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Powerful tool of accountability gathers rust

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Question Hour in doldrums

By Devender Singh Aswal

The right to interpellation or asking of questions is an inherent and inalienable right of members in a parliamentary democratic set up. A question was considered a most versatile and powerful tool of accountability but when Question Hour itself is in doldrums, the efficacy of questions as a potential tool of accountability seems to be uncertain. Questions are asked to ministers on matters of public importance. The purpose of asking questions is manifold – to elicit factual information which would otherwise be time consuming; to build up a picture for the constituents; to raise local issues and to build the case for redressal of problems in the constituency; to highlight the inadequacy or otherwise of policy issues; to find things out or seek clarifications; to make the case as a backbencher and to ask the minister to improve, explain, rectify or justify the policy.

Unfortunately,  in the politics of blatant confrontation and grandstanding, the Question Hour has become the first casualty due to logjams, adjournments or persistent interruptions.  The loss of Question Hour time provides a blithe escape route to ministers whittling down ministerial accountability. The import of questions unfolds if one wades through our Indian legislative history. In fact, the origin of Questions and evolution of constitutional reforms in pre-independent India are intimately associated and inextricably intertwined. Prior to the enactment of the Government of India Act, 1919, the Council chaired by the Governor-General had, both, legislative and executive powers. With the enactment of the Indian Charter Act, 1853, the Legislative Councils began to follow the procedure of the British House of Commons by asking questions and discussing the propriety of the actions of the Government of the day.  It was said that Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General, ran the Council with a ‘certain flourish like the British House of Commons’. The functions of the Council were curtailed to law making as the Britishers did not want the Council to become a debating society or sort of a Parliament having more weight and authority than was necessary.  However, with the rising demand for self rule in India, the Indian Councils’ Act, 1892, conferred the right of asking questions to both the supreme council and the provincial councils.

The first question asked in the Central Legislative Assembly on 16 February, 1893, by the Maharaja of Bhinga was about the hardships faced by the cultivators and village shopkeepers on account of supplies needed for revenue officers on tour having 500 to 600 persons in their entourage. The Legislative Assembly constituted under the government of India Act, 1919 had the first hour as a question hour. The system of starred questions (SQs) and un-starred questions (USQs) was also introduced in 1921 in the Assemblies constituted under the GoI Act, 1919.

The Indian members like Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Dadabhai Nauroji, Madan Mohan Malviya, Sacchidanand Sinha, Chitnavis, VJ Patel,  Moti Lal Nehru, Jinnah, Satyamurthy, NV Gadgil, Govind Ballav Pant, NG Ranga and others  in the successive Councils/Assemblies asked  questions on a whole range of subjects, often causing considerable discomfiture to the colonial Government.  On many occasions, the Goverment refused to disclose information by invoking the plea that disclosure of information would be detrimental to government interest; cause public disaffection; impinge on friendly foreign relations; or that the time and cost involved in collection of information would not be commensurate with the result sought to be achieved.

After Independence, unless decided otherwise, the first hour- Question Hour – of every sitting is devoted to the asking and answering of Questions.   The Rajya Sabha, of course, changed the Rule and the Question Hour is held at noon. There are four types of questions.  A Starred Question (SQ) is one to which a member desires an oral answer from the minister in the House.  The answer to such a question may be followed by supplementary questions, time permitting with the permission of the presiding officer. An USQ is one to which written answer is desired by the member.  Its answer is deemed to be laid on the Table of the House by the minister at the end of Question Hour. No supplementary question can be asked thereon.  A Short Notice Question (SNQ) can also be raised for an oral answer if the notice is on a matter of public importance if it is of an urgent character at a notice shorter than ten clear days. However, the member is required to give reasons and the minister in charge must be willing to answer it at a shorter notice. If the minister declines to accept the SNQ, the Speaker may treat it as a SQ and put it in the List of Questions for the due rotational date, otherwise it will lapse. Each Assembly may have different notice period or slightly different procedure. Further, a Question may be addressed to a Private Member, if  the subject matter of the question relates to  some Bill, Resolution  or  other  matter  connected with the business of the legislature for  which that member is responsible. Any member who is not a minister is a private member under the Rules. The procedure in regard to such questions is same as that followed in the case of questions addressed to a Minister. However, it’s almost a dead provision seldom used in many legislatures.

An important device connected with questions is the Half an Hour Discussion. It can be raised on matters of sufficient public importance which have been the subject of recent questions, oral or written and which need further elucidation. So, while framing replies to Questions, due diligence has to be exercised to ensure that the replies are drafted properly, replied part wise and complete information is given. An half an hour discussion, if admitted by the Speaker, will surely create a lot of work for the Ministry and take enormous time- a heavy price for furnishing evasive or incomplete reply.

There are 20 SQs in the Lok Sabha and 15 in the Rajya Sabha. The position may differ from Assembly to Assembly.  For instance, in the Jharkhand Assembly, there is no ceiling except that a member may put two questions in a day, with the result there may be a hundred or more questions in the SQ List of a day. Question Hour is a trying time for Ministers.  Which supplementary will be fired, keeps the Minister on tenterhooks. A lot of preparations go. Ministers try to anticipate supplementaries.  Unfortunately, boycotts, dharnas and logjams have ruined the Question Hour.  So, to my book- Parliamentary Questions – published in 2016, I gave a sub title-Glorious Beginning to an Uncertain Future-which traces the evolution of Question procedure in India from 1853 to 2016.

No legislature can work effectively and efficiently without the willing cooperation of the bureaucracy.   However, there are occasional complaints and laments that the replies to Questions are often evasive, incomplete, factually incorrect, roundabout and misleading. It is also complained that the replies are not given part wise. Instead, the answer is lumped together as -(a) to (d) to avoid responsibility or conceal information. The officers tasked with the responsibility of preparing draft replies must bear in mind that the Members have many sources of information. Instead of seeking information, the real purpose and intent is to draw attention to a particular problem, irregularity or dereliction of duty on the part of some distant field functionary or highlight delay in project implementation.

As responsible functionaries of the Government, the bureaucracy has a duty to ensure that correct and complete facts are furnished to the legislature and within the appointed time.  Truth must be spoken in an Assembly, exhorts Bhishma in the Mahabharata. Even the all powerful Julius Caesar, the ruler of Ancient Rome, refused to send a lie to the Senate. It’s contempt to give wrong and misleading information to the legislature. A member may bring a motion of breach of privilege or contempt against the Minister. The minister may, himself, on being pointed out, fix responsibility for such a lapse or lack of due diligence.  What reply should appropriately be given it’s for the government to decide but, surely, it can use the opportunity to set the record straight, to scotch rumours, to quell public doubts and misgivings, to make its policy decisions known, to silence public criticism or remove erroneous ideas by furnishing the correct information in the answer to a question.  Let the Question Hour run and let our legislatures meet at least sixty days in a year to justify whopping public expenditure on representative institutions.

(The author is ex-Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha, and a Member of Delhi Bar Council. Views expressed are personal. It’s an abridged version of a recent talk given to a batch of senior officers of Jharkhand Government at a training organised by the Assembly Secretariat.)