One of the earliest walkouts occurred more than a century ago in the Bombay Legislative Council. In 1901, when the British administration was passing a law harmful to farmers’ interests, Indian members of the council such as Pherozeshah Mehta and Gopal Krishna Gokhale vehemently opposed the law. When their attempt to delay the law failed, they walked out in protest.
Before walking out, Gokhale said, “I take this course with the greatest reluctance and regret ... It is only an overwhelming sense of duty which urges me to take this step because I am not prepared to accept even the remote responsibility of associating myself with this measure which my further presence here would imply.”
Since then, the expression of disagreement has taken many different forms. Coordinated sloganeering, display of placards, snatching of papers and tearing them up seem to be the new normal of our legislative functioning.
The two Houses of Parliament have detailed rules instructing members not to indulge in such activities. However, the washout of the first week of the monsoon session has highlighted the disregard for these rules.
Parliament must function more responsibly, considering that this session is being held in the backdrop of reduced legislative functioning since the onset of the pandemic. Last year, the budget and monsoon sessions were cut short, and there was no winter session. Elections in states led to the curtailment of the budget session this year. The work of parliamentary committees also suffered because of their inability to meet physically during the lockdowns.
The monsoon session is the first full opportunity for the two Houses to discuss the legislative and deliberative agenda before them. The government wants to get parliamentary approval on nine bills that are pending from previous sessions. These include the surrogacy bill, assisted reproductive technology bill, DNA technology bill and amendments to the juvenile justice and the maintenance of senior citizen laws.
The surrogacy bill, which bans commercial surrogacy, started its legislative journey in 2016. It lapsed in 2019 was revived the same year in the current Lok Sabha. Over the years, the standing committee on health and then a committee of the Rajya Sabha, chaired by Bhupender Yadav, have contributed to the strengthening of the bill. The select committee recommended a surrogacy model based on compensation rather than altruistic surrogacy, allowing any woman (rather than just a close relative) to act as a surrogate mother. It also suggested the introduction of the assisted reproductive technology bill for regulating services such as in-vitro fertilisation.
The DNA bill was first brought in the last Lok Sabha in 2018. It provides the framework and safeguards for using DNA technology to establish the identity of individuals in certain civil and criminal cases. After being reintroduced in the current Lok Sabha, it underwent comprehensive scrutiny by the parliamentary committee on science and technology chaired by Jairam Ramesh. The committee observed that the regulatory board for DNA technology should be independent. It also recommended the deletion of DNA profiles of individuals acquitted of a crime in 30 days and the doing away with regional DNA data banks that do not provide any additional benefits.
The juvenile justice amendment bill is another bill from the last Lok Sabha. It is transferring the final authority for adopting a child from the local court to the district magistrate. Additionally, it protects children accused of committing serious offences. The amendment to the maintenance of senior citizen law expands the scope of family responsible for taking care of the elderly. It also provides for the regulation of private care homes for senior citizens.
While the government’s focus will be on steering its legislative business through Parliament, Members of Parliament (MPs) will be keen on discussing critical national issues such as health infrastructure, vaccines, inflation, rise in fuel prices, floods and drought. So far, only Rajya Sabha has had a debate on the Covid-19 situation in the country.
The monsoon session is also the time for Parliament to create a business continuity plan for its committees. Such a plan will come in handy if physical meetings are not feasible because of a third wave of the coronavirus. So far, there has been no political consensus on allowing committees to meet virtually.
Another crucial issue requiring institutional attention is about referring government bills to parliamentary committees for scrutiny. The government intends to introduce and pass 17 more bills during the remaining 15 days of the session. This list has high-impact legislative proposals such as the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which will de-license electricity distribution and bring in competition. Such technical bills should go through detailed scrutiny and have their glitches ironed out through careful examination by a committee.
Continued disruptions in the session will result in Parliament squandering the opportunity to discuss pressing legislative and national issues. The responsibility for a disruption-free session rests on political parties on both sides of the aisle. A functioning session will allow the Opposition to hold the government accountable for its functioning. Similarly, the government will receive feedback and share its perspective on its handling of the situation in the country.
In the end, history will judge whether the ultimate symbol of our democracy, Parliament, guided and informed the country during one of the most challenging times the nation has faced, or whether it failed to fulfil its duty as its proceedings were adjourned due to disruptions.
Chakshu Roy is the head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research