Most sessions of Parliament in recent years have started off with disruptions on some issue that a section of MPs is deeply agitated about. These disruptions continue for a few days, but Parliament finds a way of addressing their demands so as to enable smooth functioning of the House. One reason for disruptions is that the issue in question quickly gets highlighted in the news. In some ways this addresses at least one important reason for creating the disruptions in the first place — to gain national attention for an issue beyond just on the floor of Parliament.
Before we look at some historical data, it would be useful to set the record straight on disruptions. Often, the media reports the number of hours lost due to disruptions, but does not account for the number of hours that Parliament worked extra to make up for lost time. This makes Parliament look worse than it actually is with regard to its functioning. This is just an attempt to clarify rather than in any way condone or justify disruptions. To get a sense of the history of disruptions in Parliament, we looked at official data from the “Resume of Work” that the Lok Sabha secretariat compiles at the end of each session. Interestingly, until 1993, the resume does not even record the time lost due to interruptions. There is a record of the “number of actual sittings” of Lok Sabha, and the “number of hours of sittings” in each session. Since Lok Sabha meets for six hours each day, it is easy to compute the number of hours for which the House was scheduled to meet in each session.
From the start of the 8th Lok Sabha, in which the Bofors issue came up, till the ongoing session, there have been a total of 82 sessions of Parliament of which
we have been able to access the resume of work for 78 sessions. Simple arithmetic would suggest that dividing the number of hours of sittings by the number of scheduled hours will give the percentage of productive hours in each session. The available data tells a compelling story of the functioning of our Parliament.
The record of the current session is the worst in the past 25 years. Thus far, Lok Sabha has worked 6 per cent of the scheduled hours. The 8th Lok Sabha, despite the Bofors issue, worked for more than 100 per cent of the scheduled time in 13 of the 14 sessions. The last session of the 11th Lok Sabha, scheduled to meet for five days, worked for two hours and 45 minutes (9 per cent of the scheduled time.) In the 13th Lok Sabha, when several issues such as the Ketan Parekh stock scam and Tehelka expose came up, the lowest percentage of working hours in a session was 59 per cent. In the 14th Lok Sabha, where a number of contentious issues came up, such as the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement, the lowest percentage of working hours was 33 per cent. Over the years, Parliament has been cognisant of the problem of disruptions. On the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of Independence, political parties represented in Parliament expressed their concern over the breach of discipline and decorum in our legislatures. A resolution was adopted unanimously in 1997 “...to refrain from transgressing into the well of the House or from shouting, and to desist from any effort at interruptions or interference with the address of the President of the Republic.” In 2001, the Whips Conference focussed on “Discipline and Decorum” in legislatures and went on to identify factors behind the trend of disorderly conduct: (a) non-availability of adequate time for members to raise matters pertaining to their grievances on the floor of the House; (b) misgivings created at times by seemingly unresponsive attitude adopted by government and retaliatory posture by treasury benches; (c) disinclination, at times, on the part of the leadership of legislature parties to adhere to parliamentary norms; (d) absence of prompt and proper action against erring member under the Rules of Procedure; and (e) lack of sufficient training and orientation especially of new members in parliamentary procedure and etiquette.There have also been a number of suggestions made to improve the functioning of Parliament. But the current situation clearly demands going well beyond the rulebook. In the past, when Parliament was disrupted, the net result was that bills were passed without discussion. In this session, the Supplementary Demands for Grants were passed without discussion. This hurried passing of legislation and demands for grants can have serious policy costs which are far in excess of the cost of running Parliament. But the biggest cost of such disruptions was aptly summed up by former Speaker Somnath Chatterjee in the Whips Conference in 2008: “As we all know, scenes of unruly conduct attract adverse public comments and we cannot lose sight of the fact that the loss of people’s faith can damage our democratic polity.”