Christmas cheer bypasses House

Last week, a Member of Parliament from Tamil Nadu surprised a few of us in Central Hall. He placed his black duffel bag on the desk, unzipped it, and announced, “Here is some traditional Christmas cake”. The day before yesterday, an MP from Bengal brought two boxes of rich-fruit Christmas cake to share with colleagues across all parties. The cakes from Kolkata were hand-made from a recipe invented 120-years ago at Nahoum’s, a Jewish bakery located in New Market. Rich in history, legacy, and flavour, it is a true taste of Christmas in the city. This was exciting. Everything else in Parliament was bland.

This Parliament session has been cut short once again. It was adjourned sine die on Friday at noon. This is becoming the norm. From the Budget Session in 2020, to the Winter Session this year, this is the eighth time in a row that the Rajya Sabha (Council of States) has curtailed its session before the scheduled date for adjournment. The Budget Session was scheduled to end on April 3, 2020, but was adjourned on March 23, 2020. The next six sessions after that were cut short by eight days, 14 days, two days, one day, one day, and four days respectively. This Winter Session followed that trend.

Rule 267 still remains a contentious issue. It is the rule in Rajya Sabha, which allows MPs to give a written notice to suspend all the regular business listed on the agenda and seek an immediate discussion on an important issue affecting the country. The book Rajya Sabha at Work states that “The Chairman’s rulings constitute precedents which are of a binding nature”. So, let’s look at the precedents set by the previous Chairmen of Rajya Sabha in relation to Rule 267.

Shankar Dayal Sharma, as Chairman of Rajya Sabha, allowed four discussions to take place under this rule between the years 1990-92. Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, during his tenure as Chairman of Rajya Sabha, enforced the rule three times in one year, 2004. There are more precedents. From 2013-2016, Hamid Ansari as the chairman, allowed four discussions under Rule 267.

These discussions, taken up out of turn because of the urgency of the situation, were held on a variety of subjects: The situation in Jammu & Kashmir, the Gulf War, corruption, attack on the secular fabric of the country, agrarian crisis and farmer suicides, to name a few.

In the last six years, every single notice given by the Opposition to discuss an urgent national issue has been outright rejected. The last time such a notice was allowed was in 2016, when the House discussed demonetisation.

While it is true that this rule cannot be, and must not be accepted every week, or every month, Rule 267 is a “living rule”, which precedents suggest is accepted at an average of about once or twice a year.

During this session, MPs across all parties did get an opportunity to speak on the economy and politics of contemporary India. My party nominated me to speak on the two Appropriation Bills (regarding excess and supplementary demand for grants). The premise of our argument was that the Union government had not delivered on their electoral promises. We presented data to make our case.

Economic blockade of states: In 2015, eight schemes were delinked from the support of the Union government and the funding pattern was changed for 24 schemes, squeezing the states, who are now owed huge amounts of money also for Central Sector Schemes. One example: the Union owes states Rs 10,162 crore under MGNREGA dues. Bengal alone is owed Rs 5,433 crore — more than 50 per cent of the total due to states.

Depriving states: Cesses and surcharges are not shared by the Union government with states. Cesses and surcharges as a percentage of gross tax revenue were 8 per cent in 2010. This is up to a whopping 27 per cent in 2022.

Finance Commission recommendations: Divisible pool of taxes set by the 14th Finance Commission and 15th Finance Commission were 42 per cent and 41 per cent, respectively. In 2022-23, the states’ share in central taxes is estimated to be just 30 per cent of the gross tax revenue of the Union government.

Bad loans: In five years, Rs 10 lakh crore has been written off as bad debts by banks. To put it in perspective, this amount written off is almost the same as the entire combined budgets of West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Rajasthan for FY 21-22. Of the Rs 10 lakh crore, only Rs 1.3 lakh crore, or 13 per cent has been recovered.

Unemployment: The unemployment rate is at a three-month high at 8 per cent. As per CMIE’s October 2022 estimates, urban unemployment in the age group of 20-24 is 42 per cent. Over two crore women quit the workforce between 2017 and 2022.

The Union government, led by the Prime Minister and represented by the Finance Minister in Parliament, did not contradict any of these figures in their response to the debate on Wednesday afternoon.

At the start of this Winter Session of Parliament, we had challenged the BJP, in this column a fortnight ago, to act upon even one of these issues: Pass the Women’s Reservation Bill, appoint a Deputy Speaker in Lok Sabha, accept a 267 Notice from the Opposition to discuss a burning issue, get the Prime Minister to answer for the first time in six years a question on the floor of Rajya Sabha, comply with the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy, and let Parliament function for a fixed number of days. As expected, none of these was done.

When it comes to Parliament, the Union government do always want to have their (Christmas) cake and eat it too.

This article appeared in The IndianExpress | Friday, December 23, 2022]