How the budget session let down the spirit of parliamentary democracy
Poor planning and oversight of the legislative process are the troubling highlights of the budget session of Parliament. These are not new to the functioning of the supreme legislative body. But they are now becoming routine.
Last year, the pandemic derailed parliamentary functioning. Thus, after a four-month hiatus, Parliament met at the end of January for the budget session. The plan was for the two Houses to meet for 33 days. Instead, the session was shortened to 24 days. The political parties joined hands, asking to shorten the session to campaign in the next five parliamentary elections.
Ideally, the parliamentary calendar should be sacrosanct and its dates planned in advance. And that requires planning on the part of the government, which is constitutionally charged with convening parliament. The approximate timetable for the assembly elections is known well in advance. For example, the terms of the Assemblies of Punjab, Goa and Manipur will end in March of next year. Elections will therefore be held in these states in February and March 2022, in conflict with next year’s budget session. Thus, the dates of the session can be decided now and such planning will ensure that the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha sessions do not have to be cut short.
As the campaign heated up in the second part of the budget session, the benches of both Houses were empty. Several MPs did not show up at Question Time to get answers from government ministers. Average attendance at Lok Sabha fell to 71% and Rajya Sabha to 74%.
But this careful planning of the parliamentary calendar has been lacking in successive governments. In 2001, during the tenure of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, the budget session was shortened by eight days due to state elections in five states. Again in 2011, the budget session had to be cut short due to state elections during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tenure.
Government legislative affairs have also suffered from the lack of planning. Last October, when Parliament was not sitting and immediate action was required, the government used its power to order to establish an air quality management commission for the National Capital Region. . The order was made because immediate action was required. But during the budget session, the government missed the deadline to get parliamentary approval from the committee. As a result, the commission had to be dissolved. The government also planned to introduce 19 new bills during the session. But, at the end of the session, he could only present 13 bills to Parliament.
The other worrying aspect of the session was the lack of scrutiny of government legislation in Parliament. Since laws have a significant impact on society and deal with legal and political issues, they require careful consideration by specialized parliamentary committees. A short three-page amendment to the law on medical termination of pregnancy adopted during the session illustrates this point. Introduced last year in March, it extends the period during which abortions can be performed to 24 weeks (fetal age). This has implications for abortions for victims of sexual violence after the 24 week period. The law requires that abortions be performed by doctors specializing in gynecology or obstetrics and there is a shortage of such doctors in rural areas. This therefore also raises the question of access to safe abortions in rural areas.
A committee review, with input from government and other stakeholders, would have ironed out these problems. So far, in Lok Sabha, 11% of bills passed by parliament have been examined by a specialized committee. During the budget session, the government rejected several requests to send bills to committees and it took Parliament an average of 10 days to pass the 11 bills.
The session saw Parliament do a lot of work. But effective legislatures are measured by their results, not by their results. It is time for the government and the opposition parties to prioritize their legislative responsibilities. Because better results are the result of careful planning and robust control mechanisms. Such measures will strengthen the confidence of citizens in Parliament and strengthen the foundations of our democracy.
Chakshu Roy is Head of Legislative and Civic Engagement, PRS Legislative Research
Opinions expressed are personal