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Burning Issues

[Burning Issue] Quashing of the Question Hour

In view of the pandemic and a truncated Monsoon Session, Parliament has said no to Question Hour and curtailed Zero Hour. The opposition MPs have criticised the move, saying they will lose the right to question the government. A look at what happens in the two Houses during Question Hour and Zero Hour:

What is Question Hour?

  • It is during this one hour that Members of Parliament ask questions of ministers and hold them accountable for the functioning of their ministries.
  • The questions that MPs ask are designed to elicit information and trigger suitable action by ministries.

And what is Zero Hour?

  • While Question Hour is strictly regulated, Zero Hour is an Indian parliamentary innovation.  The phrase does not find mention in the rules of procedure.
  • The concept of Zero Hour started organically in the first decade of Indian Parliament, when MPs felt the need for raising important constituency and national issues.
  • During the initial days, Parliament used to break for lunch at 1 pm. Therefore, the opportunity for MPs to raise national issues without an advance notice became available at 12 pm and could last for an hour until the House adjourned for lunch.
  • This led to the hour being popularly referred to as Zero Hour and the issues being raised during this time as Zero Hour submissions.

A historical backgrounder

  • The right to question the executive has been exercised by members of the House from the colonial period.
  • The first Legislative Council in British India under the Charter Act, 1853, showed some degree of independence by giving members the power to ask questions to the executive.
  • Later, the Indian Council Act of 1861 allowed members to elicit information by means of questions.
  • However, it was the Indian Council Act, 1892, which formulated the rules for asking questions including short notice questions.
  • The next stage of the development of procedures related to questions came up with the framing of rules under the Indian Council Act, 1909, which incorporated provisions for asking supplementary questions by members.
  • The Montague-Chelmsford reforms brought forth a significant change in 1919 by incorporating a rule that the first hour of every meeting was earmarked for questions. Parliament has continued this tradition.

How is Question Hour regulated?

  • Parliament has comprehensive rules for dealing with every aspect of Question Hour.
  • And the presiding officers of the two houses are the final authority with respect to the conduct of Question Hour.
  • For example, usually Question Hour is the first hour of a parliamentary sitting.

What kinds of questions are asked?

  • Parliamentary rules provide guidelines on the kind of questions that can be asked by MPs.
  • Questions have to be limited to 150 words. They have to be precise and not too general.
  • The question should also be related to an area of responsibility of the Government of India. Questions should not seek information about matters that are secret or are under adjudication before courts.
  • It is the presiding officers of the two Houses who finally decide whether a question raised by an MP will be admitted for answering by the government.

How frequently is Question Hour held?

  • The process of asking and answering questions starts with identifying the days on which Question Hour will be held.
  • At the beginning of Parliament in 1952, Lok Sabha rules provided for Question Hour to be held every day. Rajya Sabha, on the other hand, had a provision for Question Hour for two days a week.
  • A few months later, this was changed to four days a week. Then from 1964, Question Hour was taking place in Rajya Sabha on every day of the session.

How does Parliament manage to get so many questions answered?

  • To streamline the answering of questions raised by MPs, the ministries are put into five groups.
  • Each group answers questions on the day allocated to it. For example, in the last session, on Thursday the Ministries of Civil Aviation, Labour, Housing, and Youth Affairs and Sports were answering questions posed by Lok Sabha MPs.
  • This grouping of ministries is different for the two Houses so that ministers can be present in one house to answer questions.
  • MPs can specify whether they want an oral or written response to their questions. They can put an asterisk against their question signifying that they want the minister to answer that question on the floor.
  • These are referred to as starred questions. After the minister’s response, the MP who asked the question and other MPs can also ask a follow-up question.
  • Seasoned parliamentarians choose to ask an oral question when the answer to the question will put the government in an uncomfortable position.

How do ministers prepare their answers?

  • Ministries receive the questions 15 days in advance so that they can prepare their ministers for Question Hour.
  • They also have to prepare for sharp follow-up questions they can expect to be asked in the House.
  • Government’s officers are close at hand in a gallery so that they can pass notes or relevant documents to support the minister in answering a question.
  • When MPs are trying to gather data and information about government functioning, they prefer the responses to such queries in writing.
  • These questions are referred to as unstarred questions. The responses to these questions are placed on the table of Parliament.

Are the questions only for ministers?

  • MPs usually ask questions to hold ministers accountable. But the rules also provide them with a mechanism for asking their colleagues a question.
  • Such a question should be limited to the role of an MP relating to a Bill or a resolution being piloted by them or any other matter connected with the functioning of the House for which they are responsible.
  • If the presiding officer allows, MPs can also ask a question to a minister at a notice period shorter than 15 days.

Have there been previous sessions without Question Hour?

  • Parliamentary records show that during the Chinese aggression in 1962, the Winter Session was advanced.
  • The sitting of the House started at 12 pm and there was no Question Hour held. Before the session, changes were made limiting the number of questions.
  • Thereafter, following an agreement between the ruling and the Opposition parties, it was decided to suspend Question Hour.

Why did the government cancel the Question Hour?

  • The delay in holding the monsoon session due to consistent lockdowns has halted the passing of several bills and financial grants due to budgetary overlays.
  • The limited consultation with Opposition leaders, the dismissive approach to Question Hour without bearing better fruits is one of the decisive factors for the termination of this session.
  • The continued practice of pushing forward bills without committee scrutiny and the use of ordinances for issues that are not emergencies that require executive action all add to this impression.

Why is the Question Hour necessary?

  • The Question Hour has deepened the parliamentary accountability of government.
  • The Government is put on its trial during the Question Hour and every Minister whose turn it is to answer questions has to stand up and answer for his or his administration’s acts of omission and commission.
  • Through the Question Hour the Government is able to quickly feel the pulse of the nation and adapt its policies and actions accordingly.
  • It is through questions in the Parliament that the Government remains in touch with the people in as much as members are enabled thereby to ventilate the grievances of the public in matters concerning the administration.
  • Questions enable Ministries to gauge the popular reaction to their policy and administration.
  • Questions bring to the notice of the Ministers many loopholes which otherwise would have gone unnoticed.
  • Sometimes questions may lead to the appointment of a Commission, a Court of Inquiry or even Legislation when matters raised by Members are grave enough to agitate the public mind and are of wide public importance.

Though not enough productive

  • The Rajya Sabha’s research wing has pulled out statistics from the last five years which reveal that nearly 60% of the time allotted for the hour has been lost due to disruptions.
  • Between 2015-19, Rajya Sabha held a total of 332 sittings.
  • Out of the 332 hours available for Question Hour (one hour per sitting), only 133 hours and 17 minutes were spent raising questions and obtaining oral replies from the concerned Ministers.

Criticisms of the move

  • The move to hold parliament session with question hour seems to be guided by the view that Parliament is a forum transaction of government business.
  • The latest move downplays Parliament’s role as a platform for the people’s representatives to ask questions and the Opposition to hold the government to account.
  • Importance of zero hour and question has become very crucial at this juncture, as in in the name of controlling the Covid pandemic, the executive is appropriating more powers, So many guidelines, rules and regulations have been issued without the sanction of Parliament.
  • There has been greater tendency on the part of the Government to short circuit debate and deliberation.

Way forward

  • One can imagine innumerable ways in which proceedings in Parliament could be modified to reduce the necessity to touch surfaces and to maintain social distance.
  • The pressing need is for the parliamentarians and the ministers to re-configure themselves.
  • One of the recommendations made by Justice Chagla was that “in a parliamentary form of Government, Parliament should be taken into confidence by the Minister at every stage, and all the relevant materials must be placed before it.”
  • Hence there can be no way ahead without holding the very instruments of democratic functioning.

Conclusion

  • Asking questions is the very essence of democracy.  National parliaments do not dispense with questions even at the time of war.
  • Democracy is judged by the debate it encourages and sustains. The government in a democracy performs to honour its manifesto and the Opposition questions to underscore its own.
  • The questions are asked from civil society platforms, the mass media, community gatherings and ultimately within the highest temple of democracy, the legislature itself.
  • If questions are disallowed in Parliament, many more will be asked outside it. If the questions can lead to greater unity of national purpose, the government will do itself and the nation a great injustice by attempting to stifle them.
  • Cancelling Question Hour erodes constitutional mandate of parliamentary oversight over executive action. However, it is a test of time which will prove the efficacy of this decision in the coming future.

References

https://www.prsindia.org/media/articles-by-prs-team/expert-explains-what-are-question-hour-and-zero-hour-and-why-they-matter

https://www.bloombergquint.com/opinion/what-a-parliament-session-without-question-hour-would-mean

https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/60-of-question-hour-lost-due-to-disruptions/article32515906.ece

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/editorials/parliament-session-coronavirus-question-hour-6582129/
https://www.livelaw.in/columns/importance-of-question-hour-in-a-parliamentary-democracy-162728
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