While the Modi government struggles to contain the spread of the catastrophic virus, the monsoon session of the Parliament has been scheduled from 14th September to 1st October for this year. The current Parliament session was speculated to have strong questions from the Opposition as India ensues the position to become the second-worst coronavirus-hit country in the world. But the Government unilaterally has decided to curtail the Question Hour from both Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha. However, it will address only unstarred questions and compress the time period of Zero Hour from 60 minutes to 30 minutes.
The Government has justified these modifications on the pretext of the pandemic. But, the opposition members retaliated that the pandemic is just an excuse for the Government to flee from its accountability.
How does ‘Question Hour’ work?
Question Hour is the first sixty minutes during which the parliamentarians can propose questions on the functioning of Ministries of Government except for secret or sub-judice matters.
The questions asked can be starred or unstarred. Starred questions require the elected representatives to answer orally. Subsequently, two-three questions are asked if the Members are not satisfied with the answers on the discretion of the Speaker or Chairman. These questions have to be submitted 15 days in advance to the concerned ministries and, only the questions picked through the ballot, are answered.
On the contrary, unstarred questions are written questions submitted to the Ministries 15 days prior. However, a single session does not permit more than 20 questions to be asked. Following the Question Hour, the Zero Hour takes place. Short-notice questions of public importance that do not require a 15-day notice subject to the Speaker or Chairman are asked in the Zero Hour. Zero Hour is an innovation of the Indian Parliament which has no procedural mention.
The roots of Question Hour can be traced in the pre-independence era and the same was adopted in the Parliamentary proceedings of Independent India. Article 118(1) of the Constitution of India empowers both the Houses of Parliament to formulate their own rules and methods for the functioning of the Parliament.
Accordingly, rule 32 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha states that unless otherwise provided by the Speaker, the first hour of every sitting shall be available for the asking and answering of questions in Lok Sabha. As for Rajya Sabha, it is mentioned under rule 38 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States that unless otherwise directed by the Chairman, the Question Hour shall be from 12 noon to 1 PM.
Independent India’s first financial scam – the Mundhra Scandal was exposed due to Question Hour on 4th September 1957. It resulted in the resignation of the then finance minister and shook the Nehru Government to its core.
Again in 1974, a corruption scandal concerning the issuance of forged licenses was unmasked on the part of a Member of Parliament. These questions, therefore, may also lead to court inquiries or appointment of commissions ensuring liability and further underlining their importance in a democratic system.
However, this is not the first time that the Question Hour has been suspended. it has been reportedly suspended on various accounts of Proclamation of Emergency in 1975, passing of Hindu Marriage and Divorce Bill, 1952 and so on.
The way ahead
Question Hour is considered “to keep the ruling party on trial”. It is vital to know how and where the taxpayers’ money has been used by the government authorities, and Question Hour provides this platform. The Member of Parliament (MP) keeps the Government on scrutiny by asking questions and holding it accountable for its actions and policies.
It is the Question Hour that preserves the system of checks and balances – a way through which Legislature exerts control on the actions of Executive. The Constitution of India bestows the right of Member of Parliament to ask questions under article 75. When this right is taken away, it results in the failure of parliamentary democracy.
Taking into consideration how indisputably the bills are being passed in the Parliament, the truncation of Question Hour gives supplementary power to the ruling party. The pandemic has undoubtedly imposed a time constraint on the functioning of the Parliament, but a balance should be struck between the both to not infringe the democratic working of the Parliament.
In light of the pandemic, there has been an exponential increase in the actions of the Executive. Therefore, it becomes even more crucial that the concerned Ministries do not go scot-free from its accountability.
The exacerbating spread of the virus, trembling economy with a drop of 23.9% in the GDP, circumventing information regarding PM Cares Fund, escalating tensions between India and China, increasing rates of farmers’ suicide, claiming no data on migrant workers’ death and many other issues of national importance should be answered.
If this suspension of Question Hour is gone unquestioned, it will give the government a clean chit in using the same method for future Parliamentary sessions. Thus, to maintain the vitality of a democratic country, it is indispensable to review and interrogate the actions of the Government.
Here’s how the opposition reacted to no ‘Question Hour’ in the Parliament