One of the most unfortunate aspects of the Narendra Modi government has been the lack of transparency and its unwillingness to give answers. It prefers to carry out a one sided monologue and have only its say. This tendency is manifest in several actions taken by the current government.
While the latest incidence is its unilateral decision to do away with the conventional question hour in Parliament, it has the dubious honour of diluting the powerful Right to Information (RTI) Act by tightening its hold on the appointment of Chief Information Commissioners and Information Commissioners. It has extended its hold even on the state information commissions.
The steadfast refusal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold any press conference, and consequently to answer any question from the media, has also had trickling down effect. Thus now even the other ministers of the Modi government also don’t answer questions even if they do address press conferences.
To discuss the impact of doing away with the question hour first – It is the first ever normal session of Parliament since the independence in which question hour has been dropped. There have been four such occasions in the past but in all those four cases, the question hour was dropped during special sessions of Parliament, including when the Emergency was imposed.
The reasons given for dropping the question hour – that it was a curtailed 18 day session in view of covid pandemic – also stands on weak grounds. An hour-long question hour could have been easily accommodated during the session.
Question hour provides an opportunity to the elected Parliamentarians to seek answers from ministers and they are supposed to answer all questions. While for the non-starred questions only a written reply is given, the minister concerned has to compulsorily be present in the House and reply to the questions and even supplementary questions asked by the members. The ministers, including the prime minister, was bound to answer correct answers or face privilege motion against them.
By doing away with the question hour this time, the government has been able to evade answering questions on highly critical issues like the handling of coronavirus pandemic, impact of lockdown, plight of migrants, the state of economy and the issues relating to China. The written answers provided to the questions from members are generally vague and hide more than what they reveal.
Another example of the government withholding information and not answering questions is the way the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) was set up and has been spending funds. The government has still not clarified why such a fund was set up when the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund was already existing.
It has also not explained why government departments, corporations and institutions were made to donate to the fund. Even Railways, which is running into losses, was asked to contribute to PM CARES.
Not just the Public sector companies, a large number of educational institutions, from Navodaya schools for rural students to IITs, IIMs and central universities, have together contributed Rs 21.81 crore, mainly through staff salaries. It has collected Rs 9677 crore for the fund so far.
However, Modi government is refusing to share the details of expenditure on the grounds that it does not fall under the category of government entity and thus information can’t be shared through the RTI.
As briefly pointed out above, the RTI was a powerful tool to get information out of the government. It was particularly a very useful tool for journalists. With the centre usurping powers, the chief information commissioners and information commissioners at the centre and the state would face the prospects of removal if they are found inconvenient to the central government.
By controlling the tenure and acquiring the authority to fix salaries, allowances and other terms of service, the Modi Government has radically altered the character of the Information Commissions and it is clearly against the principles of cooperative federalism.
The Modi government, in its defence, has said that Information Commissions were statutory bodies and therefore it has the right to make rules.
The suspension of eight opposition members from Rajya Sabha, lack of consultation with opposition parties and failure to brief leaders of other parties on the current situation are some of the other pointers to the Modi government not willing to share information.
The Modi government may be smug with the facts that it has won two consecutive Lok Sabha elections and may be set on course for a third tenure given the battered and demoralised opposition, but it must not forget that there are counter points of view and that nearly two thirds of the voters had not voted for it. The arrogance of power has brought down many powerful regimes in the past.
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