Parliament’s ‘Record-Breaking’ Session: Quantity Versus Quality

Parliament’s responsibility goes beyond working long hours and passing a record number of bills, writes Chakshu Roy.

People gather at Parliament House during the first day of the 17th Lok Sabha in New Delhi, on June 17, 2019. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)
People gather at Parliament House during the first day of the 17th Lok Sabha in New Delhi, on June 17, 2019. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

The first session of the newly-elected Lok Sabha ended earlier this week. While public attention is mostly focussed on the change in the special status of Jammu and Kashmir; other significant legislative business was also transacted during the session. The tone and tenor of the functioning of the two houses were different from previous sessions of Parliament as well. The first session of the 17th Lok Sabha has provided important takeaways on both the work done and the working style of the highest legislature in the country. The session also sets the tone for the legislative strategy of the government and the functioning of Parliament for the next five years.

Usually, after a general election, there is a short session of the Lok Sabha. The focus of such a session is threefold. First is the swearing-in of the newly elected Members of Parliament. Second is the election of the Speaker of Lok Sabha and the third is the address of the President to a joint sitting of the two houses, outlining the agenda of the new government. Then there is approximately a month-long gap after which a full session of Parliament is convened. It is in this session that the newly elected government presents its Budget and lays out its initial set of legislative priorities.

The fact that the government was planning to do things differently became evident when the government announced a 30-day session of the Lok Sabha.

In addition to passing the budget, the government’s agenda for the session was to get Parliament’s approval on 40 bills. The session was originally scheduled to end on July 26, but was extended by seven working days to allow for the passage of more bills. During the session, the Lok Sabha worked for 281 hours, a large proportion (46 percent) of which was spent on discussing legislation.

Key Bills Passed In This Session

The legislative agenda that the government announced was a mix of bills to replace ordinances that were promulgated before the general election, old bills that it had championed in its previous term and completely fresh legislative ideas. Among Ordinances, the most contentious one was related to the criminalisation of the practice of Triple Talaq. The government’s initial efforts to get this legislation passed had failed because of a lack of numbers in the Rajya Sabha in its previous term. It was expected that the Triple Talaq Ordinance would face a similar fate in Rajya Sabha as the numbers still did not favour the government. The government was able to work on the numbers, politically and in the house, to get the Bill cleared through Rajya Sabha. This was the first contentious piece of legislative agenda on which the government tasted success. Perhaps emboldened by this, the government also pushed the controversial resolution on Jammu & Kashmir and its reorganisation through the two Houses of Parliament.

Two pieces of legislation which the government had piloted in its previous term were the amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act and an overhaul of the Consumer Protection Act. The Motor Vehicles Amendment provides for policies on road safety, change in licencing and registration processes etc. The new Consumer Protection Bill passed by Parliament provides for filing of class action suits and allows for the consumer to file product liability claims against companies. Both these bills had gone through detailed scrutiny by a parliamentary committee in the previous Lok Sabha. The new bills were strengthened by recommendations of the committees. Several of the committee’s recommendations were incorporated in these bills, passed in this session.

Parliament Approves Amendments To UAPA Bill To Label Individuals As Terrorists

Inadequate Scrutiny Of Legislation

But a majority of bills did not benefit from detailed deliberations and scrutiny of parliamentary committees. Some of these were bills like the Companies Amendment which re-categorises certain offences as civil defaults and was widely criticised for providing criminal punishment for defaults by companies related to their CSR obligations. Another one was the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code Amendment Bill, which specifies minimum payout to operational creditors and limits the time-period for completing insolvency resolution proceedings.

Out of the 28 bills which were passed by Parliament, only five of them were previously examined by a parliamentary committee.

The rest of the bills were passed by simply debating them for approximately three and a half hours each, on the floor of the House. The Lok Sabha set a record by passing 33 bills, which is the highest number passed in a single session since 1952.

Parliament Passes Bill To Increase Number Of Supreme Court Judges

Stance Put On Record

Bills in Parliament are usually passed by a voice vote, unless recording of votes is constitutionally required. This session witnessed a new and welcome trend where MPs called for recorded voting on contentious bills, like Triple Talaq, J&K Reorganisation and amendments to the RTI Act.

This forced political parties to publicly declare their stand on contentious issues.

Out of the 33 bills passed, recorded voting was asked for on seven bills (or 21 percent), which was significantly higher than the share in the previous Lok Sabha.

Quantity Versus Quality

In this first session of the new Lok Sabha, the two houses sat well beyond their normal working hours. On multiple occasions, the Lok Sabha sat beyond 10:00 pm, against its scheduled close of business of 6:00 pm. The lower house met for 135 percent of its scheduled hours, higher than any other session of Parliament in the last 20 years. Question Hour, which in earlier Lok Sabha’s was consistently disrupted, also functioned smoothly, with a record number of questions being answered orally by ministers in both houses.

After a long time, Parliament functioned smoothly for the most part without being marred by disruptions. The credit for this shared between the opposition, the treasury benches, and the presiding officers of the two Houses. This is only the first and the simplest of steps in for a well-functioning Parliament.

Parliament’s responsibility, however, goes beyond working for long hours and passing a record number of bills. The focus should also be on in-depth scrutiny of important legislative issues brought before it.

Now that the dust settles on the first session of Parliament, attention should move to how we can measure the quality of a legislature’s functioning. If we don’t measure what really matters, then the focus starts shifting to what we are measuring which may not be very relevant.

Chakshu Roy is Head of Legislative and Civic Engagement at PRS Legislative Research.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.