In response to a letter from the Congress leader in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury seeking a short session of Parliament to discuss the new farm laws, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi has said that some opposition parties “have expressed concerns about the ongoing pandemic and opined of doing away with winter session”.
Sessions of Parliament
The power to convene a session of Parliament rests with the government. The decision is taken by the Cabinet Committee on Parliamentary Affairs, which currently comprises nine ministers, including those for Defence, Home, Finance, and Law. The decision of the Committee is formalised by the President, in whose name MPs are summoned to meet for a session.
India does not have a fixed parliamentary calendar. By convention, Parliament meets for three sessions in a year. The longest, the Budget Session, starts towards the end of January, and concludes by the end of April or first week of May. The session has a recess so that Parliamentary Committees can discuss the budgetary proposals.
The second session is the three-week Monsoon Session, which usually begins in July and finishes in August. The parliamentary year ends with a three week-long Winter Session, which is held from November to December.
A general scheme of sittings was recommended in 1955 by the General Purpose Committee of Lok Sabha. It was accepted by the government of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, but was not implemented.
What the Constitution says
The summoning of Parliament is specified in Article 85 of the Constitution. Like many other articles, it is based on a provision of The Government of India Act, 1935. This provision specified that the central legislature had to be summoned to meet at least once a year, and that not more than 12 months could elapse between two sessions.
Dr B R Ambedkar stated that the purpose of this provision was to summon the legislature only to collect revenue, and that the once-a-year meeting was designed to avoid scrutiny of the government by the legislature. On the floor of the Constituent Assembly, he said: “We thought and personally I also think that the atmosphere has completely changed and I do not think any executive would hereafter be capable of showing this kind of callous conduct towards the legislature.”
His drafting of the provision reduced the gap between sessions to six months, and specified that Parliament should meet at least twice a year. He argued that “The clause as it stands does not prevent the legislature from being summoned more often than what has been provided for in the clause itself. In fact, my fear is, if I may say so, that the sessions of Parliament would be so frequent and so lengthy that the members of the legislature would probably themselves get tired of the sessions.”
During the debate, members of the Constituent Assembly highlighted three issues: (i) the number of sessions in a year, (ii) the number of days of sitting and, (iii) who should have the power to convene Parliament.
Prof K T Shah from Bihar was of the opinion that Parliament should sit throughout the year, with breaks in between. Others wanted Parliament to sit for longer durations, and gave examples of the British and American legislatures which during that time were meeting for more than a hundred days in a year. Prof Shah also wanted the presiding officers of the two Houses to be empowered to convene Parliament in certain circumstances. These suggestions were not accepted by Dr Ambedkar.
Moved, delayed, stretched
Over the years, governments have shuffled around the dates of sessions to accommodate political and legislative exigencies. In 2017, the Winter Session was delayed on account of the Gujarat Assembly elections. In 2011, political parties agreed to cut short the Budget Session so they could campaign for Vidhan Sabha elections in five states.
Sessions have also been cut short or delayed to allow the government to issue Ordinances. For example, in 2016, the Budget Session was broken up into two separate sessions to enable the issuance of an Ordinance.
Sessions have been stretched — in 2008, the two-day Monsoon Session (in which a no-confidence motion was moved against the UPA-I government over the India-US nuclear deal) was extended until December. The ostensible reason was to prevent the moving of another no-confidence motion. It meant that there were only two sessions that year.
Fewer House sittings
Over the years, there has been a decline in the sittings days of Parliament. During the first two decades of Parliament, Lok Sabha met for an average of a little more than 120 days a year. This has come down to approximately 70 days in the last decade.
One institutional reason given for this is the reduction in the workload of Parliament by its Standing Committees, which, since the 1990s, have anchored debates outside the House. However, several Committees have recommended that Parliament should meet for at least 120 days in a year. Congress leader Pawan Kumar Bansal, during his tenure as member of Rajya Sabha, made this proposal in his private member Bills. Sitting Rajya Sabha MP Naresh Gujral, in his 2017 private member Bill, suggested that Parliament should meet for four sessions in a year, including a special session of 15 days for debating matters of urgent public importance.
This year, Parliament has met for 33 days. The last time it met for fewer than 50 days was in 2008, when it met for 46 days.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 17, 2020 under the title ‘How Parliament meets’. Chakshu Roy is head of outreach PRS Legislative Research.