parliamentary-disruptions

Context: Disruption, which at times borders on vandalism, has been frequent in Parliament in recent times. The government is considering curtailing the monsoon session of Parliament.

  • With disruptions continuing, the productivity of Rajya Sabha fell to 13.70% during 2nd week of the ongoing monsoon session from 32.20% during 1st week, resulting in overall productivity of 21.60% for the first two weeks 

Reasons behind parliamentary disruptions

  • Parliamentary disruptions have been defended by the opposition as a means to counter arrogance of the ruling dispensation, as a means to highlight matters of public interest, and even as an opportunity for legislators to express dissent.
  • In 2001, a day-long conference was held in the Central Hall of Parliament to discuss discipline and decorum in legislatures. It enlisted the following causes: 
    • The first was dissatisfaction in MPs because of inadequate time for airing their grievances. 
    • The second was an unresponsive attitude of the government and the retaliatory posture of the treasury benches. 
    • The third was political parties not adhering to parliamentary norms and disciplining their members. 
    • Finally, the absence of prompt action against disrupting MPs under the legislature’s rules. 
  • The other possible explanation for the rise in disruptions is the enactment of the anti-defection law in 1985, which allows parties to herd their members, weakens incentives of legislators to invest in developing their own viewpoints and express them freely as they cannot use their own stand on different issues to evolve or develop their own political careers.

Concerns:

  • Loss of time in parliament: The loss of time, just below 10% during the 10th Lok Sabha (1991-1996), reached a record high of 40% during the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-2014).
    • A PRS (PRS Legislative Research) report says that during the 15th Lok Sabha [2009-14], frequent disruptions of Parliamentary proceedings have resulted in the Lok Sabha working for 61 per cent and Rajya Sabha for 66 per cent of its scheduled time.
    • Another PRS report said, the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19) lost 16 per cent of its scheduled time to disruptions, better than the 15th Lok Sabha (37 per cent), but worse than the 14th Lok Sabha (13 per cent).
    • The Rajya Sabha lost 36 per cent of its scheduled time. In the 15th and 14th Lok Sabhas, it had lost 32 per cent and 14 per cent of its scheduled time respectively.
  • Financial cost of non-functioning Parliament: A 2008 discussion paper of Lok Sabha estimated that each minute of Parliament costs Rs 29,000 to the public exchequer.
  • Opportunity loss to the entire country when there is a delay in making national laws. 
  • The cost of poorly made laws that are ineffective because there was no debate on them due to disruptions. 
  • Pending Bills: Important legislation that will govern the use of DNA technology in civil and criminal cases, strengthen the protection net for senior citizens, regulate surrogacy, and assisted reproductive technologies are all pending before Parliament.
  • The cost of missing accountability of the functioning of our government: With no question hour and no debate on national issues, the government is getting absolved of its responsibility. 
    • The right to ask questions flows from Article 75 of the Constitution which says that the council of ministers shall be collectively responsible to the House of the people. Collective responsibility implies the accountability of the government to parliament.

Code of conduct for MPs

  • The Lok Sabha has had a simple code of conduct for its MPs since 1952. The rules required MPs not to interrupt the speech of others, maintain silence and not obstruct proceedings by hissing or by making commentaries during debates. Members should not shout slogans, display placards, tear away documents in protest, play cassettes or tape recorders in the House. 
  • A new rule empowers the Lok Sabha Speaker to suspend MPs obstructing the Houses’ business automatically. 

The privileges and immunities enjoyed by the MPs and MLAs

The powers, privileges and immunities of Parliament and its members and committees are laid down in Article 105 of the Constitution. Article 194 deals with the same in the case of state legislatures, their members and committees.These include:

  • Freedom of speech in the house which means they cannot be prosecuted for saying or doing anything in the house.
  • They have the freedom from arrest 40 days prior or after a session of legislature or during the session or from the premises of the legislature without the permission of the house.
  • The legislature has the power to regulate its internal affairs — that covers the behaviour including disruptions, vandalism and violence — of the house. Police or courts cannot interfere.

The argument has been that privileges and immunities are necessary for exercising constitutional functions. However, the members can be punished for the breach of privileges by the house itself. Punishment includes imprisonment, fine or suspension.

Supreme Court’s opinion on parliamentary privileges

  • Recently, a Supreme Court judgment took away the protection of privileges and immunities making elected representatives liable for prosecution for their acts. 
    • The case relates to criminal prosecution against six members of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) currently ruling in Kerala. They were being prosecuted for creating ruckus in Kerala Assembly in 2015. 
    • The judgement reminded that “the purpose of bestowing privileges and immunities to elected members of the legislature is to enable them to perform their functions without hindrance, fear or favour”.
    • They are not a mark of status which makes legislators stand on an unequal pedestal.

Way forward:

  • As recommended by the 2001 conference, there should be an increase in the working days of Parliament. Our legislature should meet throughout the year, like parliaments of most developed democracies.
    • The conference resolved that Parliament should meet for 110 days every year and larger state legislative assemblies for 90 days.
    • It also suggested enforcement of a code of conduct for MPs and MLAs.
  • Opposition days: Opposition parties should be given ample opportunity to debate and highlight important issues. 
    • In the United Kingdom, where Parliament meets over 100 days a year, opposition parties get 20 days on which they decide the agenda for discussion in Parliament. 
    • The main opposition party gets 17 days and the remaining three days are given to the second-largest opposition party. 
  • Parliament Disruption Index: Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson Harivansh had, last year, mooted an idea of evolving a ‘Parliament Disruption Index’.
  • Automatic suspension: In the Lok Sabha, some members proposed automatic suspension of members who cause disruption and rush to the Well of the House. But the proposals are still in a nascent stage.

The vitality of democracy demands discipline, constructive approach, and a readiness to contribute to consensus-building on pressing issues before the nation — and adherence to rules. Political parties, both ruling and Opposition, have a responsibility towards the country. And the first step in discharging that responsibility starts with using the spirit of consensus and compromise to ensure a deliberative Parliament.

Sources: https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/parliament-disruption-monsoon-session-opposition-protest-7435216/

https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/disruption-in-parliament-assemblies-and-privileges-of-mps-mlas-decoded-1834159-2021-07-29