By Vivek K Agnihotri
On February 17, 2022, Om Birla, Speaker, Lok Sabha, rued the fact that the number of sittings of the legislature was declining and half of the available time was lost in disruptions and sloganeering.
He was speaking at an orientation programme for first-time legislators as part of the centenary year celebrations of the Bihar legislative assembly building in Patna. Disruptions are against the basic spirit of democracy and, if necessary, presiding officers of state legislatures should bring about required changes in rules to ensure smooth and disciplined conduct of the house, he added. The first meeting of the Bihar legislative assembly was held on February 7, 1921, in the newly constructed building after Bihar and Orissa provinces got full statehood in 1920. The centenary celebrations were inaugurated by the President Ram Nath Kovind on October 21, 2021.
According to a data analysis of a leading newspaper, state legislative assemblies averaged just 30 sittings a year over the past decade. The states with the highest average of sittings in a year over the last 10 years are Odisha (46) and Kerala (43), but even these are much lower than the average of 63 for the Lok Sabha. At the bottom of the rung are states like Punjab and Haryana (15) and Andhra Pradesh (22). Smaller states like Delhi and Nagaland were even worse with just 10-20 days of sittings in a year.
The data also shows that the number of sittings per year has gradually shrunk. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, the average was 47 days from 1960s up to the mid-80s, but fell to about 30 days by the turn of the century and is now just 23 days. Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, from 1955 to 1975, the average number of annual sittings was 56 days; from 1975-1999, it declined to 51 days, and since 2000, it has fallen to 37 days per year.
According to a recent PRS Legislative Research study, MLAs in India on an average, work for just 28 days in a year, based on the number of days assemblies sat in the last five years. In general, the trend across the country is that legislatures meet for longer budget sessions at the beginning of the year. For the rest of the year, they meet to fulfil the constitutional requirement that there should not be a gap of more than six months between two sessions.
The same declining trend is visible in the Lok Sabha. In 1953, the first year during which Parliament held its full quota of three sessions, the number of sittings was 137. It rose to 151 in 1956. On an average, in the 1950s, the Lok Sabha met for 127 days and the Rajya Sabha for 93 days. This declined to 73 days for both Houses in 2011. Both had just 33 sittings in 2020 as the budget and monsoon sessions were truncated amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Before that, the Lok Sabha had met for under 50 days just twice: 2008 (46) and 2004 (48). The Rajya Sabha has had under 50 sittings thrice: 2004 and 2008 (46) and 1999 (48).
Yet another interesting feature, as revealed in a study undertaken by the Rajya Sabha Secretariat, is that between the 193rd session held during July-August 2001 and the 255th session held in November-December 2021, 32 (51%) of the 63 sessions, including the winter session 2021, ended before schedule. In terms of the actual work done, the worst perhaps was the winter session of Parliament in 2010. In the whole session, the Rajya Sabha actually worked just for two hours and 44 minutes, while the Lok Sabha transacted business for 7 ½ hours only.
It has been argued that after the departmentally-related standing committees were constituted in 1993, the two Houses of Parliament refer many bills and other business to these committees for detailed examination/scrutiny. Thus, the work of Parliament is, to some extent, shared by these standing committees, which are scheduled outside the sittings of the Parliament.
Interestingly, the sittings of the Lok Sabha pale in comparison to national legislatures elsewhere. In 2021, the US House of Representatives was in session for 166 days and the Senate for 192 days. In the UK, the House of Commons had 147 sittings in 2020 and had a yearly average of about 155 days over the previous decade. Japan’s Diet meets150 days a year. For the House of Commons of Canada, the figure is currently 127 and for Germany’s Bundestag, it is 104.
As early as 1989, the Conference of Presiding Officers of Legislative Bodies, in its meeting in Bhopal, had on its agenda the topic titled “Situation arising out of shrinking days of the sessions of legislatures in India”. Again in 1993, it discussed the “need to lay down constitutional limit for minimum number of sittings of legislatures and the minimum number of sessions”. In 1996, it went on to adopt a resolution which stated: “It is also a matter of serious concern that the periodicity as well as duration of sittings of several legislatures are grossly inadequate. There should be more frequent and longer sittings, lest the members get frustrated in that they are not able to transact business on the problems of their constituencies. In this context, legislatures should establish conventions, rules and practices of enhancing the minimum number of sittings and stipulating the minimum duration of each of the sittings, largely following the model of the Parliament.”
In 1997, the Presiding Officers’ Conference once again passed a resolution to the effect that state legislative bodies may have sittings for not less than 60 days in the case of smaller states and 100 days in the case of larger states, in a year. In 2001, it adopted a report which recommended that there should be some constitutional provisions regarding minimum number of sittings of legislatures.
The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, which functioned under the chairmanship of Justice MN Venkatachaliah, in its report in 2002 had recommended that the Houses of state legislatures with less than 70 members should meet at least 50 days in a year and the larger Houses for at least 90 days. The minimum number of days for sitting of Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha should be fixed at 100 and 120 days, respectively.
The Vice President of India and Chairman, Rajya Sabha, in his address to the 14th All India Whips Conference in 2008, observed that the deliberative role of the Parliament must be restored by increasing the number of its sittings per annum to about 130 days. The comparative figures for the British and Canadian Parliament are in excess of 140 days and for the US Congress over 150 days in a year, he said. The All India Whips Conference in 2014 had on its agenda “100 sittings of Parliament in a year”.
A member in the Rajya Sabha had even introduced a private member’s bill in 2008 emphasising the need for increasing the number of sittings of legislative bodies by prescribing the minimum number of days of sittings for both Houses of Parliament and assemblies in a calendar year so that issues concerning the public could be adequately discussed. The bill sought to amend Articles 85 and 174 of the Constitution to provide that each House of Parliament shall sit for at least for 120 days and the Houses of legislatures of states would sit at least for 60 days in a year.
Curtailment of sittings and reduction in the number of days the legislatures work is the root cause of several ills afflicting our democratic polity. First and foremost, it infringes on the constitutional role of these bodies as a watchdog and makes the government of the day accountable to them. It impedes continuous and close scrutiny of the executive by the legislature. It comes in the way of legislatures debating and giving ample voice to public concerns. The reduced number of sitting days also gives freedom to the executive to promulgate ordinances.
At the same time, lesser number of sittings also results in giving the members little time to scrutinise the laws. According to one study, only 13% of bills in the 17th Lok Sabha have been referred to the standing committees, down from 27% in the previous one and sharply down from over 60% during the 15th Lok Sabha. This, in turn, leads to poor drafting of bills and makes higher courts the only effective check on executive overreach.
Ideally, legislatures should be in session right round the year, with one (winter) break to facilitate the president’s/ governor’s address before presentation of the annual budget. The dates of sittings of legislatures for the entire calendar year should be announced in advance, with breaks in between, as is the practice in several countries. This would not only get rid of politics surrounding the convening of the sessions of the legislature but also increase the time for meaningful debate and discussion.
—The writer is former Secretary-General, Rajya Sabha