The Lok Sabha has witnessed a tumultuous period since 2019 with the ruling party BJP and the Opposition having been in conflict on a range of issues. However, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, who completes three years in office, asserts that the Lower House of Parliament has become more effective and responsive as an institution now. In an interview with The Indian ExpressBirla rejects Chief Justice of India NV Ramana’s statement that lack of quality debates while enacting laws have led to a spurt in litigation in courts, saying it “contradicts the reality”. Excerpts:
You have completed three years as the Lok Sabha Speaker. What’s your biggest achievement so far?
To me, the fact that debate happened at length on every issue is the biggest achievement during the three years. For every important law, discussions happened more than the time fixed for it. In fact, almost double the number of people participated in the discussions on important bills during the last three years. Even for the question hour, the average number of questions that are taken up is six now while it was four earlier. During zero hour, 4648 matters were raised in the last three years. When you talk about issues raised under Rule 377, 92-93 per cent of those have received responses. Even if you take the case of discussions on budget or motion of thanks, more MPs participated in them. You look at the productivity or participation or even the government’s response — the performance of the 17th Lok Sabha has excelled.
However, a complaint is often raised in the Lok Sabha, sometimes even by the ruling party, that the ministers do not answer properly. There have been instances that you pulled up some ministers for it. Could you do something about it?
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When it comes to the question of giving satisfactory replies to the questions in the Question Hour, the member can express his unhappiness over the reply given by the minister. He can convey it to the Speaker that his or her question has not been replied to. My effort always would be to make the minister give a comprehensive and required reply. Whenever a member raises such an issue, I indicate to the treasury benches that the MP is not happy with the reply. My job is to see that the members get a satisfactory reply from the government and I have always tried to ensure that for them. There have been many occasions when I have told the ministers to give a proper answer to the questions.
There is an all-round impression gaining ground day by day that the importance of Parliament as an institution has been eroded significantly. What’s your take on this?
See, I just said how the productivity and the performance of the Lok Sabha have been improved.
Executive being accountable to Parliament — that’s the cornerstone of our democracy. However, there seems to be reticence on the part of the Executive to uphold it. For example, recently there was a suggestion that the interest accrued in the MPLADS funds would go back to the Consolidated Fund. This was a proposal made without any discussions and some MPs have pointed it out.
Parliament does not interfere in the decisions taken by the Executive. But when the Executive tries to intervene into the legislature’s role, it’s my duty to see that it does not happen.
The Supreme Court has made scathing comments on the depleting standards of law-making. It has said that laws are being churned out without due deliberations, discussions or perusal. Your response?
I also heard that. I have tried to increase the time for debates on the bills. I make it a point that every bill is discussed threadbare inside the House. You can see the records, it cannot go wrong. The country should see the record. The comments made by the Chief Justice (NV Ramana) are not correct. It contradicts reality. The reality is on the records which cannot lie. The reality is that the Indian Parliament has worked more, it has adopted a better democratic system and that the Executive has started being more responsive.
The issue of the government’s reluctance to send the bills for the Standing Committee scrutiny is yet to be resolved. Why?
The Parliamentary Affairs Ministry suggests on what bill goes to the Standing Committee. I think the good tradition of having the bills discussed threadbare inside the House has now been set up. The government also has supported it. A number of bills has gone to the Standing Committee. Why are the laws made? There are rules for the lawmaking process. There may be times when the government feels that delaying a particular bill will not do good for the country and expresses its wish to get the bills passed soon. It then suggests that the House can run more time, but the bill may get passed. Then the bills are discussed and passed.
After this government came to power, many Opposition parties pointed out that it does not engage in discussions with them. There are times when no all-party meeting is held before the start of a session. Do you think that the government should make more efforts for better floor coordination?
Whenever there is a session, I make a lot of efforts to see that the House runs smoothly with everyone’s cooperation. If there are any roadblocks, I call the ruling party and Opposition leaders to find a way out. Sometimes we get solutions and sometimes we don’t get a solution. It’s also my responsibility to see that roadblocks are cleared and the House runs smoothly. I do it regularly.
How do you see the overdominance of Hindi in Parliament where even English-speaking ministers are directed to speak in Hindi. There have been many instances in the House when the MPs from Tamil Nadu have to engage in heated exchanges with the treasury benches over it?
In the House, even 30 minutes before, if an MP gives a notice to speak in the language he or she wants – from the 24 official languages in Parliament – we have translators to translate it into English and Hindi. It can be facilitated. I cannot comment on whether the minister should give the reply in Hindi or English. It’s their right to choose from either.
But it has been a normal practice that the ministers well-versed in English would oblige if a non-Hindi speaking MP ask for the reply in English.
I can function only on the basis of rules and procedures. The rules say that the replies to the questions can be given in either of the two languages. It’s the minister’s choice to oblige the MPs.
A number of MPs have raised their concerns about going paperless. They have talked about poor connectivity inside the House, the delay in getting the bills in time which impairs their efforts to assess them properly and correct the government.
I have already given the instruction that hard copies should be made available to the members in time. That concern is already addressed.
Every session, you have to deal with the privilege issues. Do you think there should be proper guidelines on what can constitute an issue of privilege?
It is not codified, ever. When the matter comes before me, I refer it to the Committee and the Committee decides on it. Sometimes, even if the Committee suggests it’s not a privilege issue, I can seek more details about it and seek action. I also have a right to reject the proposals sent by the Privilege Committee. But whenever any hurdles are created for an MP in doing his or her duties, it makes an issue of privilege. But when the issue is related to a criminal case, if someone gets arrested, the arrest has to be informed to the Speaker in 24 hours. We can examine if there is no such intimation. If it is felt that there was a deliberate attempt not to inform the House, it also makes a privilege issue.
What do you think about two MLAs being denied voting rights in the Rajya Sabha elections?
First of all it was an issue that happened in the state. When such issues come up, the presiding officers can raise them during the meetings of the presiding officers. Also, it was a court decision and we cannot interfere. When there is an arrest, the court decides on it. Parliament cannot do anything on it.
You have also suggested that the current anti-defection law has to be changed. But the presiding officers do not seem to be on the same page.
There are suggestions that came up during the meetings of the presiding officers. We have put the suggestions during the Dehradun Conference. The main issue in it is limiting the rights of the presiding officers to decide on disqualification on defection. Some said that it has to be time-bound while some say such instances raise a number of questions on our impartiality. A committee of presiding officers submitted its report but there was no consensus on their views. We will discuss it again. It’s true that we have to see the circumstances and the time of the legislation and if it fits in this particular time. We have to update the rules and laws constantly according to the changes in society too.