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The chamber of ideas

Issues raised in the first session of Rajya Sabha resonate even today

Issues raised in the first session of Rajya Sabha resonate even today

On November 3,1917,Mahatma Gandhi famously said,“We ought to have Parliament this very day. We are quite fit for it. We shall,therefore,get it on demand. It rests with us to define ‘this very day.’” Thirty-five years later,the day was defined and on May 13,1952,our Parliament started functioning. We are now celebrating the 60th anniversary of Parliament. At such a moment,it is important to recall the very first session of the Rajya Sabha and understand its significance in terms of the ideas generated and the issues debated. Truly,the issues raised in 1952 by the members of the Rajya Sabha testify to the relevance of the House as a deliberative chamber of Indian Parliament.

On May 21,1952,nine days after the Rajya Sabha started work,a member of the House, T.S. Pattabiraman,while participating in the motion of thanks on the President’s Address,referred to climate change in south India and wanted the Planning Commission to address the problem. On the same day,Krishnamoorthy Rao spoke of the harmful effects of industrial and river valley projects on nature. Rao sounded alarm bells: “Our water sheds are drying up,our forests are being denuded.” Miles and miles of forest were being cleared to supply raw material for industry. Rao underlined the need to protect the balance of nature. He also wanted a definite afforestation policy and measures to protect wild animals,river basins and the earth’s top soil. The problem of providing drinking water to people was also taken up by a member of the Rajya Sabha,S.D. Rajah. On May 19,1952,he said in the House that water facilities would have to be provided to the citizens of India.

Right from its first session,the Rajya Sabha has been committed to sustainable development and ecological issues. It grappled with problems like water supply and environmental degradation — problems which remain relevant in a contemporary context as well. In 2011,for instance,the Rajya Sabha’s Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Industry,functioning under the chairmanship of Tiruchi Siva,took up the issue of electronic waste and recommended measures for neutralising its harmful impact on environment and human security. The Rajya Sabha Secretariat has brought out an occasional paper on electronic waste,the first of its kind in Parliament. It is also interesting that the issues that were being debated across the world also dominated the thinking of members of the Rajya Sabha from its very inception.

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Policy issues raised in that first session also find resonance now. In recent years,much has been said and written on the mid-day meal scheme for schoolchildren,aimed to reduce dropout rates and improve the health of underprivileged students. The matter also came up during discussions on the budget in May 1952. Rajya Sabha MP Seeta Parmanand spoke about the necessity of mid-day meal schemes in schools — children needed proper nutrition for their intellectual and physical development,she felt. “Union government could recommend to each state to take up the issue of mid-day meal scheme by way of experiment as though in a research laboratory and give the result to the whole nation”,suggested Parmanand. Her proposed plan proved to be farsighted. In 21st century India,the introduction of the mid-day meal scheme is accorded priority in all states.

Today,the nation is justly proud of an independent Election Commission. In 2012,the commission continues to assert its autonomy and has even appealed to the prime minister to preserve and protect its constitutionally guaranteed status. As far back as May 21,1952,Hriday Nath Kunzru said on the floor of the House,“The Election Commission should not be treated as (if) it were the part of the executive machinery. It should be treated in such a way as not to think that it is subordinate to the Law Ministry [sic.” It is a suggestion that sounds remarkably contemporary.

The image of the Rajya Sabha as a chamber of ideas has been reinforced many times in speeches made by members of the House down the years. To take one example,Sitaram Yechury’s 2011 speech. Speaking on the Nalanda University Bill,Yechury touched on complex ideas such as the concept of zero,infinity,even Shiva’s tandava. In spite of disruptions and disorder,the House continues to be a space for democratic argument and debate.


The writer is joint secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat

First published on: 14-05-2012 at 03:47:01 am
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