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The quest for strong legislative oversight | Opinion – analysis

The government’s decision to dispense with Question Hour during the monsoon session of Parliament has irked the Opposition. They have accused the government of using the pandemic as an excuse to do away with an important instrument of legislative oversight of the executive.

However, the fact remains that several Members of Parliament (MPs) are unable to make the best use of the Question Hour on account of frequent disruptions. A study carried out by the Rajya Sabha secretariat showed that nearly 60% of the time allotted to Question Hour over the past five years was lost due to disruptions.

There is no specific rule in the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business (Rules) of the two Houses for suspension of Question Hour. The leaders of all political parties in the Rajya Sabha had agreed to shift Question Hour to noon instead of the time-honoured “first hour of every sitting” or 11 am. This change was brought about in 2014 and continues till today. Every sitting of the Rajya Sabha begins with the so-called and undefined Zero Hour, in which MPs are allowed to raise matters of immediate concern with the permission of the Chair. If that is the stated order of priority of the members, the dropping of Question Hour but retaining Zero Hour should serve their purpose. In any case, before dropping Question Hour from the proceedings of the two Houses, the government held extensive consultations with various political parties and the majority, given the time constraints and the consequent need for shortening the agenda, was in favour of retaining a truncated Zero Hour, while dispensing with Question Hour.

As regards grilling the executive and performing the function of legislative oversight, skillfully-drafted questions for written answers serve the purpose much more effectively. It requires a deep understanding of the topic and the current policies of the government on the subject. Moreover, there are several other instruments which can execute the task better. First and foremost is the notice for calling attention. Through this, a member may call the attention of a minister to any matter of urgent public importance and the minister may make a brief statement in reply.

Then, there is the Half-an-Hour Discussion on a question, the reply to which can be oral or written. There is also a provision for Special Mention in the Rajya Sabha (rule 180A-180F) and “Raising a matter which is not a point of order” in the Lok Sabha (rule 377). The latter is a structured device whereby a member may read out or lay on the table a statement on a matter of public importance. The minister concerned, conventionally, responds to it within one month. These instruments, if used optimally and judiciously, are quite effective in enforcing accountability of the executive.

However, in order to compensate the members for their inability to ask supplementary questions, follow-up questions on subsequent days and seeking more information on a question asked earlier may be also allowed, in relaxation of rule 47 (2) (xiv) of the Rajya Sabha rules and rule 41 (2) (xiii) of the Lok Sabha rules, which prohibit questions on subjects on which questions have already been answered during the session. Such questions may be admitted till the last day of the Monsoon Session, that is October 1 and replies sent by email or post subsequently. Further, the ceiling on the number questions to be admitted for written replies, which at present stands at 175 in the Rajya Sabha and 230 in the Lok Sabha, may be raised to say 200 and 300 respectively.

Zero Hour too has been curtailed, but the members could perhaps make better use of the instrument of Special Mention /Raising a Matter to compensate for lost opportunities. As a matter of fact, Special Mention was introduced as a better-structured alternative to Zero Hour.

Vivek K Agnihotri, IAS (retd) is former secretary-general, Rajya Sabha

The views expressed are personal

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