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Sunday, January 23, 2022

If any shortcomings in govt decisions, Opp should suggest changes. Govt should also consider these suggestions: Om Birla

Om Birla talks about the role of Standing Committees and Opposition, addresses the absence of a deputy Speaker, reiterates the freedom of MPs to speak in House without fear of labels such as anti-national, and defends not telecasting protests inside Parliament.

By: Express News Service |
Updated: November 29, 2021 9:11:24 am
Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

The first-time Speaker talks about the role of Standing Committees and Opposition, addresses the absence of a deputy Speaker, reiterates the freedom of MPs to speak in House without fear of labels such as anti-national, and defends not telecasting protests inside Parliament. This session was moderated by Deputy Political Editor Liz Mathew

LIZ MATHEW: You have spoken about the lack of debate and discourse in the Monsoon Session of Parliament. How do you think the coming Winter Session will turn out to be?

I hope there is enough discussion and debate in Parliament during the Winter Session. I urge all parties to participate in an orderly manner. I also hope Parliament sees more productivity this time.

LIZ MATHEW: The repeal of the farm laws is going to be a major highlight of the Winter Session. The Opposition’s complaint is that not just these laws but several major Bills have been rushed by the Modi government through Parliament without due discussion or reference to Standing Committees. What are your views on this? 

It is up to the government to propose that a particular Bill be sent to a Standing Committee. When it does not want to send an issue to the Standing Committee, I try my best to ensure that there are exhaustive and long discussions on the issue. I ensure that the ministers and at least one member of each political party get to speak on the issue. If you take the farm laws, I let the discussions go on past the allotted time. While the time given was four hours, the discussions went on for five-and-a-half hours… whoever wanted to speak was allowed to do so. But it is for the government to decide which Bill goes to a Standing Committee and which one should be discussed in Parliament.

LIZ MATHEW: However, what is your own opinion regarding Bills being sent to Standing Committees, especially those that have a direct impact on day-to-day lives of people?

Every government, previous or present, irrespective of which party it belongs to, brings in Bills and laws for the benefit of people. No government elected for a five-year term wants to bring in a law that will not help people. The ideologies or perspectives might be different, but in my opinion, every government is driven by this motive. Therefore, governments decide to speed up the law-making process by putting up Bills for discussion in the public domain and Parliament, so that the common man benefits from these laws quickly.

LIZ MATHEW: What do you think is the role of the Opposition? 

The Opposition plays a significant role in the country’s politics. The stronger it is, the more accountable a government is. (But) The Opposition’s objections should be factual for it to be an open debate, it should not object just for the sake of it. If there are any shortcomings in the government’s decisions, the Opposition should suggest changes. Similarly, the government should also consider these suggestions to rectify the shortcomings of a law. A strong Opposition is a must for a strong democracy.

LIZ MATHEW: We haven’t seen such a majority for a ruling party in Parliament in a long time. How difficult is the Speaker’s role in such a House?

All the Speakers of our Parliament have been aware of the importance of their role. The Speaker’s directions also become a part of the law-making process because it is understood that the Speaker has acted in an unbiased manner, for the benefit of the process. The House rules dictate the role of a Speaker so I will not comment on them in a personal capacity, but I try my best to uphold the dignity of the office and the House by upholding everyone’s rights and ensuring a fair debate.

RAVISH TIWARI: The Supreme Court’s suspension of farm laws without getting into the question of their constitutionality reinforced the impression that there wasn’t enough discussion on them in Parliament. How do you respond to the charge that as Speaker, you have been intimidated by the government’s brute majority and not been able to push back and ensure Bills are sent to Standing Committees?

A Speaker has to work within certain boundaries. The office has a certain dignity. I don’t give suggestions to the government; I only make unbiased decisions regarding what happens in Parliament. As far as the (farm) Bills are concerned, the government introduced them and the Business Advisory Committee (BAC) of the House allocated four hours for discussions on them. I let the discussions go on longer. Members from all parties and even the Independents weighed in. But it’s not my job to suggest to the government (to do something). My job is to conduct the proceedings on the issues brought up in Parliament.

RAVISH TIWARI: But when there is a conflict of opinion between the ruling party and the Opposition over a Bill being sent to a Standing Committee, your role becomes that of an adjudicator. Given the differences over the farm Bills, should you not have sent them to a Standing Committee for more scrutiny? 

The rules don’t allow the Speaker to direct that a Bill be sent to a Standing Committee. Either the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs or the minister concerned with the Bill can request the Speaker to do so.

KRISHN KAUSHIK: You said you allowed more than the allocated time to debate the farm Bills. But the smaller parties get only two to three minutes to make their point. A bulk of the time allocated goes to the government. What according to you should the yardstick be to measure the time given to a Bill in Parliament? Should Parliament pass as many Bills as possible, or should the goal be to hold as many discussions as possible? 

This is a good question, which must be raised. I had given every party close to 15 minutes to make their point on the farm Bills, despite the BAC’s total allotted time of four hours. I have that right and I have used it in the past, including for discussion over the Bill regarding Article 370. No MPs, even from Punjab (which has seen the maximum protests over the farm laws), felt that I did not give them enough time to speak.

RAVISH TIWARI: There is no deputy Speaker in the current House. Do you think it’s ethically wrong to not have a deputy Speaker, who is chosen from among the Opposition ranks, and do you think one is needed? Doesn’t not having one increase your load? 

The government needs to propose a date for holding elections for the post of deputy Speaker. If they propose a date, I will definitely speed up the process.

HARIKISHAN SHARMA: The Prime Minister announced the repeal of the three farm laws after nearly a year of farmer protests. The farmer unions have claimed many farmers died during the agitation, while in Lakhimpur Kheri, we saw several being crushed to death for which a Union minister of state’s son is facing charges. Could this have been avoided had the government considered the Opposition’s views during discussions in the House?

This country is a democracy. In a democracy, there is a constitutional process in the Lok Sabha and Assemblies… Even in Standing Committees, there are differences, not every decision is taken by them unanimously, which is why there is a provision for dissent notes. After a Bill is brought to Parliament, there are discussions and then it gets passed… If the ruling party has a majority, it gets passed despite the dissent. The government that is elected frames the laws. This is a right granted by the Constitution.

LIZ MATHEW: As an occupant of a constitutional post in a House where the ruling party has a huge majority, what is the legacy you would like to leave behind?

My attempt would be to… ensure there is healthy debate and discussion in the House. It’s not our country’s tradition to disrupt Parliament proceedings, shout slogans in the House… There are several ways to protest, but the honour of Parliament has to be maintained. Decency and discipline should be maintained. My effort will be to talk to everyone — to the government, Opposition — and my request to them would be to rise up to what is expected of them as people’s representatives, to take up the issues and expectations of people in their constituencies. Each of them is not just an individual but an institution that represents lakhs of people. So they should bring their issues to Parliament and the government must hear them in all seriousness.

LEENA MISRA: Should there be a rule fixing minimum sittings for a Vidhan Sabha? I am from Gujarat and the Assembly sees very few sittings.

It’s an issue that we need to think about seriously. We brought it up at the Presiding Officers’ Conference (held in Shimla on November 17-18) and expressed our concern. It was suggested there should be a code of conduct based on the strength of the House. For instance, if a House has more than 100 or 200 members, it should function for an X number of days. But I am pained that the Houses see very few sittings. That is a matter of concern. All political parties should contemplate, debate this, and ensure there are discussions on ensuring a minimum number of sittings. I think there should be a constitutional amendment on this. I have personally brought it up with all parties and told Speakers of state Assemblies that they should talk to the ruling and Opposition parties.

VANDITA MISHRA: This government has been quick to label people anti-national if they disagree with it. When that happens, the space for dialogue shrinks, the House shrinks, your dignity shrinks. You are a protector of the House and its debates. What do you have to say to that?

In no debate or discussion in the House is anyone tagged anti-national. This is our privilege. Article 105 makes it clear that no debate or discussion that takes place in Parliament is anti-national. It’s my responsibility to ensure that nothing spoken in the House is ‘anti-national’. But, we have to maintain our dignity, that when we discuss, our discussion should not harm the nation. It has never happened that discussions in the House have been tagged as anti-national. This was debated during the time of the British and finally, when the Constitution was prepared, Article 105 was inserted to make it clear that members have a right to speak and express themselves. No Member of Parliament can be held liable in any proceedings before any court for anything said or any vote given by them in Parliament.

In the House, it is my responsibility. Only those words that are expunged from the proceedings are removed, that too with the knowledge of the member. Otherwise, members have the right to speak.

RAVISH TIWARI: But this has come up often, where ruling party members have labelled Opposition counterparts anti-national.

Every person who comes to the House is an elected member who represents lakhs of people. To me, he or she is a mananiya sadasya (respected member). It’s my responsibility to protect them. But what they say outside the House, I can’t stop them, condemn them or protect them.

ABHISHEK ANGAD: In 2014, a few MLAs of Babulal Marandi’s Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) had joined the BJP. Marandi had raised the issue with the Speaker, saying this was defection. The Speaker took five years to decide, by which time the government’s term was nearly over. Now the current government is delaying the defection matter due to which Babulal Marandi is not getting Leader of Opposition status. Shouldn’t these decisions be taken in a time-bound manner?

At the Presiding Officers’ conference, we said there are questions being raised on our fairness, on the delay in taking decisions, and courts have made several observations. This is not good for our presiding officers. We set up a committee that submitted its report but there was no consensus among presiding officers on the report. So now, we will take it up again and hold discussions. We all believe, the entire nation believes, that in the anti-defection law, cases should be disposed of in a timely manner. The process is on, I am hopeful that the result will be positive. We will also appeal to the government that there be a timeline fixed in the anti-defection law… The law was made in line with the demands of those times, but today’s circumstances are different and there should be more clarity. This is my view. There will be efforts to build a consensus and we will suggest to the government that they bring in a law.

KRISHN KAUSHIK: Lok Sabha TV and Rajya Sabha TV show the proceedings in the Houses live so that citizens know what is happening in Parliament. But of late, there have been claims that the telecasts leave out the Opposition protests in the House.

Several of our presiding officers had decided that it wouldn’t be in the nation’s interest to show unruly scenes and sloganeering in the House – which is why some of my predecessors issued directions to this effect. I have also had members telling me, ‘Show us protesting, shouting slogans, throwing papers’. But I don’t think it’s a good tradition. I am sure our earlier presiding officers took the decision after a lot of thought, with a lot of foresight, so that people’s respect, faith for constitutional bodies is maintained.

I have not brought in any changes. I have not done anything to show (these incidents), but I haven’t done anything to block (their coverage) either.

LIZ MATHEW: Coming back to the question, as Speaker, does the ruling party’s overwhelming majority put you under pressure when it comes to discharging your duties?

I don’t work under pressure from anyone. I do what feels just and right in the House, based on decisions taken by my predecessors and keeping in mind the honour of the House. My attempt always has been to give a chance to members to speak, give them enough time and opportunity, especially debutant members, women. If I hadn’t tried from the start, several respected members probably would not have got to speak in the House. I made a list of those members who didn’t get an opportunity to speak and urged them to talk about the issues of their constituencies or whatever else they want to talk about. I am happy that MPs from remote tribal constituencies got the chance to speak. I can give many such examples. So my attempt is to give everyone enough opportunities and time in the House, even if we have to work till late. It’s rare that I wind up the House at 6 pm. If you look at the proceedings, only in 10% instances would I have wrapped up at 6 pm. I have always extended the sitting beyond our working hours.

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