New Delhi: The Modi government triggered a row with its decision to do away with the Question Hour this monsoon session of Parliament, scheduled to take place between 14 September and 1 October.
Usually held at the end of June, the session was delayed this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Question Hour is the first hour of business every day when Parliament is in session, which the Lok Sabha website describes as a means to sense the “pulse of the nation”.
The move sparked anger in the opposition, with MPs like Congress’ Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and Trinamool Congress’ Derek O’Brien questioning the decision. According to the Lok Sabha, these MPs have an “inherent and unfettered parliamentary right” to ask questions of the government.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh spoke to opposition members — including Chowdhury and Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress, and O’Brien to defend the move. According to Chowdhury, Singh reportedly said that it will not be possible to schedule the Question Hour because it requires the presence of a large number of officials in Parliament to brief ministers.
However, in a climbdown of sorts Wednesday, the government said it has requested the Lok Sabha Speaker to allow unstarred questions by members, which are answered in written.
Among the other changes and precautions being undertaken for smooth functioning amid the Covid crisis that has pushed India’s disease burden to over 38 lakh cases, the government decided that Lok Sabha will sit from 9 am to 1 pm while the Rajya Sabha will function from 3 pm to 7 pm, with special seating for Members of Parliament (MPs) to ensure social distancing.
As the row widens over the government decision, here’s a look at what the Question Hour is why it is crucial to a functioning democracy.
What is Question Hour?
The Question Hour is a practice used by “parliamentarians to hold the government accountable for its actions”. In this one-hour period at the beginning of the day, MPs are expected to forgo their political allegiance and act as independent legislators, questioning the administration and government policies.
The establishment is essentially “put on trial” during the Question Hour where every minister is answerable for questions raised against their ministry’s “omission and commission”.
“The purpose of Question Hour is for MPs — those from the ruling party or opposition — to get an understanding of how the government is functioning. It acts as an accountability mechanism for the government,” Chakshu Roy, head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research, told ThePrint.
“When you remove Question Hour, the government will come and pass its bill and be done with it. MPs will not be able to find out about how the government is working on the ground,” said Roy.
In 2014, after the Modi government came to power, the Question Hour timings in Rajya Sabh were changed. From the earlier 11 am start, it was moved to the 12 – 1 pm slot.
Starred questions require an oral answer from the minister-in-charge and must be submitted 15 days in advance. In a single day, roughly 20 starred questions are addressed, which are picked randomly via a ballot. Under this category, the MP raising the question is allowed two supplementary questions while other MPs can also ask questions depending on the Speaker’s discretion. In order to give the MPs time to prepare for supplementary questions, the list of starred questions is shared three days in advance.
Unstarred questions require a written response and generally address concerns related to data and information, but do not allow supplementary questions. These too must be submitted 15 days in advance. Nearly 230 such questions are addressed in a day.
Short notice questions address urgent matters that have public importance and can be submitted within less than 10 days. While it is a rarely used procedure, much like starred questions, it is answered orally and can be followed by supplementary questions depending on the Speaker’s discretion.
Finally, questions to private members are usually related to “some Bill, Resolution or other matter connected with the business of the House for which that Member is responsible”.
Scandals unearthed due to Question Hour
The Question Hour’s significance is not limited to just MPs’ right to ask questions. It has political impact too. In the Parliament history, several scandals have tumbled out due to Question Hour.
India’s first big financial scam — the Mudhra Scandal — was unearthed entirely like this.
Over six decades ago, on 16 December 1957, MP Feroze Gandhi raised a question in Lok Sabha regarding the government-controlled Life Insurance Corporation’s investment in several firms of Haridas Mundhra amounting to Rs 1.26 crore.
It led to the resignation of then finance minister T.T. Krishnamachari and “shook the Nehru government”, said a column in the Indian Express.
“Some people even say the coal scam (in the late 2000s) was unearthed due to the Question Hour. That is the power of a question,” Chakshu Roy added.
Controversy this time
The Question Hour has been suspended in the past. TMC’s Derek O’Brien recounted four such instances. “But these were all Parliament sessions that were summoned for special purposes. These included proclamation of Emergency in 1975 and imposing President’s Rule in Tamil Nadu and Nagaland, among others. They were not regular sessions like the monsoon session,” he said at a press conference.
“Usually Question Hour does not take place when for some reason the sitting of the House is cancelled. In the past, Question Hour has been suspended if the meeting of the House has been called for a specific purpose,” Roy said.
The latest government move comes at a time when the GDP has contracted 23.9 per cent, tensions are escalating between India and China, floods across states have claimed numerous lives, and the Covid crisis shows no signs of abating.