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What a washout!

Parliament almost slipped into irrelevance in the second half of the Budget session, with productivity of Lok Sabha at a dismal four per cent and Rajya Sabha at nine per cent

The Budget session of Parliament that ended on Friday was a complete washout. The least productive in 18 years, the session, though full of drama, was a big waste not just monetarily, but also in terms of the precious work hours that netas spent on launching attacks and counter-attacks in the well of the House.

Some reports claimed that as much as Rs 190 crore had gone down the drain in what was the last Budget session before the 2019 general election.

“This waste cannot be justified,” political psychologist Ashish Nandy says. “It doesn’t matter what reasons may surface later as a justification. The reason for not allowing debates was superficial. Corruption cannot be an issue to stall Parliament because no political party is corruption free. Elected representatives must realise their greater responsibility when they reach the floor of Parliament. A functioning Parliament has to be ensured. After all they have been elected for a purpose and not to stall sessions.”

Worst since 2000

The Lok Sabha worked for a mere 21 per cent of its scheduled time this session. The figure for Rajya Sabha was only slightly higher at 27 per cent. This doesn’t compare well with 16th Lok Sabha’s average productivity — 85 per cent for the lower house and 68 per cent for Rajya Sabha.

Economists agree that washouts make a big dent on the exchequer. But they also add that if a government is not responsive to the issues at hand, then work hours get wasted in Parliament anyway.

“The work hours need to be utilised for the good of the people,” Professor Arun Kumar of Institute of Social Sciences says. “If the debates and discussion are not pro-poor then there is no welfare in the larger context. Every Indian should be benefitted from these discussions. And that larger interest is to be seen by both the governing party as well as the opposition. There should be a common ground that the politicians need to agree on for the welfare of the country.”

A majority of the time in the session’s first half was spent on the general discussion of the Union Budget, including the Railway Budget (merged with Union budget since 2017), the Finance Bill, and Demand for Grants of various ministries.

Lok Sabha discussed the Budget for 15 hours, Rajya Sabha 11. Compare this with the average numbers since 2000 — Lok Sabha has otherwise discussed the Union budget for 53 hours and Rajya Sabha 23.

In the session’s second phase, the Finance Bill was passed in Lok Sabha in 18 minutes straight with no participation of any member. This was the lowest time spent on discussing the Finance Bill since 2000. The longest was 12 hours and 48 minutes in 2003. The Finance Bill typically contains only tax proposals. Only this year, it also included amendments to 18 Acts unrelated to taxation. Every single Demand for Grants, which accounted for 28 per cent of government expenditure amounting to about Rs 26 lakh crore, was passed without a single discussion.

It may be recalled that 100 per cent guillotining (passage of grants without discussion) was also observed in 2004-05 and 2013-14.

All data have been sourced from the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha websites as on April 6, 2018. Institute for Policy Research Studies (PRS) under legislative Research keeps a close monitoring on the functioning of Parliament and collects the data.

According to PRS, in the first part of the session, Lok Sabha worked for 89 per cent of its scheduled time, and Rajya Sabha worked for 96 per cent. But, in the second, productivity decreased to four per cent for Lok Sabha, and nine per cent for Rajya Sabha. Several MPs gave notices to move a no-confidence motion against the government.  But the motion was not admitted due to disruptions. This was the first time a notice to move a no-confidence motion was given in the 16th Lok Sabha. A no-confidence motion was also moved in the 15th Lok Sabha (2013) but was not discussed. In the 14th Lok Sabha, a no-confidence motion was converted to a confidence vote, which the government won.

Question Hour travails

Question Hour in Lok Sabha functioned for just 11 per cent of its scheduled time — the worst under this government. In Rajya Sabha the number was even lower at three per cent.  Of the total starred questions listed, four per cent (25) were answered orally in Lok Sabha, and one per cent (five) in Rajya Sabha.

Due to disruptions, Question Hour in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha functioned for their entire durations only for one day – just one per cent of productive time was spent on legislative business in Lok Sabha and six per cent in Rajya Sabha.

At the beginning of the session, 32 Bills were listed for consideration and passage, and eight were listed for introduction, consideration and passing.

Of these, the Payment of Gratuity (Amendment) Bill, 2018 was passed by Parliament and the Specific Relief (Amendment) Bill 2017 was passed by Lok Sabha, without discussion.

Further, two Bills were introduced—the Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill, 2018 and the Chit Funds (Amendment) Bill, 2018. Rajya Sabha spent two hours and 31 minutes discussing legislative business. But just three minutes of this time was spent discussing government Bills, with the remaining time spent on Private Members’ Bills. Lok Sabha, meanwhile, spent 19 minutes discussing legislative business. Of this, 14 minutes were spent in passing two government Bills, with no discussion on Private Members’ Bills.

Fewest discussions

This data includes discussion under Rule 193, Rule 176, Calling Attention, and Motion of Thanks. The President’s Address was taken up for discussion in both Houses. It was discussed for almost 26 hours in both Houses with 157 MPs participating in the discussion.

This session saw the lowest number of non-legislative debates since the beginning of the 16th Lok Sabha. The issue of irregularities in the banking sector was listed for discussion. But it was not taken up. During the Budget session, Rajya Sabha examines the functioning of various ministries. In this session, the working of four ministries — Drinking Water and Sanitation, Home Affairs, Culture, and Food Processing Industries — were listed for discussion. But none were taken up.

Lok Sabha, which hosted 29 sittings, cancelled one due to the death of a sitting member. Speaking to Newslaundry, Chakshu Roy, Head of Outreach, PRS Legislative Research says, “In the run-up to general elections as political differences heighten, we have to ensure that Parliament’s working and productivity does not suffer. The opportunity lost to debate laws, scrutinise the budget due to a washout session is an incalculable loss to the nation.”

The political class, however, claims that theirs has been a sincere effort to run Parliament and it is the unresponsive government that has forced the logjam.

“The government is not ready to debate,” senior Congress leader Tom Vadakkan says. “If there is a debate, it is obvious that there will be questions raised about it on the floor. If the government is not willing to spare time to listen to the questions and issues raised by the opposition then how can Parliament function? Of course, we want Parliament to function but only if it is allowed to function in the right manner. Currently only the government puts its views like Gujarat Model. If this remains the practice then we are bound to stall Parliament.” Attempts to reach out to Bharatiya Janata Party’s national spokesperson Anil Baluni did not yield any response.