Dumbing Down Grave Questions Over Parliamentarians? Queries

The Quint, August 12, 2015

Kay Benedict*

On July 31 AIADMK MP from Cuddalore A Arunmozhithevan posed an incredible question in the Lok Sabha. The MP wanted to know the number of people who suffered from chronic constipation in the country, particularly in urban areas.

It is possible that he may have formulated his question after watching ?Piku? which portrayed Amitabh Bachchan as a cranky septuagenarian suffering from chronic constipation. Nonetheless, Minister of State for Health Shripad Yesso Naik answered the question in all earnestness, saying that no nationwide survey on constipation was done, but health being a state subject, patients could get treatment from state-run hospitals.

Over the years, the quality and standard of questions have fallen sharply. Umpteen frivolous questions, such as the one on constipation, are asked. Many times MPs ask questions to expose the government, if he or she is in the Opposition, some queries are for the benefit of the people, some are sponsored or ?paid questions? prompted by corporate lobbyists.

Triviality All Over

Even the more refined MPs ask trivial questions. Last Friday, Shashi Tharoor asked: ?Whether the government is aware that there has been a steady decline in the number of tourists visiting the state of Kerala for ayurvedic treatment during the last three years…? The junior health minister?s curt reply was: ?Government of India does not maintain the data of tourists visiting the state of Kerala for ayurvedic treatment.?

According to Lok Sabha Secretariat sources, on an average Rs 1 lakh is spent on culling relevant information, preparing and answering a particular question. Sometimes information has to be collated from several departments involving five to six states.

This is not to argue that Question Hour should be scrapped or done away with. Question Hour is not only sacrosanct, it has proved to be a lethal parliamentary weapon in the hands of alert legislators to fix accountability of the government. The scent of a scam in the controversial coal block allocation during UPA II was smelt through a simple question raised by BJP MP Hansraj Ahir, now a junior minister in the NDA government.

At a time when cynics question the relevancy of Parliament and Question Hour in particular, on the premise that RTI has diluted the impact of questions or diminished MPs? interest in using this tool, old school parliamentarians such as Murli Manohar Joshi vouch for the efficacy of ?sacrosanct? Question Hour. Unlike RTI, members get instant answers in Parliament besides a commitment or an assurance from the government.

Coaching for MPs

Joshi said MPs should be coached in the art of formulating strong and relevant questions to elicit information from the government and expose wrong doings.

Amidst the raging confrontation between the BJP and the Congress over the Vyapam scam and Lalitgate, issues which have paralysed Parliament since July 22, a book on ?Parliamentary Questions ? Glorious Beginning to an Uncertain Future? authored by Lok Sabha Additional Secretary Devender Singh was released here on August 10 by Joshi. He described the book as a work of extensive research and of great contemporary relevance.

Expressing deep concern over the growing tendency to troop to the well of the House on the slightest provocation, Joshi observed that the loss of Question Hour is a colossal waste of time and resources and highly detrimental to public interest as it blocks the flow of information.

The former HRD minister stressed that the device of questions is a powerful tool of accountability. ?In each question there hangs a different tale. No other parliamentary device is as versatile and efficacious in its deployment and reach as a simple, innocuous question.?

The book documents the origin and growth of parliamentary questions from the Raj era, beginning from the Charter Act of 1853 and the framing of Rules from the 1st to the 15th Lok Sabha.

Devender Singh said that ?accountability of the executive to the legislature is the lynchpin of parliamentary democracy.?

The First Question

He said the very first question asked was on February 16, 1893, by the Maharaja of Bhinga (in the first Legislative Council) and it related to the hardships caused to cultivators and village shopkeepers by touring government officers who had to be supplied provisions, fodder, fuel, etc. per force. The House of People first met on May 13, 1952, and on May 14, 1954, it was rechristened as Lok Sabha and the Council of States renamed as Rajya Sabha.

Joshi said that the idea of asking questions is not purely a Westminster technique but is rooted in India?s great cultural and hoary learning traditions.

Joshi alluded to the Hymn of Creation in the Rig Veda, which speculates about creation and the creator and the great argumentative traditions of questions and answers as evident from the philosophical exchanges between Yajnavalkya and Gargi, Yaksha-Yudhisthir and Arjun and Krishna.

It was Joshi?s opinion that once realisation dawns upon MPs that the device of question is a powerful accountability and oversight tool which they must utilise, Question Hour will proceed smoothly.

*Delhi-based Senior Journalist

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