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Special session of Parliament: How it will work

On August 31, Pralhad Joshi, the Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, announced that a “special session” of Parliament would be held from September 18 to 22. The Minister was quoted as stating that “important items” were on the session’s agenda, which the government would circulate shortly.

The announcement has led to speculation about the government’s legislative plans for the session. Usually, a few days before a Parliament session, the government convenes an all-party meeting to share its agenda and build consensus on possible issues for discussion.

When does Parliament meet?

India’s Parliament has no fixed calendar of sittings. In 1955, a Lok Sabha committee had proposed a timetable for parliamentary sessions. It recommended that the Budget session of Parliament begin on February 1 and go on till May 7, and the Monsoon session start on July 15 and end on September 15.

The committee suggested that the Winter session, the last session of the year, commence on November 5 (or the fourth day after Diwali, whichever is later) and finish on December 22. While the government agreed to this calendar, it was never implemented.

Who decides when Parliament meets?

The government determines the date and duration of parliamentary sessions. The Cabinet Committee on Parliamentary Affairs takes this decision. It currently has ten Ministers, including those for Defence, Home, Finance, Agriculture, Tribal Affairs, Parliamentary Affairs, and Information and Broadcasting.

The Law Minister and the Minister of State for External Affairs are special invitees to the Committee. The President is informed about the Committee’s decision, who then summons Members of Parliament to meet for the session.

What does the Constitution say?

The Constitution specifies that six months should not elapse between two parliamentary sessions. This provision is a colonial legacy. The framers of the Constitution borrowed it from the Government of India Act of 1935. It allowed the British Governor General to call a session of the central legislature at his discretion, requiring that the gap between two sessions should not be more than 12 months.

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Dr B R Ambedkar stated that the purpose of summoning the central assembly was only to collect taxes, and the once-a-year meeting was for the government to avoid scrutiny by the legislature. The Constituent Assembly reduced the gap between sessions to six months.

How did the Constituent Assembly reach this decision?

Some members of the Constituent Assembly wanted Parliament to meet throughout the year with breaks in between. Others wanted Parliament to sit for longer durations, and cited the examples of the British and American legislatures meeting for more than 100 days a year. One member wanted the presiding officers of the two Houses to be empowered to convene Parliament under certain circumstances.

Dr Ambedkar did not accept these suggestions. He thought that independent India’s government would hold regular parliamentary sessions. He argued: “The clause as it stands does not prevent the legislature from being summoned more often than what has been provided for in the clause itself. In fact, my fear is, if I may say so, that the sessions of Parliament would be so frequent and so lengthy that the members of the legislature would probably themselves get tired of the sessions.”

How often do Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha meet?

Before independence, the central assembly met for a little more than 60 days a year. This number increased to 120 days a year in the first 20 years after Independence. Since then, the sitting days of the national legislature have declined.

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Between 2002 and 2021, Lok Sabha averaged 67 working days. The situation in state legislatures is much worse. In 2022, 28 state Assemblies met for 21 days on average. This year, Parliament has met for 42 days so far.

On multiple occasions, the conference of presiding officers has recommended that Parliament should meet for more than 100 days. The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution set up in 2000 made a similar recommendation.

Individual MPs have introduced private member Bills that stipulated increased sitting days for Parliament. Former Rajya Sabha MP Naresh Gujral, in his 2017 private member Bill, suggested that Parliament should meet for four sessions in a year, including a special session of 15 days for debating matters of urgent public importance.

If the 1955 recommendations of the Lok Sabha committee were accepted, Parliament would be in session for eight months every year. The US Congress and parliaments of Canada, Germany, and the UK are in session throughout the year, and their calendar of sitting days is fixed at the beginning of the year.

What is a special session of Parliament?

The Constitution does not use the term “special session”. The term sometimes refers to sessions the government has convened for specific occasions, like commemorating parliamentary or national milestones.

For the two Houses to be in session, the presiding officers should chair their proceedings. The presiding officers can also direct that the proceedings of their respective Houses would be limited and procedural devices like question hour would not be available to MPs during the session.

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However, Article 352 (Proclamation of Emergency) of the Constitution does refer to a “special sitting of the House”.

Parliament added the part relating to the special sitting through the Constitution (Forty-fourth Amendment) Act, 1978. Its purpose was to add safeguards to the power of proclaiming Emergency in the country. It specifies that if a Proclamation of Emergency is issued and Parliament is not in session, then one-tenth of Lok Sabha MPs can ask the President to convene a special meeting to disapprove the Emergency.

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(Chakshu Roy is Head of Outreach at PRS Legislative Research)

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