On 7 May, parliamentary proceedings hit a shocking low. A discussion on a resolution moved by Naveen Jindal on the need for a national policy to eradicate hunger could not be held, since the Lok Sabha did not have the quorum. In other words, the House could not rustle up even the required 55 members. Startling, considering that the latest National Family Health Survey reports that of children under three in India, nearly 46% are underweight, 39% are stunted and 20% severely malnourished. Worse still, it is estimated that 6,000 Indian children aged below five die every day due to malnourishment. It is difficult, therefore, to fathom how an issue as important as hunger did not merit the attention of even a tenth of the House.
This was no aberration. A week later, Parliament decided to advance the end of the Budget session, which was originally scheduled to close on 22 May, by four days. The reason given by parliamentary affairs minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi was that this was being done since the legislative body was being repeatedly adjourned in the face of stiff protest from the Opposition.
This is reprehensible. The two incidents reflect a declining trend in parliamentary standards, and if this is not immediately checked it could lead to the inevitable decline of the biggest institution of democracy in the country. Take, for instance, the just-concluded session of Parliament. It was originally scheduled to meet for 42 days. But the Lok Sabha met for 32 days and the Rajya Sabha for an even worse 31 days.
While attendance in Parliament is a clear problem, what is worse is that legislative changes are happening with little or no debate. According to data compiled by PRS Legislative Research, an independent research initiative that aims to strengthen the legislative debate by making it better informed, the Lok Sabha passed 15 Bills in its latest session, excluding the Finance Bill and the Appropriations Bill. The total time taken was 11 hours and 52 minutes—in other words, the Lok Sabha took under an hour, 47 minutes to be precise, to pass each Bill. In the Rajya Sabha, it was no better. It passed 13 Bills, averaging 51 minutes per piece of legislation.
While the general decline in standards has long been noticed, this time Parliament has discovered a new low—ironically in the 60th year of the country’s independence. Almost everyone is to blame: The Opposition for preventing the House from functioning normally and the government for its inability to successfully shore up its floor management.
While it is the democratic right of an opposition to ensure that the government hears its point of view, it is an entirely different matter if it treats parliamentary debate like an industrial dispute. At the same time, Dasmunsi has to do much more than merely blame the Opposition. It is his responsibility to liaise with all political parties to ensure the smooth functioning of the House. And, eventually, responsibility will rest with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The country’s Constitution has vested political power in him and the cabinet. It is time the Prime Minister wielded it.
All may not be lost. Individually, several members are cognizant of the problem. Almost immediately after Dasmunsi announced the intent to close Parliament earlier than scheduled, Gurudas Dasgupta, leader of the Communist Party of India in the Lok Sabha, reacted sharply and said: “This is the first time in 20 years that I have heard the government has no business. The fact is it has not done its job and drafted Bills. The cabinet hasn’t met to discuss these Bills. I am sorry we (the Left Front) have to support this rudderless government.”
There is more to democracy than the paraphernalia of elections. Parliament is one of the pillars of constitutional democracy in India. To allow it to develop cracks is very dangerous.
Why are parliamentarians not doing their job? Write to us at views@livemint,com