Zeroing in on transparency: The case for formalising zero hour in Parliament

It would be a crucial step towards ensuring that important matters are raised

PTI12_15_2021_000052B (File) Representational image

"Zero Hour is a crucial moment in the parliamentary process. It is the time when real action begins in the House," states the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Rajya Sabha. However, in recent years, disruptions by both the opposition and the treasury benches have made it challenging for the zero hour to be conducted effectively.

According to the PRS Legislative Research Data, the number of Parliament sittings has halved since the 1950s-60s, and the functioning time has dropped significantly, with Lok Sabha working for only five per cent and Rajya Sabha six per cent of its scheduled time in the second part of the Budget session.

Although the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Rajya Sabha already contains various procedural devices for members to raise matters of public importance on the floor of the House, the zero hour has emerged as a parliamentary device without specific sanction in the rule book. It is time to formalise and recognise this practice to ensure its effectiveness.

While the recent focus has been on disruptions becoming the new normal for the Parliament, the situation is further complicated by the government's determined agenda to ensure that the government business prevails even as the private members' business gets negated completely.

Formalising the zero hour would be a crucial step towards addressing this issue and ensuring that important (as well as urgent) matters are raised and addressed in a timely manner.

The emergence of the zero hour can be traced back to the 'early sixties,' when members began to raise urgent matters of public importance immediately after the question hour. The popularity of the zero hour is evident from the fact that veteran parliamentarians have used it skilfully to draw the House's and the nation's attention to important issues. Pratap Singh Bajwa of the Congress raised the issue of air safety in the country amidst incidents of emergency exits by various domestic airlines, while Supriya Sule highlighted the drought and water scarcity in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra during the zero hour.

The true advantage of the zero hour lies in its flexibility to allow for the submission of last-minute notices to the Chair, without being restricted to what was originally submitted at the time of the ballot. This is an essential aspect of the present structure that should not be violated in the process of formalising the zero hour.

Further, the freedom to bring up urgent matters that require immediate attention must be maintained to ensure that the voices of the people are heard, even when they make the government of the day uncomfortable.

Eminent parliamentarian late Prof. N.G. Ranga highlighted the significance of the zero hour, saying, "The most striking and exciting development in the Indian Parliament was the emergence of the zero hour. Its growth and achievement of stability were not so much due to the inadequacy in the Rules of Procedure, as to the growing weakness of the Ministers, unmanageability of members, and the rising complexity of the political atmosphere."

It is crucial to note that the informal practice of allowing submissions during zero hour could not be discontinued despite the fact that it is not obligatory for the government to respond formally or informally to those matters, and the business advisory committee in 1993 had favoured a limited use of the instrument. Formalising the zero hour would bring more structure to the proceedings of the House, allowing members to raise important matters in an organised manner. This would also ensure that the government is held accountable for the issues raised during the zero hour, and prompt action is taken to address them.

To conclude, formalising the zero hour is an essential measure to ensure that important matters are brought up and addressed promptly in the Parliament. This step will provide three important benefits, known as the 3Fs: facilitation in raising critical issues, focused discussions, and a follow-up mechanism. As representatives of the people, it is our responsibility to ensure that the Parliament operates smoothly and that the voices of the people are heard. By doing so, we can guarantee that the ‘Parliament remains a place for the resolution of chaos rather than for the creation of it’.

(The author is a Member of the Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra)

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