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September 1, 2009

Parliament in the July-August 2009 session

Synopsis

The new parliament had a good start in its first full session: there were fewer interruptions, more time was spent on busi-ness, and importantly, parliament asserted its authority over the gov-ernment on at least three occasions.
The session stuck to its original plan of sitting for 26 working days. Contrast this with the performance in the last two years. In 2007, there were 66 sittings compared to the 82 planned, while 2008 had 46 sittings (the lowest ever in a calendar year) versus 61 planned. The year 2008 also had the distinction of the monsoon session being extended till the Christ-mas in order to avoid a no-confidence motion.

While there were in-terruptions on a few occasions this session, and Lok Sabha lost 17 hours of its scheduled time, it made up lost time by sitting through lunch hour and working late.  It actually worked 4 percent more time than scheduled.  Rajya Sabha did even better, working 13 percent extra time.

The focus of Lok Sabha was on budget related discussions, which took half its total time.  Usually, budget proposals are referred to Parliamen-tary Committees (each of which oversee one or more ministries).  These committees have not yet been formed after the elections. Thus, the budget was discussed in detail on the floor of the house. Lok Sabha spent 81 hours on these de-bates, which was 59 percent higher than the aver-age for the last 10 years. This was still lower than the time spent during the 1950s and ‘60s, when the average time devoted to financial business was 137 hours.
Other major discussions included the implications of the Prime Minister’s visits (the G8 meet and the Sharm-el-Sheikh joint statement), inflation and the drought situation. A discussion on swine flu was initiated on the sec-ond day of the session, but was not concluded. Lok Sabha spent 27% of its time on these discus-sions.

Rajya Sabha devoted 24 percent of its time on the budget and 23 percent on examining the working of various ministries. It spent 28 percent of its time on several other issues such as price rise of essential commodities, the need to prevent ragging, and obscenity in television programmes.

Legislation took a back seat during the session, with both houses allocating just 8 percent of their working hours for law making.  The government had planned to introduce 29 bills and pass 13 bills (other than the budget related ones). It managed to introduce just 12 bills and pass three.

Legislation

The three bills that were passed include the right to education bill, an amendment to the Constitution and one to the metro railways act.

Ten bills were intro-duced. Of these, seven had lapsed in the last Lok Sabha.  These include the new companies bill and one to establish customs and immigration points at land borders.  The three new bills include an amendment to SEBI Act, an amendment of the rubber act and a bill to establish a national green tribunal that will settle environmental cases.

It is instructive to see the list of bills that were originally listed for pass-ing but were not passed.  The women’s reservation bill—-which proposes 33% quota for women in Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies—was not passed, as the gov-ernment has not been able to build a consensus on the issue.

Other important bills that were not passed include the drugs amendment bill and the seeds bill.  The president’s address in June indicated the resolve to reintroduce and pass the land acquisition amendment and the rehabilitation and resettlement bill during this session—neither bill was introduced. The amendment to the forward contracts act was also not reintroduced.

Assessment

On three different occasions in the last week of its session, parliament asserted its supremacy over the government.

First, the law minister had to withdraw the motion to introduce the judges (assets) bill in Rajya Sabha on sustained opposition.  The bill had proposed that each high court and supreme court judge would declare their assets to the chief justice, and this declaration would not be available to any other person (and will be out-side the purview of the right to information act).

Second, the Lok Sabha insisted on a debate on the metro amendment bill, overruling the minister’s request to pass the bill without discussion.  Again, some Congress MPs raised objections and then were given the opportunity to make their points.  The third instance related to the rubber amendment bill which was being proposed in the absence of the relevant ministers.  The opposition insisted that the ministers should be present and that the discussion could be taken up at a later date when they were available.

These events bode well for the new parliament. In particular, the opposition should continue to question and oversee the actions of the government.It is important to realise that disruptions and walk-outs only achieve a symbolic purpose, and do not further the oversight role of Parliament. Indeed, there should be a move towards having more working days in a year.

Interestingly, a private member’s bill to has been introduced which proposes that each house of Parliament will have to work for at least 120 days and state legislative assemblies for 60 days every year.  This bill was supported across party lines but the discussion was not completed.  The spirit of this Bill—that Parliament spend more time highlighting and discussion national issue—must be maintained in the coming sessions.


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