The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- What prompts MPs to be either absent or absent-minded

The winter session of parliament is duly over. It was not as full of near-mayhem as the previous sessions had been. That is not however saying much. Marginal issues continued to receive precedence over substantive ones, and verbal exchanges between members on this and the other side of the presiding officer were not exactly of the pucca grammatical kind in either house. There was at least one occasion when the speaker of the Lok Sabha was exasperated beyond measure. Walking into the floor was limited in number, but walk-outs were not. What is much more alarming, please do undertake a check, not more than five per cent of the total members in either house bothered to participate in the proceedings. The same names cropped up over and over again, whether the occasion was placing supplementaries during the question hour or posing issues ' ersatz or genuine ' in the zero hour or calling attention to matters of grave public importance. The vast majority of the members in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha either were dumb spectators or did a Houdini act after signing the attendance register in the forenoon; they returned, fleetingly, only when the division bells rang.

This considerable majority, even when they sit in the house, keep silent. They not only do not participate in the goings-on in the house; they do not even listen to what their more vocal colleagues might be saying. To be fair to them, they, most of them, are not delinquents by nature. In most instances, their failure to speak or to listen is because of the language factor.

By established convention, in both houses, members can speak in Hindi or in English. The standing arrangement is for simultaneous translations from English to Hindi and vice versa. Such courtesy is not available to those who want to speak in any of the other thirteen national languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. If a member not comfortable with Hindi or English wants to speak in his or her mother tongue ' Telugu or Oriya or Assamese or Punjabi or Bengali ' he or she will have to give a notice in advance to the office of the presiding officer; interpreters would then be arranged for translating from the particular language to English and Hindi. As it usually happens, by the time the business of interpretation has been finalized ' which may take quite a few days ' the member aspiring to speak gets disheartened, for discussion on the subject he or she intended to speak on may be over. Much worse, since he or she would speak in his or her own language and the translations would be only in Hindi and English, a great many members would be unable to follow; they would therefore be inclined to be absent-minded or simply absent themselves from the house.

This is what in modern language is known as reality byte. It is no longer the parliament dominated by the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar and Hiren Mukherjee. It is not even a Purushottamdas Tandon-Ram Manohar Lohia-Atal Bihari Vajpayee ambience. The urban-rural mix has changed vastly over the past decades in favour of rusticity. The average formal level of education of members too has undergone a qualitative shift. It is, by and large, an unsophisticated assemblage. Most MPs find it difficult not only to appreciate the nuances of high-falutin English or flowery Hindi. Their knowledge of these two languages is, more often than not, of a rudimentary nature. The discussions in the house, whether in English or in Hindi, most of the time go above their head. The issues and problems they, on their part, want to raise do not get raised in the final round, and for a plain reason. Were they to speak in their own language, they will, they know, face an empty house. If they attempt to speak in Hindi or English, the poverty of their expression ' they again know ' will evoke titters around the house. They therefore choose the easy option of non-participation. Even non-participation can be boring though. To break the excruciating monotony of self-imposed silence, they, every now and then, join the regular crowd of rabble-rousers, invective exchangers or walkers-out.

It is pointless to heap blame on the silent majority. Each MP represents the people of India with its magnificent splendour of ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity. But all of them do not receive equal treatment on the floor of the house. Some representatives of the people, who are proficient in English or Hindi, are in effect deemed to be more equal than those other representatives who happen to be either innocent of, or relatively weak in, these two languages. It would be hardly surprising if the latter begin to suffer from a kind of inferiority complex or, worse, embrace a mood of sullenness.

Debates will continue over the appropriateness of the Westminster model as the ideal legislative institution for Indian democracy. However, till as long as no alternative framework is in sight, it will be necessary to make do with the existing system and ensure that it works as efficiently as is possible within the ambit of the existing arrangements. The crucial task in this situation is to persuade all members that it is worth their while to participate actively in the proceedings of the house. They must be helped to generate within themselves a sense of commitment towards each and every component of the parliamentary agenda. This objective can be achieved only if each member feels that he belongs and is not an outcast; those members deficient in Hindi and English must be made to feel that they are not only tolerated, but are welcome as comrades by their colleagues.

Information technology is threatening to overwhelm India. What about availing of its facilities to improve the working of both houses of parliament' It should be feasible to institute a mechanism whereby each bit of proceedings in both houses, never mind initially uttered in what language, is simultaneously translated into each of the other fourteen recognized national languages. That is to say, if a member is speaking, for example, in Malayalam, his or her speech will be instantaneously heard in Assamese, Bengali, English, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. Exactly the same thing will happen irrespective of whichever other national language the member prefers to speak in. And not only when a member speaks, the procedure will be repeated even when the member raises a supplementary question, speaks on the basis of a calling attention notice, makes an interlocutory point or participates in the debate on a bill in any of the fifteen national languages. Under such an arrangement no member will have reason to feel alienated from the proceedings in the house; nothing will any longer sound strange to him; with the help of the ear-piece, he will be in a position to comprehend each single word uttered in the house irrespective of the language in which it is uttered.

Given the strides information technology has made, simultaneous translations from and to fifteen languages should not be a formidable technological proposition. It should not pose much of a financial proposition either. An initial capital investment of Rs 100 crore ' conceivably even less ' may be sufficient to develop the software necessary to make the scheme operational; for all one knows, it may actually be put to work in the course of a bare few months.

Putting together a group of linguistic experts able to translate, with proficiency and grace, from and to the fifteen languages could be a more daunting task. Even this should not constitute an intractable problem in a country which claims to have close to three hundred million literate persons. Perhaps a core group of three hundred interpreters will be sufficient to kick-start the process. And once it develops momentum, it will open up a career prospect likely to draw in many more.

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