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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Question Hour out, Zero Hour curtailed in session amid Covid

Protesting the move, Opposition leaders accused the government of trying to reduce Parliament to a “notice board”, and using the pandemic as an “excuse to murder democracy”.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi | Updated: September 3, 2020 7:21:30 am
A Rajya Sabha corridor during a rehearsal for the upcoming Parliament session that starts on September 14. (Express photo by Renuka Puri)

The monsoon session of Parliament, cut short due to the pandemic, will not have Question Hour; Zero Hour, during which members raise matters of public importance, will be curtailed; and there will be no private members’ Bill, it was announced on Wednesday.

Protesting the move, Opposition leaders accused the government of trying to reduce Parliament to a “notice board”.

In the face of criticism, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi said the government has had discussions with opposition parties about doing away with the Question Hour.

Joshi said the government is ready to take up unstarred questions and a curtailed Zero Hour, and maintained that it was never said that there will be no Zero Hour – only, it could be curtailed. The government, he said, has suggested that there could be unstarred questions also.

Members get answers to unstarred questions in writing, and it is deemed to be laid on the table of the House.

In separate notifications, the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha secretariats also said there will be no breaks during the session – to be held from September 14 to October 1 – and both Houses will function on Saturdays and Sundays as well. In view of the pandemic, the session will be held in two shifts — 9 am to 1 pm and 3 pm to 7 pm.

An Expert Explains: What are Question Hour and Zero Hour, and why they matter

Barring the first day, Rajya Sabha will sit in the morning shift and Lok Sabha in the evening, the notifications stated.

Earlier in the day, the Lok Sabha secretariat said in a notification that there will be no Question Hour during the session. Given the government’s request in view of the pandemic, “the Speaker directed that no day be fixed for transaction of Private Members’ Business during the Session”, it stated.

The Rajya Sabha secretariat issued a similar notification.

Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad is learnt to have written to House Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu conveying his reservation over the decision. In his letter, dated August 31, Azad is learnt to have stated that it would be inappropriate to curtail them since they give MPs an opportunity to raise issues of national importance and public concern.

Azad, sources said, suggested that if there is a pressing shortage of time, Zero Hour can be reduced to half an hour and Question Hour should continue for an hour.

Trinamool Congress MP and party’s floor Rajya Sabha leader Derek O’Brien said Opposition MPs will lose the right to question the government and alleged that the pandemic was being used as an “excuse to murder democracy.” In the past, he said, Question Hour was dispensed with during Parliament sessions called for special purposes, but the monsoon session is a “regular session”.

The Congress tweeted, “Since PM has never answered a question it wasn’t long before his government did the same. No Question Hour in Parliament is an attack on Democracy…. The intention of BJP to avoid questions shows they neither believe in democratic procedure nor good governance.”

But Anil Baluni, Rajya Sabha MP and BJP’s media cell chief, pointed out that Assemblies have functioned in various states after March, when a nationwide lockdown was imposed, and there has been no Question Hour in Assemblies of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. In states where BJP is the main opposition, the party did not raise any objections, he said.

Baluni also said Question Hour in Parliament was routinely disturbed by opposition parties. The extent of disturbance is visible from the fact that in the last last eight sessions, only 59 hours were used out of 162 hours allotted for Question Hour, he said.

Sources said the government has reached out to the Opposition on the issue, with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh calling up Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, Biju Janata Dal’s Pinaki Misra, and O’Brien, among others.

Joshi said he and his junior ministers – Arjun Ram Meghwal and V Muraleedharan – had spoken to leaders of every party, and “except TMC’s Derek O’ Brien everyone agreed” to do away with the Question Hour.

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor was scathing, however. Referring to the notification, he tweeted, “…Questioning the government is the oxygen of parliamentary democracy. This Govt seeks to reduce Parliament to a notice-board and uses its crushing majority as a rubber-stamp for whatever it wants to pass. The one mechanism to promote accountability has now been done away with.”

“Delayed monsoon session of Parliament is one of special significance after the lockdown and phased unlocking. Proposal to exclude Question Hour is arbitrary, shocking and undemocratic. It is members’ privilege and the very life of a session. Parliament sessions are not meant only for government business but also for scrutiny and accountability of the government,” Congress deputy leader in Rajya Sabha Anand Sharma said.

CPI Rajya Sabha MP Binoy Viswam has written to Nadu, stating that suspension of Question Hour and private members’ business is “unjust” and they must be reinstated immediately. Viswam said suspending these procedures raises “serious questions” on the government’s “intent”.

O’Brien cited examples of the 33rd (1961), 93rd (1975), 98th (1976) 99th (1977) sessions when there was no Question Hour, as those sessions were summoned for special purposes of “Orissa, Proclamation of Emergency, 44th Amdmt, President’s Rule TN/Nagaland”. But the upcoming session is a regular one, he added.

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