The Congress has accused the government of delaying the Winter Session “without justification”, and asked the President to stop this “unhealthy precedent”. What does the Constitution say about calling Parliament sessions? Is there a fixed date by when it must be done? Have there been delays in the past?
Why is there a controversy about Parliament’s Winter Session?
By convention, Parliament meets for three sessions in a year. The longest, the Budget Session, is held towards the beginning of the year, a three-week Monsoon Session follows from July to August, and then there is the Winter Session, also three weeks long, in November-December. The dates for each session are announced at least 15 days in advance, so Members have time to submit their questions and give notice for Parliamentary interventions. It was reported on Thursday that this year’s Winter Session is likely to be held from December 15 to January 5, 2018 — much later than usual. Union Minister Arun Jaitley has said the government would ensure a regular Winter Session but would not like it to clash with the December 9-18 Gujarat Assembly elections. The Congress has, on the other hand, alleged that the government is avoiding Parliament.
Why is a Parliament session important?
Law-making is dependent on when Parliament meets. Also, a thorough scrutiny of the government’s functioning and deliberation on national issues can only take place when the two Houses are in session. Predictability in the functioning of Parliament is key to a well-functioning democracy.
Must Parliament always meet at specified times?
No. In 1955, Lok Sabha recommended a calendar of sittings for each session, the cabinet of Jawaharlal Nehru agreed to the recommendation, but it was not implemented. The Constitution does not specify when or for how many days Parliament should meet. Article 85 only requires that there should not be a gap of more than six months between two sessions of Parliament. This year, the monsoon session ended on August 11, 2017. So, the next session can be convened at any time until February 2018.
Article 85 says the President can summon a session of Parliament “at such time and place as he thinks fit”. Thus, a session can be called on the recommendation of the government, which decides its date and duration.
How did Article 85 come about?
The Government of India Act, 1935, contained a provision relating to the summoning of the legislature in India. It specified that the central legislature had to be summoned to meet at least once a year, and that not more than 12 months could elapse between two sessions. During the Constituent Assembly debates in 1949, Dr B R Ambedkar stated that the idea behind this provision was to summon the legislature only to collect revenue, and that the once-a-year meeting was designed to avoid scrutiny of the government by the legislature. The Drafting Committee of our Constitution improved upon this provision to craft Article 85.
Did the Constituent Assembly discuss the summoning of Parliament?
Yes. Some members were of the opinion that Parliament should be in session throughout the year. They also moved amendments to ensure that in certain circumstances, the presiding officers of the two Houses were empowered to summon a session of Parliament. However, these suggestions did not find enough support to be included in the Constitution.
How has Article 85 evolved over the years?
The Constitution that came into force in 1950 required Parliament to be summoned twice in a year, with a gap of no more than six months between its sessions. The First Amendment changed this in 1951, and Article 85 got its present form.
Have governments since then adhered to Article 85?
Yes. There has never been a gap of more than six months between two sessions of Parliament. However, over the years, all governments have worked around the dates of sessions to accommodate political and legislative exigencies. For example, in 2016, the Budget Session was broken up into two separate sessions to enable the issuance of the ‘Enemy Property (Amendment and Validation) Second Ordinance 2016’. In 2013, when the UPA was in power, the Winter Session was cut short by two days due to continued disruptions on the issue of statehood for Telangana. In 2011, political parties agreed to cut short the Budget Session so they could campaign for Vidhan Sabha elections in five states. In 2008, the two-day Monsoon Session (in which a no-confidence motion was moved against the UPA-I government over the India-US nuclear deal) was extended until December to prevent the moving of another no-confidence motion.
Is there a requirement for a minimum number of sitting days in a year?
No. There is no minimum number of days that Parliament is required to meet in a year — in fact, the number of days that Parliament meets has reduced over the years. During the first two decades of Parliament, Lok Sabha met for an average of a little more than 120 days a year. This has come down to approximately 70 days in the last decade. This year, Parliament has met for 48 days.
One institutional reason given for this is the reduction in the workload of Parliament by its Standing Committees, which, since the 1990s, have anchored debates outside the House. However, several Committees have recommended that Parliament should meet for at least 120 days in a year.
How do other countries manage holding sessions of their Parliaments?
In countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, Parliaments are in session throughout the year. At the beginning of the year, a calendar of sitting days is formalised and legislative and other businesses are programmed in. On average, the sitting days of these legislatures range between 100 days (as with the US Congress) to 150 (with the British Parliament) days in a year.
How does it help to have Parliament in session throughout the year?
There are three main advantages. One, it enables detailed planning of legislative and policy work all year round. Second, it negates the need for enacting Ordinances (like the Ordinance that was enacted to amend the Bankruptcy Law on Thursday). Third, it enables accountability of government functioning by Parliament throughout the year.