The government at the Centre is accountable to the people of India through the Parliament, and the way that parliamentarians hold the government to account is through questions. With the Opposition looking to grill the executive on every aspect of administration and governmental activity, legislators would be staring at a jumble of questions and replies if not for an elaborate mechanism to bring order to the process. Here’s all you need to know about the asking of questions in Parliament.
When Are Questions Asked In Parliament?
In Lok Sabha, the first hour after the House convenes for the day is known as the ‘Question Hour’, which permits the members to exercise their “inherent and unfettered parliamentary right" of asking questions. The ‘Question Hour’ thus begins at 11 am and lasts till 12 noon in Lok Sabha. However, in the Rajya Sabha, the Question Hour is held between 12 noon and 1 pm. Questions can also be taken up in the so-called ‘Zero Hour’. However, to ask question, a member has to first give notice.
For both the Houses, a Member of Parliament (MP) has to give 15 clear days’ notice for raising a question although the presiding officer — Speaker in Lok Sabha and the Chair in Rajya Sabha — can allow a waiver vis-a-vis this requirement. The notice for the question is to be given to the Secretariat of the House concerned and, in counting the period of 15 ‘clear’ days, the date on which the notice is received and the date on which the answer is to be made (if the question is admitted) are excluded.
What Kind Of Questions Can Be Asked?
For both Houses, the rules say that one member can give notices for only up to five questions for a particular day and there are strict guidelines as to what kind of questions can be allowed. A question needs to cover a matter of public importance and should not contain arguments, inferences or defamatory statements. However, a question should not raise a larger issue of policy and should be pointed although it cannot go into “minor details of administration and day-to-day working of the government".
Further, a question should not pertain to any matter pending before a court, tribunal or parliamentary committee. A question that is a repetition of one already answered in the House “or in regard to which information is available in accessible documents or in ordinary works of reference" are not admitted and they cannot make derogatory references to foreign countries with whom India has friendly relations.
Importantly, a question may not contain more than 150 words. After notice for a question is given
What Are Starred/Unstarred Questions?
A member can seek both oral and written answers to the five questions that he can give notice for taking up on a particular day. But the House limits the total number of questions of both kinds that can be answered on any one day.
A member is allowed to specify the question to which she is seeking an oral answer with an asterisk next to it in her notice. Such a question is called a starred question. Starred questions can be followed up by the member concerned with supplementary questions.
In Lok Sabha, no more than 20 starred questions can be taken up during Question Hour on any given day while Rajya Sabha allows 15 such questions daily.
An unstarred question then is one for which the member has sought a written reply. Answers to such questions are deemed to have been laid on the table of the House and, to that extent, such questions offer no scope for the raising of supplementary questions. In Lok Sabha, 230 questions are picked daily for written answers while Rajya Sabha allows 160 of these in a day.
Are There Other Types Of Questions?
There are also ‘Short Notice Questions’ which, as the name suggests, concern a matter for urgent discussion. The notice for such questions can be given less than 10 days in advance and the answer to them is to be made orally and can be followed by supplementary questions. However, PRS Legislative Research points out that Short Notice questions is rarely resorted to provision.
In Parliament, not all questions need be directed to the government and its ministers only and there is scope for seeking answers from a private member — an MP who is not a minister — as well. However, such questions can only cover a particular Bill or resolution or any matter for which the member from whom the answer is being sought is responsible. The procedure for giving notice for questions to private members is the same as that for other questions asked in the House.
How Many Questions Are Taken Up On An Average?
According to PRS Legislative Research, as many as 1,43,635 questions were asked during the entire duration of the 15th Lok Sabha between 2009 and 2014. With the Parliament normally meeting for three sessions each year, that would imply that each saw more than 9,500 questions taken up.
A 2021 report on the first two years of the 17th Lok Sabha said that the average number of oral answers in the House per sitting had gone up from 3.07, 2.96 and 4.34, respectively, during the 14th, 15th & 16th Lok Sabha to 5.37 during 17th Lok Sabha. The report added that the average number of MPs whose questions were admitted per sitting during the first five sessions of the 14th, 15th and 16th Lok Sabhas was 321.25, 333.75 and 373.25 respectively, while the 17th Lok Sabha had seen that figure jump to 394.25.