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Parliamentary proceedings: Scrapped Questions Hour upsets Lawmakers

Gayatri Vinayak
·5-min read
Parliamentary proceedings: Scrapped Questions Hour upsets Lawmakers
Parliamentary proceedings: Scrapped Questions Hour upsets Lawmakers

The Monsoon Session of the Parliament has kicked off, meeting for the first time since the outbreak of the virus. This will be the first time that both the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha will take turn-wise sittings of 18 sessions each, meeting in shifts to maintain social distancing norms. Around 45 Bills and two Financial items have been identified to be taken up during the session. The Monsoon session will be held following strict COVID-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs), with all Ministers and MPs to be seated in a staggered way in chambers of both Houses, as well as galleries to maintain physical distancing norms.

What further sets this Session apart is the Centre's decision to temporarily suspend the Question Hour, the first hour of the proceedings where Lawmakers can ask questions or raise concerns. This has raised much concern from MPs who say that this move has robbed them of their rights.

Notifications issued by the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha secretariats mention that the Question Hour will not be held and private member bills will not be taken up, while the Zero hour will be restricted. This, as per the notification, is to avoid assembling of a large number of officials to be present in galleries of the House during the Question Hour.

Question Hour: Debates, drama and wit

The Lok Sabha website categorically states that asking questions is the right of every Parliamentarian. During the Question Hour, MPs can ask any question relating to any aspect of administration or Governmental duties.

This is also when the Government is held accountable for its actions and every Minister to whom a specific question is posed is expected to stand up and account for its department’s actions or lack of.

The session allows the Government to gauge the pulse of the nation and their reaction to popular policies and administration.

According to PRS Legislative, during the Question Hour, parliamentarians ask three types of questions –

1. Starred Question: Asked by an MP and answered orally by the Minister in charge. Starred questions are submitted in advance and only 15 questions are picked for a reply. The MP is allowed to ask two supplementary questions. The list of these questions is printed in green colour.

2. Unstarred questions: Receive a written reply and are submitted 15 days in advance. A maximum of 160 unstarred questions are picked in a day. No supplementary questions are allowed and the list of the questions is printed in white.

3. Short notice questions: These are matters of public importance which need urgent addressing. in cases of urgent public importance. They do not require the `15 days’ notice but are admitted at the discretion of the Chairman.

The Question Hour often sees packed houses with the Public Galleries and Press Galleries full as Ministers and Parliamentarians also use the opportunity to make barbs at each other, crack jokes or quote poetry while debating.

During the Zero Hour in November 2005, when MPs from Orissa were demanding a reply from the Leader of the House and then Minister of Defence, late Pranab Mukherjee, on the shifting of National Institute of Science to Kolkata from Bhubaneswar, the former President had asked them not to compel him to respond instantly, ‘like instant coffee’, drawing laughter.

At another time, during a discussion of the Indian Economic Council Management Bill, 2012, when the Chairman interrupted BJD’s Tathagata Satpathy, and requested him to be short in his answer, Satpathy hilarious replied that he was very short and would like to actually be six feet and two inches.

The Question Hour also sees much drama – while participating in a debate on a no-confidence motion against NDA in 2018, Congress’s Rahul Gandhi walked up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, hugged him, returned to his seat and winked at his colleague, much to the surprise of the PM and the amusement of other members in the House.

Since the Question Hour is broadcast on TV, it has also helped expose financial irregularities and bring information about government functioning to the public.

Earlier suspensions

While this is the first time there will be a temporary suspension of the Question Hour during peacetime, the Question Hour has been suspended earlier during wars and during the Emergency. During the Indo-China War of 1962, the Parliament’s Winter session was advanced from November 11 to October 20, its Question Hour was skipped as well. In 1971, which saw the birth of Bangladesh as an aftermath of the Indo-Pakistan War, the Question Hour was removed from the session.

Further, during the Emergency between June 1975 and March 1977, out of the five sessions of the Parliament that were held, two sessions did not have any Questions Hours. This was during the monsoon session of 1975 when the Emergency was first declared, and during the Winter session of 1976, when the 42nd Amendment Act was passed.

This Act brought sweeping changes to the constitution and brought in the words "socialist" and "secular" in the Preamble to the Constitution. In 1977, the Parliament again did away with the Question Hour as it set to approve President’s rule in Tamil Nadu and Nagaland.

These earlier suspensions all happened during special sittings of the Parliament. This Monsoon session will see Unstarred questions being taken, which will get written replies from the concerned Ministries.

However, lawmakers have questioned the move of not allowing starred questions, especially since the Session comes at a time when the GDP has contracted by 23.9 per cent, the rising escalation between India and China and with the mounting COVID-19 cases.