Unlike other institutions, Parliament does not work throughout the year. Our constitution specifies that ‘six months shall not intervene’ between the last sitting of one session and the first sitting of the next. This provision effectively ensures that Parliament meets at least twice a year. Over the years, parliamentary convention has evolved towards having three sessions in a year— the Budget (February to May), Monsoon (July to August/September) and Winter (November to December) sessions.
Legislative expediency and political compulsions have ensured that this convention has been deviated from on different occasions. For example, this year the ongoing monsoon session is the third session of the year, as the Budget Session was converted into two separate sessions. This was done in order to enable the issuance of an Ordinance. In 2008, the monsoon session of Parliament was extended till November-December which meant that there were only two sessions during the year. This was done to prevent a second no confidence motion being moved against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first Government.
However other Parliaments usually meet for the entire year. For example, the British Parliament is in session throughout the year. Its session begins in the spring with the state opening of Parliament, and it meets for 12 months, with time off for festivals and breaks. Canada follows a similar practice.
In the last ten years Lok Sabha has met for an average of 70 number of days in a year. This number was much higher during the 1950s and 1960s when the lower house used to meet for an average of 120 number of days in a year. Parliament as an institution of oversight monitors the working of the Government. When it is in session, members have the opportunity to put questions to Government ministers and participate in debates on the functioning of Government. If the number of days for which Parliament meets is limited, its ability to hold the Government accountable is weakened.
In the United Kingdom, the House of Commons met for an average of 150 days a year over the last fifteen years. The United States House of representatives met for an average of 140 days every year during the same period.
In India, Parliament does not have the power to convene itself. The President on advice of the Council of Ministers summons Parliament. This means, Parliament effectively meets at the behest of the Government. The Government therefore can choose to convene Parliament depending on the business it needs to push through. As a body that is entrusted to be the ‘watchdog’ of our democracy these restraints result in its weakening.
Since parliament does not have the power to convene itself, it has been suggested that it should meet for a minimum number of working days in a year. The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution had recommended that a minimum number of working days for Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha should be fixed at 120 and 100 respectively. Vice President Hamid Ansari while inaugurating the Whips Conference in 2008 had suggested an increase in the number of sittings of Parliament to 130 days per annum. In 2008, Rajya Sabha MP Mahendra Mohan introduced a private member bill to amend the constitution to specify a minimum of 120 working days.
Recent years have witnessed washouts of parliamentary sessions due to repeated disruptions. With parliament meeting throughout the year there is a possibility that time lost due to disruptions can be made up without compromising on other parliamentary business. If Parliament were to meet more frequently, the pressure of completing legislative business in a limited time will also ease up leading to lesser number of pending bills. More parliamentary sitting days will allow both the treasury and opposition benches adequate time to bring their issues to the floor of the House.
-- Trina Roy is programme officer at PRS Legislative Research