Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] Parliament: Avoidance that must be questioned

In view of the pandemic and a truncated Monsoon Session, Parliament has said no to Question Hour and curtailed Zero Hour.
By IASToppers
September 04, 2020

Contents

  • Introduction
  • What is Question Hour?
  • Zero Hour
  • Previous sessions without Question Hour
  • Way Forward
  • Conclusion

Parliament:Avoidance that must be questioned

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Introduction:

The Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha secretariats notified that there will be no Question Hour during the Monsoon Session of Parliament, which has been truncated to September 14-October 1 in view of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that Zero Hour will be restricted in both Houses.

What is Question Hour?

  • Question Hour is the liveliest hour in Parliament.
  • 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.

Significance of Question Hour:

  • It is an instruments of accountability, it provides equality to every Member of the House, Rajya Sabha or Lok Sabha.
  • This parliamentary device is used to shine a light on government functioning.
  • The questions have exposed financial irregularities and brought data and information regarding government functioning to the public domain.
  • With the broadcasting of Question Hour since 1991, Question Hour has become one the most visible aspects of parliamentary functioning.
  • Prior to Independence, the first question asked of government was in 1893.

Regulation of Question Hour:

  • Parliament has comprehensive rules for dealing with every aspect of Question Hour.
  • 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.
  • In 2014, Rajya Sabha Chairman shifted Question Hour in the House from 11 am to 12 noon. The move was to prevent the disruption of Question Hour.

Frequency of Question Hour:

  • Question Hour in both Houses is held on all days of the session. But there are two days when an exception is made.
  • The day President addresses MPs from both Houses in the Central Hall. That is, beginning of a new Lok Sabha and on the first day of a new Parliament year.
  • The day Finance Minister presents the Budget.
  • Since the beginning of the current Lok Sabha, approximately 15,000 questions have been asked in the Lower House.

How the questions are answered?

  • The questions to be asked are put into five groups. Each group answers questions on the day allocated to it.
  • For example, the Ministries answering questions posed by Lok Sabha MPs is different for the two Houses.
  • So that, ministers can be present in one house to answer questions.

What is Starred Question?

  • 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.
  • Seasoned parliamentarians choose to ask an oral question when the answer to the question will put the government in an uncomfortable position.
  • After the minister’s response, MPs can also ask a follow-up 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.

Preparation of answers by ministers

  • 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.

Number of questions that can be asked

  • In Lok Sabha, until the late 1960s, there was no limit on the number of unstarred questions that could be asked in a day.
  • At present, total number of questions in both the categories are put in a random ballot. From the ballot in Lok Sabha, 20 starred questions are picked for answering during Question Hour and 230 are picked for written answers.

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.

Previous sessions without Question Hour

  • 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, number of questions were also decided to be limited.

Way Forward

  • The test of a functioning democracy is its ability to face crises — social, economic, political — and seek correctives premised on institutions of democracy.
  • A resort to what has been called ‘the politics of avoidance’ does not help the process. Executive accountability upfront cannot be allowed to become a thing of the past.

Conclusion

  • The gravity of the situation resulting from the spread of COVID-19 continues to be experienced by people the world over and by every citizen of the country.
  • New disciplines have descended and new norms have been experienced, learnt to live with total and partial lockdowns, and have moved from no activity to partial restoration of essential activities.
  • Countries have brought forth their individual response patterns; some of these show that legislative bodies have continued to function with new sets of ‘dos and don’ts’.
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Mains 2020 Editorial Notes
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