Parliament is slated to resume the Monsoon Session on September 14 through October 1 with a suspended Question Hour and Zero Hour. This move has not gone down well with the opposition, as they allege that the government is ducking accountability by attempting to axe Question Hour through parliamentary procedure using the pandemic as an excuse.
Written questions will be allowed however, with the government giving indications that the Zero Hour - which follows the Question Hour - may be compressed to 30 minutes instead.
MPs required to submit Qs for Question Hour in #Parliament 15 days in advance. Session starts 14 Sept. So Q Hour cancelled ? Oppn MPs lose right to Q govt. A first since 1950 ? Parliament overall working hours remain same so why cancel Q Hour?Pandemic excuse to murder democracy— Derek O'Brien | ডেরেক ও'ব্রায়েন (@derekobrienmp) September 2, 2020
BJP govt's decision to suspend the Question Hour for an entire session conveys just one message – "Even elected representatives have no right to question the government".— Kanimozhi (கனிமொழி) (@KanimozhiDMK) September 2, 2020
To adjust to the circumstances caused by the pandemic, several changes have been made. Parliament is slated to meet for fewer hours - down to four from the earlier six or seven. Due to social distancing norms, only one House of Parliament will be able to function at a time. In the first half, the chambers of both Houses of Parliament and the adjacent galleries will be occupied by the Rajya Sabha. Post sanitisation, in the second half, Lok Sabha will be allowed to function. This has resulted in the suspension of Question Hour and Zero Hour being curtailed.
This will be the seventh time that question hour will be curtailed. Previously, it was curtailed in 1962 during the Indo-China War, in 1975 and 1976 during the Emergency, and reportedly in 1991, 2004 and 2009.
But what is Question Hour, and why is it important? Here are key things to know.
What is Question Hour?
Parliament, under normal circumstances, convenes at 11A.M. and breaks for lunch two hours later at 1 P.M. The first hour in both Houses of Parliament is called 'Question Hour', where members of both Houses of Parliament may seek answers to specific questions from ministers of the government. This extends to members including those of the opposition and of those belonging to the ruling party.
"This parliamentary device, in fact, is primarily meant for exercising a kind of legislative control over executive actions. Besides, the Members also find an opportunity through this device to criticise Government's policies and programmes; ventilate public grievances; expose Government's lapses; and extract promises from Ministers", states the Rajya Sabha website.
The importance of Question Hour stems primarily from its primary purpose - accountability - which have led to some big revelations in the past.
In 1957, questions posed to then Finance Minister TT Krishnamachari over investments made by the Life Insurance Corporation in six public limited companies snowballed into India's first financial scandal: the Mundhra Scam. This led to Krishnamachari's resignation as a minister from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's cabinet (source).
Zero Hour follows the Question Hour, and takes place from noon till the House breaks for lunch. In this period, pre-designated speakers may take up topical or constituency-oriented questions up for debate and seek answers from ministers.
What are the types of questions that can be asked?
Members of Parliament can put forth their questions to ministers through the following methods:
- Starred question: Questions asked orally on the floor of the house to Ministers.
- Unstarred question: Question that seek a written response from Ministers
- Short-notice questions: They can be asked at a shorter notice pertaining to an urgent matter, as determined by the Chairman of a House
- Supplementary question: They can be asked following a starred or short notice question to attain further clarification on an issue.
The question hour in the upcoming Monsoon Session will take 160 unstarred questions everyday, but it is likely to miss building pressure on the government by oral answers on the floor of the House, of which Question Hour served as a vehicle.
Will question hour remain suspended?
While Question Hour will remain suspended based on currently available information, Zero Hour is likely to be held for 30 minutes.
Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Prahlad Joshi has requested the Speaker and the Vice President (presiding officers of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha respectively) to hold Zero Hour.
"They will take the final decision. The government is ready to have a discussion on every issue", he is quoted saying.