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Parliament watch: How productive was the first half of the budget session?

There is no denying that parliamentary reforms are urgently needed; and the ongoing budget session, with reduced legislative business, shoddy attendance, and several hours lost to disruptions and private members’ business receiving little attention, has only served to emphasise this necessity.

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AS the country’s highest representative body, the Parliament is tasked with, among other things, overseeing the Union budget. How the Parliament fulfills this responsibility must be taken into consideration while assessing its overall efficacy. As the Parliament has resumed the budget session, this piece analyses the productivity of the Parliament in the first half of the session from January 31 to February 13.

Also read: Uncovering the political economy of the 2023-24 budget

How much business was transacted in the Parliament?

The Parliament sat for ten days in the first half of the budget session. In addition to introducing government bills, and laying papers and committee reports on the table, important business, including the Motion of Thanks on the President’s address, and general discussion on the Union budget were taken up in the Parliament.

The Parliament spends disproportionately less time on legislative business. Statistically speaking, the Lok Sabha spent only one hour and 42 minutes, or 4.09 percent of its time on legislative business. On the other hand, the Lok Sabha spent 41 hours and 34 minutes, or 95.91 percent of its time on non-legislative business. Similarly, the Rajya Sabha spent 24 hours or 90.6 percent of its time on non-legislative business.

However, before launching a quantitative inquiry into the productivity of the Parliament, it would be prudent to take a retrospective look at the activities of the Houses in hindsight.

Information concerning the activities of the Lok Sabha can be found in the table below.

Table 1: Lok Sabha in numbers (based on the Lok Sabha Bulletin I from January 31 to February 13, 2023)

Date Sitting slots when the House was disrupted Legislative business Disruptions The Motion of Thanks on the President’s address General discussion on the Union budget Total business (legislative and non-legislative)
31-Jan 7 min
01-Feb 1 min 1 hr 29 min
02-Feb 11:00 – 11:03 02:00 – 02:05 5 hr 52 min 8 min
03-Feb 11:00 – 11:05 02:00 – 02:06 5 hr 49 min 11 min
06-Feb 11:00 – 11:06 02:00 – 02:07 5 hr 47 min 13 min
07-Feb 11:00 – 11:03 12:00 – 01:11 01:30 – 09:07 1 hr 17 min 8 hr 38 min 8 hr 50 min
08-Feb 5 hr 7 min 1 hr 43 min 8 hr 3 min
09-Feb 8 hr 25 min 9 hr 31 min
10-Feb 4 hr 37 min 7 hr 2 min
13-Feb 1 hr 41 min 6 hr

 The corresponding information concerning the activities of the Rajya Sabha can be found in the table below.

Table 2: Rajya Sabha in numbers (based on the Rajya Sabha Bulletin Part-I from January 31 to February 13, 2023)

Date Sitting slots when the House was disrupted Legislative business Disruptions The Motion of Thanks on the President’s address General discussion on the Union budget Total business (legislative and non-legislative)
31-Jan 10 min
01-Feb 5 min
02-Feb 11:00 – 11:07 02:00 – 02:02 5 hr 51 min 9 min
03-Feb 11:00 – 11:08  02:30 – 02:33 5 hr 49 min 11 min
06-Feb 11:00 – 11:12 02:00 – 02:03 5 hr 45 min 15 min
07-Feb 11:01 – 11:12 12:00 – 12:02 02:00 – 06:02 2 hr 46 min 3 hr 59 min 4 hr 15 min
08-Feb 8 hr 9 min 8 hr 48 min
09-Feb 11:00 – 03:57 04:30 – 04:34 05:15 – 05:25 1 hr 14 min 1 hr 43 min 15 min 4 hr 11 min
10-Feb 2 hr 28 min 2 hr 24 min 7 hr 42 min
13-Feb 11:00 – 11:28 11:50 – 12:04 5 hr 18 min 42 min

In parliamentary parlance, ‘legislative business’ refers to activities like introducing, discussing, withdrawing or negating bills and resolutions in the Parliament. The bills and resolutions can be moved for discussion by a minister or a private member.

The Parliament spends disproportionately less time on legislative business. The tables above make this fact apparent. Statistically speaking, the Lok Sabha spent only one hour and 42 minutes, or 4.09 percent of its time on legislative business. This includes the introduction of the Finance Bill, 2023, and a discussion on the “Beautification and Modernization of Railway Stations under the Adarsh Station Scheme” resolution (at 12:28 p.m. on February 1 by Union Finance and Corporate Affairs Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on February 1, 2023, and at 4:19 p.m. on February 13 by the Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party’s Lok Sabha member Reddeppa Nallakkonda).

The average attendance in the Lok Sabha stood at 75.84 percent, which was only marginally better vis-à-vis the Rajya Sabha, which saw an average attendance of 68.2 percent.

In contrast, the Rajya Sabha spent two hours and 28 minutes, or 9.31 percent of its time discussing the “Educational and Social Backwardness of Muslims” resolution moved by the Indian Union Muslim League’s Rajya Sabha member Abdul Wahab at 2:32 p.m. on February 10.

Every other business such as motions, special mention, question hour and zero hour, among others, is deemed ‘non-legislative’ since business under these devices is not legislative by nature. Members make use of these devices to initiate discussions, illicit information, and hold the executive accountable. Data reveal that the Lok Sabha spent 41 hours and 34 minutes, or 95.91 percent of its time on non-legislative business. Similarly, the Rajya Sabha spent 24 hours or 90.6 percent of its time on non-legislative business.

Also read: The continuing decline of Parliamentary democracy in India

How productive was the Parliament?

To analyse the productivity of the Parliament, we launched an empirical inquiry into factors other than the time spent on legislative and non-legislative business.

Attendance was considered the first determinant in our analysis. Over the years, conducting business in the Houses without a quorum has become customary. Even Money Bills have occasionally been passed by the House with few members. In 1982, only 26 members were present in the House when then-Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee introduced the Finance Bills to give effect to the Union Budget. Similarly, in 2010–11, it was observed that during the debate on the general budget, several members, including cabinet ministers, were missing from the House.

This trend appears to have continued as attendance in the past few years has dipped further. The average attendance during the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-2019) stood at 81 percent whereas, in the corresponding Rajya Sabha, it was 80 per cent.

In the ongoing budget session, the average attendance in the Lok Sabha stood at 75.84 per cent, which was only marginally better vis-à-vis the Rajya Sabha, which saw an average attendance of 68.2 per cent. Expressing his anguish at the absence of members during a general discussion on the Union budget, the Rajya Sabha Chairman, Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar noted, “I need to indicate that this was indeed a very important debate and discussion. People elect us to participate in this debate that from one side is made out to be game-changers, and every Member of the House has to contribute so that our progress continues to be on an enhanced trajectory. This is a rare opportunity. People expect us to make out contributions, and our suggestions so that the Government may be enlightened. The absence of the Members, on this most momentous occasion, does not augur well for democratic values. We are facing a situation where dialogue, debate, and discussion are evading the hallowed presence of this House.

Graph: Attendance in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha (For more details, see the Date-Wise Members’ Attendance Status for the Lok Sabha and the Attendance of the members of Rajya Sabha.)

In addition to poor attendance, the ongoing budget session suffered from frequent and often chaotic disruptions by the members. Since the scheduled business could not be conducted, the presiding officers were forced to adjourn the sittings. The opposition, led by the Indian National Congress parliamentary party, charged the government with “inaction” in the light of the allegations made by investment-research firm Hindenburg Research LLC on the business practices of multinational corporate Adani Group. In addition, the opposition also stifled the government on a host of other issues, including rising inflation, declining employment, and a falling economy.

Also read: Hindenburg Adani report fallout: Supreme Court forms committee to review regulatory framework

Spread over four days, the Lok Sabha lost 18 hours and 45 minutes to eight disruptions. In percentage terms, the loss comes to 31.08 percent of the time. Similarly, the Rajya Sabha was disrupted 13 times over six days. Overall, the House lost 26 hours and 43 minutes, or 50.23 percent of the time. In other words, the Rajya Sabha lost more time to disruption than the scheduled business.

The Rajya Sabha was disrupted 13 times over six days. Overall, the House lost 26 hours and 43 minutes, or 50.23 percent of the time. In other words, the Rajya Sabha lost more time to disruption than the scheduled business.

The Rajya Sabha is entrusted with upholding the principles of federalism and is supposed to conduct itself in a manner consistent with the highest ethical standards. Nevertheless, a thorough examination of the Rajya Sabha paints a different picture.

For instance, the discussion on the Motion of Thanks on the President’s address was to be conducted over four days from February 6 to February 9. However, the actual discussion took place only on February 7, 8, and 9. Similarly, the general discussion on the Union budget was scheduled to take place from February 8 to February 10. However, the discussion lasted for only two hours and 39 minutes over two days on February 9 and 10. In contrast, the Lok Sabha discussed the Union budget for 14 hours and 45 minutes.

Quite evidently, the Rajya Sabha is failing to live up to expectations. With attendance down and disruptions mounting, even the government business remains unfinished. For instance, the House was scheduled to consider and pass the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Fifth Amendment) Bill, 2022 on February 13. However, due to interruptions, the afternoon sitting was lost, and the bill could neither be considered nor passed.

In our analysis, the private members’ business was regarded as the final determinant for evaluating the productivity of Parliament. According to Rules 26 and 24, respectively, of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business, private members’ business must take place on Friday for at least two hours and 30 minutes. Under this business, private members may introduce bills for the House’s consideration or move resolutions to bring up matters of general public interest.

Private members’ business, despite its significance, receives little attention, and the ongoing budget session is no exception.

As per the parliamentary calendar, private members’ business was listed on February 3 and 10. In the Lok Sabha, 150 bills were scheduled for introduction (items 19 to 163) and consideration (items 164 to 169), and in the Rajya Sabha, 43 bills were scheduled for introduction (items 1 to 37) and consideration (items 38 to 43) on February 3. However, neither House was able to conduct business because of the disruption that washed the afternoon sitting.

Similarly, on February 10, four resolutions were scheduled for discussion in the Lok Sabha. However, the House agreed to postpone discussing the private members’ resolutions because it was discussing the Union Budget (at 3:29 p.m. by Union Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Coal and Mines, Pralhad V. Joshi). However, even as the Lok Sabha (on February 13) and the Rajya Sabha (on February 10) began discussing the private members’ resolutions, neither House could conclude their respective business.

Also read: Crisis of pending government assurances in Parliament

What do the above findings denote?

The issues surrounding the productivity of Parliament lack simple solutions. We may evaluate the Houses and their members quantitatively using empirical evidence and statistical information. However, a complete image might not always emerge from such a method.

The general conclusion of an improvement in citizens’ quality of life should be used to evaluate the efficacy of our parliamentary system. In addition to the determinants that have been examined in this article, one observes a drop in several other determinants as well, including the performance of parliamentary committees, decreased sittings of such committees, and cancellation of Zero Hour and Question Hour. There is no denying that parliamentary reforms are urgently needed, and the ongoing Budget session has only served to emphasise this necessity.

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