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Inaugural Address at the 70th Conference of Presiding Officers of Legislative Bodies in India, Raipur, Chhattisgarh, 15 November 2005


Hon’ble Speaker, Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly, Shri Prem Prakash Pandey; Hon`ble Deputy Chairman, Rajya Sabha, Shri K. Rahman Khan; Hon’ble Deputy Speaker, Lok Sabha, Sardar Charnjit Singh Atwal; Hon’ble Presiding Officers from the State Legislatures; Secretaries-General of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha; Secretaries from the State Legislative Bodies; and Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a matter of great pleasure for me to be here with you at the 70th Conference of Presiding Officers of Legislative Bodies in India. I wish to express my deep appreciation for the very  heart-warming, instructive and inspiring  Welcome Address delivered  by the Hon’ble Speaker of Chattisgarh and I thank him for  the warm hospitality.

This is the first time that the Legislative Assembly of Chhattisgarh is hosting this Conference after the State was formed.  I wish to thank the Hon’ble Speaker of the Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly for graciously volunteering to host the Conference at Raipur and for providing excellent hospitality, which is quite in keeping with the rich cultural heritage of Chattisgarh, which has produced great leaders  who have  made great contribution in our Freedom Struggle and in the different spheres – spiritual, socio-cultural,, literary and intellectual – of our country.  We are happy to be here at Raipur, the model of a resurgent State of our country.

Friends, we are meeting under the shadow of  the passing away of one  of the country’s most distinguished sons, Shri K.R. Narayanan our former Rashtrapatiji. In his demise,   the country has lost one of its greatest leaders who adorned, with distinction, several offices including that of the President  of our Republic and shed lustre on all of them.   His life provides a saga of continuous struggle against injustice and inequities of all kinds.   From his very humble beginnings in a remote village in Kerala, with his great merit and commitment he rose to occupy the highest office of the land. He dedicated his life to the service of the masses  and identified himself with the deprived and the downtrodden.  He always cherished the true message of our Constitution and upheld its values and ideals thereby strengthening our democratic edifice. He had an outstanding tenure as the Presiding Officer of the Rajya Sabha.

In Shri Narayanan’s death, we have lost a sagacious statesman, an ardent champion of secularism and constitutional propriety, and a friend of the underprivileged. His passing away has indeed left a void that will be difficult to fill, but his life will ever remain an inspiration to all those who believe in building a secular, progressive, rational and egalitarian society.

It is also my sad duty to make a reference to the passing away of some of our esteemed former colleagues.  They are Shri Ghulam Sarwar and Shri Radhanandan Jha, both former Speakers of the Bihar Vidhan Sabha; Shri Himmatlal T. Mulani, former Speaker of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly; Shri Prasanna Kumar Dash, former Speaker of the Orissa Legislative Assembly; and Thiru Munu Adhi, former Speaker of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly.  I pay my respectful homage to the memory of the deceased who had graced the fraternity of Presiding Officers.

Let me take this opportunity to once again felicitate Shri Hashim Abdul Halim, our distinguished colleague from the West Bengal, who has been elected as the new Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for the next three years. I am sure all of you will join me in congratulating the longest-serving Presiding Officer in our country and a valued colleague on his assuming this prestigious Office and for the great honour bestowed on him and the country as a whole.  It is undoubtedly a landmark event in our parliamentary history.

This is the third time we are meeting this year.   After the Emergent Conference in New Delhi in March 2005 we had met in New Delhi in July 2005 at the 69th Conference.  I believe regular interactions among the Presiding Officers of Legislative Bodies are extremely helpful, as they enable us to exchange our experiences and to discuss many important issues relating to the functioning of our elected bodies and discharging our Constitutional functions.

There have been some significant developments of parliamentary interest that have taken place since we last met in New Delhi, in July 2005.

As all of you are well aware, the need to maintain harmonious relationship between the Legislature and the Judiciary has been engaging our attention for quite sometime now.  In fact, we discussed this crucial subject during our Emergent Conference in New Delhi in April this year.   A related matter came up before the Lok Sabha   during the Monsoon Session when, on 24 August 2005, some Hon’ble members made submissions regarding the reported observations made by the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India, advising the Government to exercise self-restraint in criticizing the Supreme Court’s observations on State quota and the reservation policy in unaided private professional colleges.  I am sure you all are fully familiar with the facts.  Associating myself with the sentiments of the members, I observed in the Lok Sabha: 

… Legislature has its own rights and Parliament, as the supreme legislative body, surely will act according to its rights under the Constitution.  Similarly, the courts have their own rights to function in their own sphere without any interference; and nobody can interfere.  Now there is undoubted right of the court to construe the laws passed by this Parliament.  Therefore, many laws passed by the Parliament have been declared ultra vires and it is binding on everybody.  Thus what is important is that there should be a harmonious relationship between the major Constitutional organizations like the Legislature and the Court, and nothing should be done or said which may create an avoidable controversy.      

In the Monsoon Session, of Lok Sabha, there was a serious incident when some papers were thrown at the Chair by a Member supposedly in protest against the disallowance of a notice of an Adjournment Motion.  It had been disallowed by the Chair on the ground that an identical matter had already been discussed at length in the House only a few days back and that, as per the rules, the same matter could not be raised again during the Session.  Some comments appeared in a section of the Media against the Chair for disallowing the Motion.  Keeping the seriousness of the issue in mind, I gave my ruling in the House on 4 August 2005 when I stated, inter alia, as follows:

Hon. Members, my attention has been drawn to some reports in the Print Media and I have also seen some of the news items in the Electronic Media on what has happened in the hon. House yesterday. Unfortunately, somewhat one-sided report has been given in some quarters raising questions about the impartiality of the Chair in dealing with the issue desired to be raised by one hon. Member. As such, I wish to make the position clear.

It is necessary to recall only on 26 July, 2005 one Adjournment Motion was admitted by me and there was a full and comprehensive discussion on the question of infiltration of foreigners into our country including infiltration from Bangladesh. The concerned hon. Member did not choose to take part in the debate nor, so far as I have been informed, was even present in the House. The same matter cannot be raised twice in one Session of the House as clearly provided by the Rules. Just because one hon. Member was not present during the discussion in the House does not justify trying to raise the similar issue within a week or, at all, during that Session. Rules will have to prevail at all times and for all. If there was any doubt, the reason could have been ascertained from the Chair.

The hon. Deputy-Speaker was in the Chair when the question was raised and he had, If I may say so, rightly informed the House of my decision as the Speaker. But nobody met me or tried to know the reasons of my refusal to admit the similar Motion. Whatever may have been the feeling, it could not and cannot ever justify in indulging in behaviour as happened yesterday. I wish to repudiate categorically and with all the authority of the Chair and with all sincerity the reprehensible insinuation that my decision was prompted by political considerations. Making such allegations was a deliberate attempt to insult the Chair and thereby insult the House as a whole.

However, I shall be failing in my duty if I do not record my total rejection of the grossly defamatory insinuation made against me about taking decisions on political grounds.

I again wish to appeal to all the hon. Members and all sides of the House that as this House belongs to all and ultimately to the people of this country, let us not do or say anything which will, in any way, compromise with the dignity of the House and belie the expectations of the people.

During the Monsoon Session, we had to deal with some very important privilege issues as well.  In one such instance, seven members gave notices of question of privilege against the Editor and Publisher of the English daily, The Pioneer, for having published a derogatory news-report, which appeared on 7 August 2005.  Hon’ble members contended that the impugned article constituted a deliberate attack on the Office of the Speaker of Lok Sabha as well as of the House and its members. Sharing the concern of the members, I gave a detailed ruling in the matter before treating it as closed.  Since this ruling has a bearing upon the Legislature-Media relationship, which, incidentally, is also one of the topics of discussion at the Conference, I would like to share with you some of the observations which I put forth on that occasion.  In my opinion, the impugned article not only reeked of malice but was also highly contumacious in its conception and in its contents and amounted to gross breach of privilege of the Speaker and also of the House.  I observed in the House inter alia, as under:             

“Freedom of Press, a cherished fundamental right in our country, is subject to reasonable restrictions, as contemplated by the Constitution itself, and cannot and does not comprise deliberately tendentious and motivated attacks on the great institutions of this Republic and their officers and functionaries… . In the name of exercising freedom of Press, there cannot be trial by the Press in which it plays the role of both the accuser and the judge.

 ‘Freedom of Press also encompasses fundamental duties of the Press, which call for showing respect for others and responsible behaviour and cannot permit denigration of the constitutional bodies and the institutions and their important segments.

“It should be noted that although the Presiding Officer of this House is publicly accused of improper behaviour and of partisanship, he cannot join in any public controversy. A most disquieting development is that when the matter has been raised in the House and the Speaker has reserved his ruling, there are open discussions in the Electronic Media as also in the same newspaper where the concerned correspondent and his Editor have tried to justify the allegations and thereby, in my opinion, have aggravated the breach of privilege. Significantly, the Speaker can only be a viewer of the so-called discussion and not a participant. The Speaker has to depend on the commitment of the hon. Members of this House, who are keen to preserve the dignity and the status of this great institution. Precisely, for this reason, I had expressed my thanks to those hon. Members, who raised the matter on 12th August, 2005 on the floor of this House because only by such reference, the exposure of the contumacious acts could be made. I have no manner of doubt that if such serious accusations of partisanship and libellous allegations had been made against the judiciary, it would have been glaring examples of contempt of Court….

 …The Press is rightly described as the Fourth Estate, because without a free and responsible Press, alive to its duties and believing in truth and honesty, this democratic system would almost collapse”.

However, in view of the condemnation on the floor of the House, and as it would be beneath the dignity of the great institution of Parliament to take further notice of the motivated imputations in the impugned article, I did not give my consent as requested and I treated the matter as closed, of course, with the observation that, in future, reckless and contumacious conduct indulged in by whosoever would be dealt with in the appropriate manner so as to preserve and enhance the dignity of the highest public forum in our country.

We  have mentioned these matters because it created a lot  of controversy and I feel that it is essential for  us and everybody to  maintain cordial relationship between different organs as also between the Legislature and the Media.

When we met in New Delhi in July this year, I had informed you about an initiative to constitute a Parliamentary Forum on Water, to enable the members to discuss   the   related   problems   in   a structured   manner with a result-oriented approach.   I am indeed pleased to inform you that I have since constituted the Parliamentary Forum on Water Conservation and Management in consultation with the Hon’ble Chairman of Rajya Sabha with effect from 12 August 2005.  This Forum, with the Speaker, Lok Sabha, as the ex officio President and the Ministers of Water Resources, Urban Development, Rural Development, Agriculture and Science & Technology, the Deputy Speaker, Lok Sabha and the Deputy Chairman, Rajya Sabha, as the ex officio Vice-Presidents, consists of 21 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 from the Rajya Sabha.  The Forum, inter alia, aims to identify problems relating to water and make suggestions/recommendations for consideration and appropriate action by the Government/Organisations concerned; identify the ways of involving Members of Parliament in conservation and augmentation of water resources in their respective States/Constituencies; and organize seminars/workshops to create awareness for conservation and efficient management of water. I have made it very clear that this Forum, in no way, will impinge  upon the functioning  of the Ministries or the Committees concerned. A preliminary meeting of the Forum was held on 8 August 2005 to discuss the broad guidelines regarding its functioning and ways and means to strengthen and further streamline it.

In this regard, we have also taken another initiative to facilitate exchange of views on issues of topical concern between the members of Parliament and subject experts in diverse fields through a Lecture Series.  I feel that such interactions will not only enlighten the parliamentarians about various contemporary problems substantially impacting on the socio-economic fabric of our country, but will also help them in playing a proactive role in tackling these issues meaningfully. We have already had two such lectures, respectively  on Water Conservation  and on the Value Added Tax System in the country.

As you are all well aware, two separate Dedicated Satellite Channels were launched on 14 December 2004, for the live telecast of the entire proceedings of the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha nationwide.

Regarding the future of these channels is concerned, I am pleased to inform you Lok Sabha Channel, is going to be a 24-hour, round-the-year channel shortly, which will be run by the Lok Sabha Secretariat.  In this regard, necessary arrangements are being made, both at the policy and the operational levels.    This channel is expected to be fully operational by the Budget Session of 2006. We have been assured of full  cooperation by the Rajya Sabha, and I am thankful to the Deputy Chairman for that assurance.

At our New Delhi Conference of July 2005, I had informed you that pursuant to the recommendations of the Committee of Presiding Officers of Legislative Bodies on Telecasting of the Proceedings of Legislatures, we had approached the Planning Commission and the Union Ministry of Finance requesting them to meet the expenditure required for setting up infrastructure facilities for the live telecast of the proceedings of our Legislatures.    According to the Planning Commission, a feasible formula should be devised for sharing fixed costs with a clear statement of recurring expenditure involved and initial funds required to start the Scheme.  A Feasibility Report is to be submitted by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.  Accordingly, we have approached the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to consider a proposal for including in the Plan Scheme of the Ministry for providing funds for telecasting the proceedings of our State Legislatures.

Coming to the subjects at the Conference, we are going to discuss two important themes which have a very crucial bearing on our parliamentary democratic system.  Undoubtedly, the subjects, viz. “Poverty Alleviation – How the Parliament and Civil Society can work in tandem” and the “Legislature and the Media – Roles and Responsibilities”, I must stress, are indeed extremely relevant in the present-day context.

As you all well know, the eradication of poverty continues to be one of the stupendous challenges before our country.  In the enormous task of the elimination of poverty, governmental efforts alone will not be sufficient.  It is here that the civil society can play a significant role.

Of course, the legislators are a key component in any programme aimed at the elimination of poverty.  By their grass root experience, they can provide valuable inputs to the government in addressing the challenge of poverty.  They can also be of immense help in monitoring the implementation of various policies and programmes for the elimination of poverty.    The legislators should endeavour ceaselessly to find creative ways in which they could work together with the civil society more effectively in this regard.   The legislators and the civil society organisations can work in close understanding between them  to mobilize and organize the poor to become active participants in the process of development and delivery services.

Through various procedural devices, discussions on policies and programmes and through the forum of Parliamentary Committees, our Parliament has been addressing the problem of poverty in the country.  In this regard, it is worth mentioning that recently our Parliament has the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill, 2005 which provides for the enhancement of livelihood security for the poor households in the rural areas by giving at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in every financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work.  I am sure that this landmark legislation is indeed a step in the right direction in mitigating poverty.  Governmental and legislative efforts need to be effectively supported and supplemented by the civil society groups by working in tandem so that we can eliminate poverty which, undoubtedly, is a threat to societal stability and democracy as well.

The second subject which we are going to discuss at the Conference, viz., “Legislature and the Media – Roles and Responsibilities”.   Five decades after Independence, the challenges before our nation are indeed of a grave nature.  The eradication of poverty, socio-economic injustice and regional disparities continue to be major problems we are still confronted with.  As pivotal pillars of our political system, the Legislature and the Media can contribute meaningfully to the process of the socio-economic transformation of our country.

While the Legislature debates issues of governance and development and passes laws for the socio-economic betterment of the people, the Media articulates people’s urges, aspirations and concerns. It is in the Chambers of the Legislatures that the government is held accountable for all its acts of commission and omission. In such a scenario, it becomes incumbent upon the Media to give a positive coverage about what is happening in our Legislative Bodies.

Freedom of the Press is inherent in the fundamental right to freedom of speech guaranteed under article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. The Parliament itself has enacted the Parliamentary Proceedings (Protection of Publication) Act, 1977, providing the privilege of publishing substantially true proceedings in Parliament without being exposed to any civil or criminal action. Our Parliament has also been striving to provide adequate facilities to the Media to cover Parliament with the express purpose of bringing the supreme legislative institution nearer to the people.

The Media can play a positive role by respecting parliamentary privileges as also by not trivializing the substantial work being done in the Legislative Bodies.  The Legislatures and the Media should be proactive partners in national development. As such, our Legislative Bodies and the Media should complement and supplement each other in facilitating an informed democracy.

Hon’ble Presiding Officers, I have been repeatedly stressing the point that the success, effectiveness and relevance of any democratic institution lies in its smooth functioning and the extent to which it adheres to the highest standards of discipline, dignity and decorum for discharging its functions.  While engaged in this endeavour, as Presiding Officers, we should also seek to provide ample opportunities to the members to raise issues of importance on the floor of the Legislatures, of course, within the rules, which we ourselves have framed for the purpose.  In this regard, we have to constantly strive to nurture and nourish healthy traditions and sound conventions which have evolved over the decades.  As the custodians of the rights and privileges of the legislators and of our Legislative Bodies as a whole, we have an onerous task before us.  Conferences like these where we discuss common problems and share our experiences provide us with opportunities to fine-tune and further streamline the functioning of our Legislative Bodies, thus strengthening the parliamentary democratic structures we have built up so assiduously.  I trust that this Seventieth Conference will be a major milestone in our march forward.

Before I conclude, I would like to place on record our deep appreciation and hearty thanks to our hosts, the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, the Hon’ble Speaker and the Hon’ble Deputy Speaker of Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly, the Secretary of the Assembly and his colleagues, the Government of Chhattisgarh and all those associated with the organization  of this Conference here for the excellent arrangements and, of course, for their  remarkable hospitality.

With these words, I am immensely pleased to inaugurate the 70th Conference of Presiding Officers of Legislative Bodies in India.

Thank you very much.

 

 

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