'I am in favour of maximum debate, but not disruption'

Interview/ Om Birla, Speaker, Lok Sabha

40-Om-Birla Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla | Sanjay Ahlawat

With laws passed by legislatures and decisions taken by presiding officers coming under judicial scrutiny, there was a growing feeling that the balance between the three organs of the state—legislature, executive and judiciary—was being upset, said Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla. This, he said, was at the heart of the deliberations at the recent conference of presiding officers in Kevadia, Gujarat.

In a detailed interview, Birla further said a committee of presiding officers is looking at how to limit the Speakers' powers and its report will be submitted to the government for amending the law.

Responding to the criticism that crucial bills were passed without being sent to parliamentary committees, Birla said that legislations that were extremely important and formed under special circumstances were passed following discussion in the house itself. He also added that the new Parliament building should be a matter of pride for us, and no one should object to it.

Excerpts from the interview:

What are the findings of the recent All India Presiding Officers' Conference?

The first conference was held in 1921, when the National Assembly was in place. This was the centenary year and the 80th conference. The theme was the importance of the three organs of the state—legislature, executive and the judiciary—working in coordination. They should not encroach on each other's jurisdiction. There is a growing feeling that the balance is getting upset. Also, since our Constitution makers placed people at the centre of their endeavour, the legislature is the most important part of the Constitutional framework.

Is there a concern with the decisions of the courts?

Laws made by the legislature can be scrutinised by the judiciary. But the courts cannot make laws. However, it is not about making allegations and counter allegations. It is not about any specific court order. Sometimes, the executive or the legislature also overstep their bounds.

The Speaker's powers under the Tenth Schedule have been debated.

At our 79th conference, we discussed the Tenth Schedule or anti-defection law. There was a consensus among presiding officers that our powers under the law should be limited, such as the number of days in which a petition can be decided. For the first time, an institution has said its powers be cut back. A committee under Rajasthan Assembly Speaker C.P. Joshi was formed to deliberate on it. When the committee submits its report, we will forward it to the Centre and the state governments for amending the law.

Was this deliberation prompted by court orders?

Under the Tenth Schedule, the Speaker has unlimited powers, and the courts have also commented on it. Questions have been raised on the powers the law endows upon the Speaker. However, the presiding officers felt that just as we do not comment on judicial orders, the judiciary should not encroach on our functioning.

What challenges have you faced in ensuring smooth conduct of business?

It is no doubt challenging. However, with cooperation of all, the house has functioned properly. While there was high productivity, we also followed the procedure. For every bill, be it Article 370 or Citizenship Amendment Bill or the law on Triple Talaq, the discussion exceeded the time allocated. Political parties have their own ideologies and manifestos, which reflects in the stand they take in the house. But there was cooperation from all on majority of the issues and most of the bills were passed unanimously, without division of votes.

What is the role of Parliament during a pandemic?

During a pandemic, the legislature has a huge role to play. Despite COVID-19, we convened Parliament, with all the safety measures in place. In ten days, 25 bills were passed. We sat for 36 hours more than was planned. The attendance during the session was higher than in normal times.

The monsoon session was curtailed. Can the winter session be held?

There was consensus among all parties that since there was a high risk of COVID infection despite the safety protocol in place, we should curtail the session. It is for the government to decide on convening a session of Parliament depending on the circumstances and based on discussions with other parties.

Why can't a virtual session be held?

We do not have a provision for holding a virtual session in our rules of procedure. We will have to amend the rules to allow for it.

There is a growing concern with regard to unruly behaviour by MPs in the house.

In the past, we have seen furore in the Lok Sabha, sloganeering, waving of placards and adjournments. The people are not in favour of such behaviour. You are free to hold protests on the streets. I am committed to giving adequate time to all members to speak in the house. I am in favour of maximum debate, but not disruption.

Is a common set of norms for the entire country being prepared to deal with house disruptions?

At the 79th conference, a committee was formed under Uttar Pradesh Speaker Hriday Narayan Dikshit to discuss common rules for legislatures. For example, in Chhattisgarh, there is a rule for automatic suspension of members who enter the well of the house, so [we need to see] if it can be followed elsewhere, too. Another issue under our deliberation is the need for state assemblies to have a minimum number of sittings. In some places, the Assembly runs for just ten or 15 days.

Opposition parties say bills are being passed without the scrutiny of parliamentary committees. The three farm laws, for instance.

The farm laws were basically ordinances. Whenever the house demands, bills are sent to standing committees. Legislations which are extremely important and formed in special circumstances are discussed in the house itself and passed. The committee is only a smaller version of the house. In the committee, since the cameras are not there, members rise above politics and place their viewpoint.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has alleged that the opposition's voice is muzzled in Parliament.

It is for everyone to see that I have always given the opposition members more time than is allocated. I have always given adequate time to the members of his party. Irrespective of which party a person belongs to, he is, for me, a Member of Parliament first.

You wrote to parliamentary committees, asking them not to take up issues pending in courts.

The directive was in accordance with the rules of procedure of Parliament that issues pending in a court will not be taken up by a parliamentary committee. It was felt that I had stopped a committee from proceeding on a specific issue. However, it was not for any one particular panel.

You initiated an exercise to assess the effectiveness of parliamentary committees.

It was done to assess the execution of the recommendations of the committees—how many were accepted by the government and why some of them were not accepted—so that the effectiveness of the committees is maintained and their suggestions are implemented.

There is unrest in the committee on information technology. BJP MP Nishikant Dubey wrote to you, demanding the removal of Congress' Shashi Tharoor as its chairman.

Correspondence keeps taking place. I have urged everyone to work, rising above politics, [and] that they should not play the role of government and opposition in the committee and discuss how development of the IT sector can happen. Members have a right to put forth their demands.

The post of the Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha has been vacant for a record time.

It is for the government to initiate the process for appointment of the Deputy Speaker, just as they did for the post of the Speaker.

The foundation stone for a new Parliament House has been laid. Why do we need a new building?

This Parliament building was built to house the National Assembly. Its construction began in 1921 and concluded in 1927. There has been a sea change in the circumstances since then. We kept making changes in this building based on our needs.

From the security point of view, a new building is required. Members should get proper work spaces and be able to use new technology. Also, Delhi has Type V earthquake susceptibility.

In Parliament, on many occasions, the need for a new building was discussed. Speakers sent their proposals to the government. Both houses of Parliament had urged the prime minister regarding this, that when we are completing 75 years of our journey as a democracy, we should have a new Parliament building.

India is the world's biggest democracy and our Parliament House should reflect the diversity of our country, its diverse arts and crafts. When we complete 75 years of our independence in 2022, both houses of Parliament will meet in the new building.

What about the present Parliament building?

We will discuss with all the parties how the present Parliament House can be used.

There is criticism about the expenditure on the project when the country is fighting COVID-19.

If infrastructure will not be developed, how will we generate employment? As many as 2,000 people will be employed directly and 9,000 indirectly. More than 200 industries will be employed. The funds for the pandemic are not being cut to construct the Parliament. It involves a cost of only Rs 982 crore. The new Parliament House should be a matter of pride to us. No one should object to it.