28 January 2021 03:13 PM

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SAUMYA VARMA & MANISHA SHASTRI | 12 SEPTEMBER, 2020

Whose Parliament is it Anyway?

For the people, by the people..


When Parliament convenes for the Monsoon Session on September 14, public health and safety concerns will mandate that outside visitors be restricted from entering and viewing parliamentary proceedings. While the pandemic necessitates these precautions, the inaccessibility of Parliament for citizens of India is not new.

With the central vista project, including the new parliament building very much under way, it is important to reflect on how the structural epitome of Indian democracy is accessed by its citizens; and how rather than re-building the Parliament building, it is necessary to reimagine how Indian citizens access Parliament and their engagement with institutions of democracy beyond electoral processes.

At present, a visit to parliament, whether to watch proceedings or to take a tour to admire its architectural and historical marvel is heavily regulated.

The Lok Sabha’s website grandiloquently announces certain “Guidelines for a common man to watch the proceedings of Lok Sabha” (emphasis added), but the language used betrays a sense of obligation rather than invitation. Guidelines for visiting either House of Parliament require visitors to fill up a form which must be signed by a Member of Parliament, in order to tour the premises and watch the proceedings. Educational institutions can apply for passes for student delegations without endorsement from an MP, but no such provision exists for others. Moreover, visitors are only granted viewing permission for one hour. If they wish to continue watching the proceedings, it is left to the discretion of the Secretariat to renew it for each additional hour.

On average, 1 Lok Sabha MP represents over 16 lakh voters. How many citizens have that kind of access to their representatives? To be able to watch the proceedings of the House, citizens should not have to rely on the benevolence of or on the privilege of acquaintance with an MP.

These procedures continue to perpetuate the VIP culture of government in India. While the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament has played a role in turning our Parliament into a veritable island of security, there is ample scope to find a middle ground between safety of elected representatives and making the spaces that house democracy in action, more accessible.

Our elected representatives seek us out prior to elections, and pledge their commitment to represent us in earnest. Parliament is meaningless without the very citizens who cast their votes and send representatives to constitute it, and as such, a citizen’s access to parliament should be considered a legitimate right. It goes without saying that representation extends beyond an MP’s performance in Parliament, to their work in their constituencies. However, as participatory democracy continues to evolve through alternative, new and emerging platforms, it is counter-intuitive that the very building that houses people’s representatives be shackled away from rightful participants and observers.

Liberalising the current procedures to visit Parliament, when it is safe to do so from a public health point of view, is not only imperative from a rights-based perspective in a democracy, but can also, in some measure, deepen citizens’ perceptions and understanding of democratic institutions. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2019, India’s lowest scoring metric is ‘Political Culture’ which reflects the perception of democracy in India, with a score of 5.63 against an overall score of 6.90.

In 1960, Adolf Arndt, member of the German Parliament deliberating on democracy in post-war West Germany, drew the connection between democracy in principle and democracy in terms of access, saying, ‘shouldn’t there be a connection between the public principles of democracy, and inner and outer transparency and accessibility in our public buildings?’

World over, democratic nations have facilitated citizens’ access to buildings that house legislatures. Despite the fallout from the 9/11 attack, citizen’s access to the legislature in the United States of America, remains uncurtailed. The buildings employ heavy security to process visitors but thereafter, visitors are free to move around, with the exception of the viewing galleries. The UK, too, employs a liberal access system.

Citizens and non-citizens alike can book slots to attend debates, with the additional option of simply turning up and waiting in a queue till they get a place to sit in the public gallery. This often leads to long wait times, but is still a departure from our own practices.

In Scandinavian countries, the rules for citizens to access parliament are much more flexible, allowing them to even take pictures in public galleries, unlike in India, where citizens aren’t allowed to carry mobile phones or cameras, within the premises. Many countries like Australia and New Zealand are even equipped with cafes, changing rooms for children, and free Wi-fi for visitors- amenities to make it as visitor-friendly as possible.

In South Africa, it is enshrined in the Constitution that the Parliament be made physically accessible to people. Article 59 of the South African Constitution states that the “National Assembly must facilitate public involvement in the legislative and other processes of the Assembly and its committees.” Here, bookings can be made by an individual through the relevant office in advance without need of an endorsement.

While the volume of citizen-viewers and safety of elected representatives should be kept as priority at all times, there is scope for effecting security and streamlining processes to make Parliament more accessible to citizens.

The current system could be replaced by one where a specified number of visitors can watch proceedings by booking a slot online and providing necessary identification. After rigorous security checks, individuals must be permitted to retain their phones with the exception of the viewing gallery so that proceedings are not interrupted. Visitors should also be permitted to watch proceedings through the day, if they wish to do so.

In the context of governance becoming increasingly opaque under the current regime, the ways in which the seemingly trivial act of visiting parliament should evolve and improve can be extended to the manner in which we see Indian democracy in practice. Reducing the arbitrary and unequal access to services, entitlements, rights and justice, are goals espoused by a well-meaning democracy. Until deliberate efforts are made towards these goals, rather than away from them, we continue to wonder, ‘whose parliament is it anyway?’

Saumya Varma and Manisha Shastri are policy-researchers, who have worked in the arena of Parliamentary and Legislative advocacy.

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