Which Environmental Issues did our Lok Sabha Representatives Raise during Question Hour?

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

A Data Analysis and Visualisation Of The Trends In Lok Sabha Questions Addressed To The Ministry Of Environment, Forests And Climate Change (Sixteenth Lok Sabha) for 2016

- Srujana Bej*

I. Introduction

Directly elected representatives of citizens are voted to the Lok Sabha to represent public opinions, pursue citizens՚ best interests and seek solutions for public issues. Additionally, the Indian constitutional scheme of separation of powers requires the Lok Sabha to hold the government accountable for its policies and actions.[i] One important platform in the Lok Sabha that allows directly elected representatives to both underscore public grievances and to put the government on trial is the Question Hour.[ii] The Question Hour, usually the first hour in every Lok Sabha sitting, grants directly elected representatives the “inherent and unfettered parliamentary rightˮ to raise questions to the government on matters relating to executive policy and action, among other things.[iii] Therefore, the Question Hour is not only a constitutional resource that makes parliamentary control over the government a reality, but also an institutional platform that allows directly elected representatives to fulfil their duty towards their constituents and to critique government policy. As political actors directly electing representatives to the Lok Sabha, citizens benefit from scrutinising the Question Hour to study how the available institutional platform is being utilised. A study of questions raised in the Lok Sabha Question Hour would indicate the specific issues that directly elected representatives seek to hold the government publicly accountable for.

Environmental issues such as climate change, pollution, water scarcity, waste management, land degradation etc. are posing immense challenges to the Indian citizenry.[iv] Thus, it is relevant for directly elected representatives to raise these environmental issues and for the Lok Sabha to hold the government publicly accountable for India՚s environmental policies. To study which environmental issues the Lok Sabha is holding the government publicly accountable for, this article undertakes a data analysis of the questions put to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change during the Question Hour in the Lok Sabha.

It is entirely possible that directly elected representatives are using other means and informal platforms such as lobbying, backdoor channels, private meetings etc. to achieve these objectives. However, no public information is available on this reality for scrutiny. Therefore, this article restricts its scope to an available institutional platform in the Lok Sabha, the Question Hour - the “showpiece of parliamentary democracyˮ[v]. The piece only presents indicative trends of which environmental issues were raised in the Lok Sabha and which environmental policies the directly elected representatives used their power in the Lok Sabha to publicly hold the government accountable for.

II. The Procedure For Raising Questions

Before analysing the Questions for trends, it is important to understand the procedures and rules that regulate the raising of questions during Question Hour. The process of raising questions in the Lok Sabha is governed by the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha.[vi] A Lok Sabha representative must issue a written notice to the Secretariat of her intention to raise a question.[vii] In her notice, she must specify the text of the question, the official designation of the Minister to whom the question is addressed, the date on which the answer to the question is desired and the order of preference for that specific question in case she issues more than one notice of question for the same day.[viii] She must also give a minimum notice period of 15 clear days[ix] and distinguish whether the question is a Starred or an Unstarred question. A Starred question requires an oral answer to be made in the Lok Sabha on the allotted day and can be followed up with supplementary questions. For an Unstarred question, no oral answer is required; a written answer is deemed to be laid in the Table of the Lok Sabha by the concerned Minister after the Question Hour and no supplementary questions can be asked. A Starred question is distinguished by an asterisk in the notice and if the question is not thus distinguished by the representative, it is deemed to be an Unstarred question.[x]

Upon receiving the notice of a question, the Lok Sabha Secretariat scrutinises the notice to check if the official designation of the Minister and the date of answer have been correctly specified.[xi] Additionally, questions are examined for admissibility. Questions are admissible only when they relate to matters which are primarily the concern of the government[xii] and officially the concern of the Ministry[xiii]. They must be clear, precise and less than 150 words.[xiv] They must not be generic questions incapable of a specific answer[xv] and must not be related to large policy matters that cannot be adequately dealt with in the limits of an answer[xvi]. Moreover, questions that ask for information on trivial matters[xvii] or for which answers are easily and ordinarily available in the public domain[xviii] are not admissible. Leading questions[xix]and questions that contain arguments or inferences[xx] are also inadmissible. No questions which seek information on matters which are secret in nature, such as Cabinet discussions or advice given to the President in matters bound to secrecy by a conventional or statutory obligation, are permitted.[xxi] Moreover, questions cannot be raised on judicial or quasi-judicial matters pending before the courts of law, tribunals or statutory bodies[xxii] or on matters under the consideration of Parliamentary Committees[xxiii].

III. Methodology

This article is a data analysis of the trends in questions raised by directly elected representatives of the Sixteenth Lok Sabha to the Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change during the calendar year of 2016. The Sixteenth Lok Sabha, with its term until March 2019 and the calendar year 2016 were chosen for their temporal relevance. The data i.e. the text of the questions raised in the Lok Sabha, was collected from the openly accessible repository of the Lok Sabha website. Given that the data has been collected from open records published and maintained by the Government, it is reasonable to presume that the data is accurate and reliable. Furthermore, since the data has been collected from the primary source, the scope for data corruption stands eliminated.

In the year 2016, 611 questions (both Starred and Unstarred) were posed to the Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. Of these 611 questions, 609 comprise the sample size for this project. Only 2 of the 611 questions were excluded from the sample size because the text or the English text of these questions was not available in the public domain, seemingly on account of technical glitches or oversight.[xxiv] However, given that the exclusion of these 2 questions is 0.327% of the raw sample, it is reasonable to assume that it has had no discernible effect on the data analysis.

Upon the collection of data, the following procedure was used for analysis:

First, each of the 609 questions was summarised to reflect its central substance. This was a necessary step because questions raised were comprehensive and often included sub-issues or tangential issues. The process of summarising questions was conducted in a manner reasonable and fair to the subject matter of the questions, without importing any intent or content to the questions and without negating a single theme contained therein. It is important to note that the government՚s summaries of these questions (published in the repository, alongside the questions, as “Subjectˮ) were not considered in this process because they were found to be incomplete in adequately communicating the context of the issues or sub-issues raised. As an example, Unstarred Question No. 3402 may be considered. The “Subject” of this question has been listed as ՙBurnt Forests՚. However, a reading of the text of the question reveals that the issue raised in the question relates to the transfer or diversion of burnt forest lands to private companies. This first step also laid the framework for identifying the preliminary categories into which questions could be classified, to identify trends.

Second, 33 categories were devised to classify the questions based on the earlier preliminary survey of the subject matter of questions. These categories, in alphabetical order, are:

1. Animal Cruelty

2. Biodiversity Spots and Parks

3. Coasts

4. Compensatory Afforestation Funds and the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA)

5. Conservation of Lakes and Rivers

6. Contentious Hydro-Electric Projects

7. Coral Reefs

8. Eco-Sensitive Zones

9. Eco-Task Force

10. Emissions, Climate Change and Global Warming

11. Environmental Awareness

12. Environmental Clearances

13. Environmental Democracy[xxv]

14. Forest Economy/Industries

15. Forests and Trees

16. Genetically Modified Plants (GM Plants)

17. Green India Mission

18. Invasive Foreign Species

19. Man-Animal Conflicts

20. Mining and its Environmental Impacts

21. Miscellaneous[xxvi]

22. National Mission For Sustaining Himalayan Eco-system (NMSHE)

23. National Mission On Himalayan Studies (NMHS)

24. Plastic[xxvii]

25. Pollution

26. Protection of Wildlife

27. Renewable Energy

28. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

29. Urban Environmental Degradation

30. Violations and Penalties

31. Waste

32. Water Scarcity

33. Wetlands

Third, each of the 609 questions was classified under one of the 33 devised categories on the basis of the central focus of its summarised substance. Based on such classification, a quantitative data of the number of questions for each category emerged. From such quantitative data, trends were observed.

Given the aims of this article, only the questions raised were looked into. The detail, relevancy, accuracy and adequacy of answers is irrelevant as the analysis only seeks to identify trends in the questions raised, so as to understand which environmental issues and environmental policies our directly elected representatives held the government publicly accountable for through the available institutional platform.

IV. Data Analysis

Category & Number of Questions

  1. Pollution- 121

  2. Protection of Wildlife- 92

  3. Forests and Trees- 64

  4. Emissions, Climate Change and Global Warming- 54

  5. Waste- 49

  6. Environmental Clearances- 34

  7. Miscellaneous- 28

  8. Conservation of Lakes and Rivers- 21

  9. Man-Animal Conflicts- 18

  10. Coasts- 17

  11. Biodiversity Spots and Parks- 16

  12. Environmental Democracy- 12

  13. Animal Cruelty- 9

  14. GM Plants- 7

  15. Plastic- 7

  16. Violations and Penalties- 7

  17. Environmental Awareness- 6

  18. Forest Economy/Industries- 6

  19. CAMPA- 5

  20. Eco-Sensitive Zones- 5

  21. Green India Mission- 5

  22. Mining and its Environmental Impacts- 4

  23. Wetlands- 4

  24. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)- 3

  25. Water Scarcity- 3

  26. Contentious Hydro-Electric Projects- 2

  27. Invasive Foreign Species- 2

  28. Renewable Energy- 2

  29. Urban Environmental Degradation- 2

  30. Coral Reefs- 1

  31. Eco-Task Force- 1

  32. National Mission on Himalayan Studies (NMHS)- 1

  33. National Mission for Sustaining Himalayan Eco-system (NMSHE)- 1

The categorisation of Questions raised indicates that the five most prominent environmental issues which our directly elected representatives highlighted are - pollution, wildlife protection, green cover (forests and trees), climate change and global warming, and waste management. Cumulatively, these 5 issues constitute 62% of the total questions raised.

Graphical Representation of Number of Questions raised: Category-wise

Number of Questions raised Category-wise

Percentage Share of Questions Raised Category-wise

Pollution and wildlife protection concerns together constitute more than a third of the total environmental concerns raised.

More than half of the questions raised in regard to pollution relate to air pollution - air quality, particulate matter, monitoring of pollution standards, mitigation of air pollution, the success of policies and schemes implemented etc.A few questions were raised on the imposition and enforcement of regulations and emission standards for industries, the development of a long term public policy plan for ensuring clean air quality, steps to curb emissions from thermal power plants and the government’s role in providing energy alternatives to fuel and biomass burning.

More than a fifth of the questions asked in relation to pollution relate to water pollution. Of this set, about half raise the issue of river pollution. Two questions have been asked to the government on its policy and action in tackling the pollution of River Ganga. Only one question was raised on the issue of marine pollution.

A total of 92 questions were raised on the issue of protection of wildlife. While 45% of the questions raised general queries on protecting wildlife, around 25% specifically related to the protection of tigers, 7.5% related to protecting elephants and 4.25% related to protecting rhinos. 7 questions were raised on protecting avian wildlife and 4 questions related to protecting aquatic wildlife. No questions were raised on the protection of amphibian and reptilian wildlife.

Of the 64 questions raised relating to forests and trees, 25% relate to the issue of forest land diversion to private companies and for pasture purposes. The most prominent issue which directly elected representatives sought to hold the government publicly accountable for was government policy and action in increasing green cover through afforestation, tree plantation or other such measures. The other issue prominently raised was declining green cover through deforestation and large-scale felling of trees.The issues of forest fires and encroachment of forest lands were raised, albeit fewer number of times.

Common concerns with respect to emissions, climate change and global warming appear to be the receipt of technological and financial assistance to meet climate goals and India՚s policy stand towards the Intentional Nationally Determined Contributions of developed countries.

With respect to waste, a majority of questions relate to general sewage and solid waste management issues. Other prominent concerns appear to be E-waste, plastic waste and the off-loading of scraps.

A significant portion of questions on environmental clearances relate to the status of projects whose applications are under review, pending proposals, queries over streamlining and expediting the process of clearances and government policy on granting or exempting clearances to particular industries and projects.Nearly half of the questions raised in relation to coasts enquire about Coastal Regulation Zone Rules and amendments thereto or exemptions therefrom. Less than a quarter of questions raised in relation to coasts relate to coastal erosion. Another important grievance highlighted appears to be the loss of human life, property and crops due to conflict between man and animals.

As to the issues of urban environmental degradation and renewable energy or clean technology, 2 questions were raised on each issue. 3 questions were raised on the issue of water scarcity and 4 questions were raised on the issues of conserving wetlands as well as mining and its environmental impacts. 7 questions were raised on the policy or status of imposition of penalties on industries violating environmental standards. Little accountability was sought on other relevant environmental issues such as rising temperatures, changing weather patterns, ocean acidification and corporate and industrial green accountability.

V. Conclusion

The success of the Question Hour, as a means of ensuring greater government accountability depends on the questions raised by directly elected representatives to specify public issues that require policy reforms or administrative improvements. This article provides a broad overview of the environmental issues that directly elected representatives have flagged in the Lok Sabha as requiring government intervention or administrative action. Citizen groups and environmental advocacy organisations can use this informational framework to lobby for policy initiatives on environmental issues that have not received due attention from the government. However, one limitation of the scope of this article is that it only studies the relative quantitative importance accorded to a particular environmental issue by directly elected representatives and not the qualitative value of the question raised on that particular environmental issue. Nevertheless, we must reflect on these trends vis-a-vis environmental policy issues that require government interventions at the highest possible level. For a sustainable and equitable future, we must utilise all tools available to us in a constitutional democracy to ensure that our directly elected representatives fulfil their duty of holding the government publicly accountable for its deficiencies in environmental policy and action.

The Annexure with the categorisation of questions can be accessed here.

*Srujana Bej is a IV year student at the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.