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Falling Bastions

Compared to legislative bodies in other parts of the world, our legislators are an underworked lot; the British Parliament sits for an average of 150 days, while the US Congress clocks more than 100 days each year. The attendance of members during crucial discussions is not up to the mark; the Prime Minister recently warned his party MPs about their laxity


Paying tribute to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on his birth anniversary (Good Governance Day, 25 December), VicePresident Venkaiah Naidu observed that good governance needed good legislatures to oversee
the performance of the executive.

Mr Naidu lamented that in a serious abdication of its responsibility, the Rajya Sabha had lost about 61 per cent of Question Hour time in the just concluded Winter Session on account of disruptions. The Winter Session was only the latest in a series of similar sessions, where Opposition members created mayhem, and important legislation was rushed through by the ruling party without any meaningful discussion. Probably, the Government felt happy that many Bills, some with controversial provisions, had sailed through without their defects being exposed; the Opposition felt that it had done its duty by walk-outs and protests in the well of the House. But public-spirited citizens felt short changed; neither House could find time to discuss pressing concerns of the common man e.g., roaring inflation, rising inequality, Chinese aggression, women’s safety etc.

Moreover, in the absence of debate in Parliament, citizens only had newspapers to enlighten them about the pros and cons of the various laws enacted by Parliament. Statistics reveal that Parliament is sitting for fewer and fewer days, with more and more time being wasted by disruptions. Between 1952 and 1972 the Lok Sabha sat, on an average, for 120 days in a year, which came down to 63 in the Fifteenth Lok Sabha (2009-2014) and 66 in the Sixteenth Lok Sabha (2014 to 2019). The Seventeenth Lok Sabha has sat for 149 days since its inception in 2019. Productivity, i.e., the number of hours the Lok Sabha actually functioned compared to the number of hours officially earmarked for work was more than 100 per cent till the Twelfth Lok Sabha, declining to 91 per cent in the Thirteenth Lok Sabha, 87 in the Fourteenth Lok Sabha, touching a nadir of 61 per cent in the Fifteenth Lok Sabha, before improving slightly for the Sixteenth Lok Sabha.

Still, the Sixteenth Lok Sabha had the second lowest hours of work done compared to any other full-term Lok Sabha. The Rajya Sabha, the House of Elders fared even worse, losing 36 per cent of its scheduled time as against 16 per cent in the earlier term. The fall in the number of debates and discussions is a natural consequence of the short time the Union Legislature spends on Parliamentary business.

In a telling comment about the conduct of the Monsoon Session of 2021, PRS, the legislative research agency, noted: “In this Lok Sabha, this is the fourth consecutive time when a session has been cut short of the scheduled date, in addition to Winter session 2020 not being held. Proceedings of Parliament were interrupted regularly as members protested inside both Houses.

Parliament functioned for less than a quarter of the scheduled time, and several Bills were passed within minutes without any discussion… The House sat for 21 hours which is 21 per cent of the scheduled time. This is the lowest since Winter 2016 session, when Lok Sabha worked for 15 per cent of its scheduled time.” Mutatis mundis, these comment hold true about many recent sessions of Parliament. Justifying protracted disruptions of Parliament by his party MPs during UPA times, Arun Jaitley, former Finance Minister and leader of the Rajya Sabha (2014-19) propounded a deleterious doctrine, “Parliament’s job is to conduct discussions. But many a time, Parliament is used to ignore issues, and in such situations, obstruction of Parliament is in the favour of democracy. Therefore, parliamentary obstruction is not undemocratic,” which the Opposition throws back at the ruling party whenever it is accused of obstructing Parliamentary proceedings.

State Legislatures fare even worse in terms of number of days worked; most State legislatures work only for 30 to 40 days in a year, with some honourable exceptions like the Kerala Legislative Assembly that sits for an average 150 days in a year. Compared to legislative bodies in other parts of the world, our legislators are an underworked lot; the British Parliament sits for an average of 150 days, while the US Congress clocks more than 100 days each year. The attendance of members during crucial discussions is not up to the mark; PM Modi recently warned his party MPs about their laxity. Laws enacted without adequate discussion often return to haunt their makers; the highly contentious Farming Acts, passed without sufficient debate, led to protracted protests and had to be repealed within fifteen months. Unfortunately, the Farming Acts were repealed without discussion, depriving citizens of a chance to know why these Acts, touted as a panacea for farming sector ills, had suddenly lost their glitter. Disturbingly, State legislatures are now enacting laws circumscribing personal choice in matters of food, drink, marriage and religion, which bring individuals in conflict with the State.

Many recent laws prescribe long prison sentences ~ up to life imprisonment for alcohol consumption, cow slaughter and consumption of beef. Recently enacted love-jihad laws in UP and MP make inter-faith marriages punishable. Significantly, there is no prohibition in the Constitution on interfaith marriages and the Special Marriage Act 1954 (and before that the 1872 Act) was specifically enacted to legitimise marriage between people following different religions.

The hurried passing of laws on controversial topics without listening to dissenting voices is suggestive of a ‘maai baap’ or ‘Government knows best’ attitude which should be avoided in a democratic society. The Chief Justice of India has pointed out that laws that had not been thought through had led to unnecessary litigation.

The CJI had made these remarks in context of an amendment in the Negotiable Instruments Act, that had led to a pendency of 60 lakh cases. Similarly, imposition of prohibition in many States has led to preoccupation of the police with prohibition offences, as also a flood of litigation in lower courts. The reluctance of higher courts, particularly the Supreme Court, in deciding cases with political connotations has not helped matters; a number of cases of disqualification of elected representatives, as also challenges to controversial Acts like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) are pending since long. Some unprecedented actions were also taken by the top court; hearing myriad challenges to the Farming Acts, the Supreme Court stayed the Acts and also constituted a committee to examine their provisions. Perhaps, it would be better if the Supreme Court sheds its coyness to wade in troubled waters and decides contentious cases, one way or the other.

As pointed out in “Legislation Reimagined” (The Statesman, 14 December), following the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy (PLCP) before introducing legislation and assessing the effect of the legislation after a pre-determined period would help in curbing the enactment of contentious laws. That said, it is the primary duty of public representatives to discuss and debate all aspects of any proposed enactment and enact laws that are acceptable to all.

Thus, as pointed out by VicePresident Naidu, the ultimate responsibility for the malaise that ails our legislative bodies lies with legislators. But, some of our legislators are not of sterling character, given the fact that 233 Lok Sabha MPs (43 per cent) face criminal charges, with nearly 29 per cent being charged with serious crimes like rape, murder, attempt to murder or crime against women.

One BJP MP faces terror charges and a Congress MP faces 240 criminal cases. Disturbingly, the number of MPs charged with serious crimes has risen by 109 per cent since 2009. The position in State legislatures is hardly better; the stringent Anti-Defection Act could not deter MLAs from changing their loyalties in bulk, allegedly for monetary considerations. Probably, our public representatives forget that they represent millions of their constituents ~ not themselves alone.

It is a tragedy that most Indians vote on the basis of caste, religion or party affiliations but seldom on the basis of the merit of a candidate, which accounts for the anomalous situation narrated above. There could be no change in our polity till the time electors give primacy to the moral character of their representatives.

What US President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), said about moral corruption amongst US lawmakers applies squarely to present day India: “I weep for the liberty of my country when I see at this early day of its successful experiment that corruption has been imputed to many members of the House of Representatives, and the rights of the people have been bartered for promises of office.”

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)