply put, about 50 per cent of parliament’s time is reserved for the government and the other 50 per cent for the opposition.
This time around, the circumstances are exceptional. We are holding a parliament session in the middle of a pandemic. Are we, as an opposition party, okay with a 4-hour daily session for each House? Yes. Are we okay with working 7 days a week? Of course. Are we okay with doing away with the Question Hour? Not at all. Are we okay with the government doing away with the Zero Hour? Not at all. Are we okay with dispensing Short Duration Discussion? No. Are we okay with doing away with the fortnightly Calling Attention Motion? No. The centre cannot use COVID as an excuse to murder parliamentary democracy yet again.
As I write this, MPs have received no official bulletins and are having to rely on news reports citing government sources. These reports say each House will sit for 4 hours every day, including on weekends. This means the total weekly parliament time will be 28 hours each for Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha. Significantly, this is roughly the same as the usual 30 hour-week in parliament. With this logic, there is no reason why Zero Hour and Question Hour should be curtailed. If two hours are allotted for Private Members Bills, they may be dispensed with.
The government cannot be throwing crumbs at the opposition. This is what citizens, and the Trinamool Congress, as the second-largest opposition party expect
• 60 minutes must be spent conducting the Question Hour each weekday
• Zero Hour must continue to be an hour-long each weekday, followed by government business every day
• This must be accompanied by one short duration discussion and Calling Alternating Motion alternating every week.
In this way the government gets about 14 hours, close to what they would in a usual parliament, and the opposition too gets 14 hours. Given that MPs from the treasury benches also actively participate in Zero Hour and Question Hour, even the second 14 hours must not be construed as strictly ‘opposition time’. For now, the government seems focused only on passing ordinances but that must not eat into the time meant for raising matters and questions of public importance.
Another lame excuse being floated is that if there’s a Question Hour, many ministry officials would need to brief the ministry and subsequently visit parliament. Our simple contention is: why can’t the ministers be briefed virtually?
The BJP wants to turn the parliament of the people into M&S Private Limited (figure out the abbreviation!). Under the best traditions of the Westminster Model, ‘the Parliament belongs to Opposition’. An appropriate amount of time must be reserved for the opposition to hold the government accountable. These checks and balances are essential. Every party, even those with a lone MP in parliament, must stand up and be counted to keep the great tradition of parliamentary democracy alive.
[This article appeared on NDTV.com | Sunday, August 30, 2020]