After a huge debate over the scrapping of Question Hour in parliament for the upcoming session, the Centre said on Wednesday (September 2) that it would allow “unstarred questions” – written questions that will receive written responses.
The decision came after the government, interestingly, claimed that the Question Hour was dropped only after discussions with opposition leaders and that at the time, no one but Trinamool Congress’s Derek O’ Brien had objected.
Earlier in the day, Opposition parties slammed the government for its decision to not have the Question Hour during the upcoming monsoon session and accused it of trying to “murder democracy” in the name of the COVID-19 pandemic and reducing “Parliament to a notice board”.
There will be no Question Hour and private members bills will not be taken up in the session, while the Zero Hour will be restricted, notifications issued by Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha secretariats said.
Congress leader in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and party’s deputy leader in Rajya Sabha Anand Sharma said that the proposal to exclude Question Hour during this session is “arbitrary” and “undemocratic” as it is the members right to ask questions to the government on key issues.
Reacting to the development of having no Question Hour, senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said, “The notification for the delayed Parliament session blandly announces there will be no Question Hour. How can this be justified in the name of keeping us safe?”
“This government seeks to reduce Parliament to a notice-board and uses its crushing majority as a rubber-stamp for whatever it wants to pass,” he alleged.
The one mechanism to promote accountability has now been done away with, he rued. Tagging Tharoor’s tweet, another senior Congress leader Mukul Wasnik said on Twitter, “You may have misunderstood the government. This is not about your safety. It is about the governments safety.”
Sharma, who is also a senior Congress spokesperson, said the delayed monsoon session is one of special significance after the lockdown and phased unlocking, and the proposal to exclude the Question Hour is “arbitrary, shocking and undemocratic”.
It is members’ privilege and the very life of a session, he said. Parliament sessions are not meant only for government business but also scrutiny and accountability of the government, he said in a tweet.
Trinamool Congress MP and floor Leader in Rajya Sabha Derek O’ Brien said opposition MPs will lose the right to question the government and alleged that the pandemic was being used as an “excuse to murder democracy”.
O’ Brien said question hours are significant because issues raised during this time are answered by the minister concerned which is not the case in the Zero Hour.
He said questions are also asked by the treasury benches and the move to suspend the question hour would mean that the government was also “denying their own MPs to raise their queries”.
“This means that we cannot ask any questions on the state of the economy or the pandemic,” he said.
CPI MP Binoy Viswam has also written to Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Nadu, saying that suspension of Question Hour and Private Members business is “unjust” and they must be reinstated immediately.
Viswam said suspending these parliamentary procedures raises “serious questions” on the “intent” of the government at a time crucial developments continue to take place across the country.
“By introducing these changes, the government has effectively ensured that its accountability to the Parliament and to the people is done away with,” he said.
The Congress party also tweeted separately that questioning the government is the “life-blood of parliamentary democracy”.
“By doing away with this tool of accountability, the BJP Govt seeks to pass laws without any discussion and debate. It is an attempt to stifle democracy under the garb of the pandemic,” it said.
Mahila Congress chief Sushmita Dev criticised the decision, alleging that “our system of checks and balances is being destroyed”.
Asked at the cabinet briefing about the complaints of members about the Question Hour, Union minister Prakash Javadekar said the Parliament session is being held under special and extraordinary circumstances.
“Parliamentary affairs minister is in touch with various political parties and is talking to their leaders. He will inform all about the issue at the right time,” Javadekar said.
There will also be no breaks during the session, which will be held from September 14 to October 1, and both Houses will function on Saturdays and Sundays as well, the notifications said.
In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, the session will be held in two shifts – 9 AM to 1 PM and 3 PM to 7 PM.
Last week, Congress leader in Lok Sabha Chowdhury wrote to Speaker Om Birla urging him not to curtail the Question Hour and the Zero Hour.
Chowdhury had said it will prevent lawmakers from raising issues of national importance.
Meanwhile, according to sources, the government has reached out to the Opposition, sharing its compulsions to not hold the Question Hour in wake of the pandemic.
(With inputs from agencies)