By: Mihir Pareek
COVID-19 is presenting various challenges all around the world and India has certainly been one of the nations to be affected by it on a large scale. Even though this year has been very difficult for our lawmakers, the Indian Parliament has been making continuous efforts to resume its working. The Parliament is holding its rescheduled Monsoon Session from September 14 to October 1. This will be the first session since the nationwide lockdown was imposed. This session is extremely important for the ruling party as they have listed 45 bills, 2 financial items and 11 Ordinances for consideration in the Parliament. These were all issued in March, after which the proceedings of both the Houses got adjourned for an indefinite period of time due to the rising number of coronavirus patients. The staggered timings for the Lok Sabha proceedings are from 9 am to 1 pm and for the Rajya Sabha proceedings, 3 pm to 7 pm. The Monsoon Session is having a total of 18 sittings spread over a period of 18 days (including Saturdays and Sundays).
The Lok Sabha’s Speaker, Om Birla, has sent a safety COVID-19 kit alongside a letter to all the parliamentarians before the session, stating, "As you're aware, the Monsoon Session of Parliament is commencing on 14 September 2020 and will last up to October 1 without any holiday in between. This session is being held in extraordinary circumstances. While discharging our Constitutional responsibilities, we even have to comply with all the Covid-19 related guidelines.”
A compulsory COVID-19 test was also initiated by the Parliament, in which 56 staff members and 24 MPs, including eighteen from the Lok Sabha and eight from the Rajya Sabha, tested positive.
• The Lok Sabha, on its first day, adopted a motion to get away with the Question Hour keeping in mind the special circumstances and curtailed hours of the House. This decision faced tough rejection by the opposition, who termed the Question Hour as the golden hour - the only part of the session where they get to hold the government accountable for their decisions. They accused the executive to be prevailing over the legislature, thereby violating norms regarding the separation of powers which the country has been following since its independence.
• Non-NDA parties had largely agreed on a joint strategy to question the four Ordinances in which three are associated with agricultural marketing practices. These Ordinances aim to liberalise trade and increase the number of buyers for the farmers. The opposition says that this may undermine and affect the prevailing food security network with greater impact during this economically challenging year. The Union Cabinet Minister for Food Processing Industries, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, resigned from Narendra Modi’s cabinet in the Parliament to protest against the farm bills. The fourth bill replacing the ordinance is the Banking and Securities Regulation (Amendment) Bill, which allows the central bank to initiate a scheme for reconstruction or unification of a bank without placing it under suspension. Congress believes this will weaken the cooperative banking system of the country, also considering the recent downfall in banks.
• The opposition had also raised questions on the NEET and the JEE advance exams being conducted (read our article on the same here). They criticized the government by stating that if the ministers couldn’t fully resume their work, how can the students be expected to appear for exams, which would decide their future, in the middle of a global pandemic.
The Parliament’s Functioning
The Parliament's functioning is not up to the regular expectations since many prominent parliamentarians aren't attending the session. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had informed the Speaker that he and his mother, Sonia Gandhi, won't be present for the primary few days of the session due to some medical work in the US. BJP leaders like Amit Shah and Nitin Gadkari also won't be attending the session as they have tested COVID positive. Along with that, shorter hours in the session have made it very difficult for the government to offer its full views on the bills and for the opposition to stand against them strongly.
The Parliament of the United Kingdom, profoundly known as the mother of all parliaments, has found a solution to this problem. They have made special arrangements according to which the Inner House, also known as the Chambers, will only accommodate a maximum of 50 members, while the members who are not physically present remain connected to the Parliament in hybrid methods, which allow them to share their views with the Parliament. India may also take back its decision and make an analogous arrangement because over 50% of the parliamentarians are above the age of 60, highly at risk of catching this life-threatening virus.
Possible Solutions and Measures to be followed in the Parliament
The session should be conducted virtually because the average cases in India are reaching almost 100,000 per day, and it's highly dangerous to continue the proceedings in the current physical manner as it poses a greater health risk for the parliamentarians and even their families.
Members above the age of 70 should opt out of sitting in the session.
Reporters and media houses should have a virtual interview with the members instead of standing in a queue with their equipment outside the parliament.
If a significant increase in the number of cases takes place in the upcoming days, the Parliament needs to be dismissed, along with a special clause being formulated by amending the 85th Article of the Constitution which makes it compulsory for each session to be held before 6 months of recess elapse.