NEW DELHI: In the absence of a workable model that will allow appropriate social distancing for members of Parliament (MPs) and their staff, there is a possibility that the forthcoming monsoon session of Parliament will not be held in July and could even be pushed to September, two people familiar with the decision-making process said on condition of anonymity.
Officials have considered the possibility of holding online sessions, where half the members will be seated in the House and the other half joins online, but this has been found untenable as it requires members to give consent on how they would want to join the session. They have also considered shifting the sessions of both houses to either other locations within the Parliament complex or outside, but this, too, has been ruled out because of the difficulties in implementing social distancing norms.
One of the two people, who has participated in meetings on the issue, said that since there is no pressing matter at hand, for instance, the passage of ordinance that will otherwise lapse, and since there is no immediate constitutional requirement to convene the session, there is a possibility that Parliament will convene once there is solution at hand for ensuring proper social distancing protocols.
“As per the Constitution, there is no specification of the number of days or the period during which Parliament should meet. As per Article 85, the only requirement is that gap between two sessions should not be more than six months. The last session was in March, which means we have time till September,” added this person.
The ordinances in effect at the moment also have a time-cushion before they lapse.
President Ramnath Kovind, in June, promulgated The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion & Facilitation) Ordinance 2020, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance 2020, and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, and, last week, the ordinance to amend banking regulations. “All of these ordinances will not expire before six months from the day of being promulgated, which give us more time to plan,” the first person said.
The Opposition has demanded that Parliament be convened to discuss important issues at hand including the stand-off with China and the coronavirus pandemic. Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu and Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla have also held several rounds of meetings to work out how Parliament can resume work even as the protocols for health and social distancing are not breached.
“There were many suggestions mooted such as using the central hall for convening the Lok Sabha and using the Lok Sabha hall for Rajya Sabha. However, all these have been found untenable. There is not enough space to ensure physical distancing required even if this suggestion is followed,” said the person quoted above.
Officials of both the houses had pointed out that logistical problems such as rearranging names on the computers. Similarly, unless a member voluntarily opts for joining the session online, the secretariat of either house cannot take a decision on who can be permitted to attend the House in person.
The first person said that with the number of Covid-19 cases continuing to surge, it is imperative that the House functions only with the necessary protocol. “There were also suggestions to have the monsoon session in Vigyan Bhavan. That was explored too, but space and security constraints have made that untenable too. The biggest hall in Vigyan Bhavan can be used at best for holding a day long session. Since the annexe of Vigyan Bhavan already houses offices, there will be no space to accommodate the staff or ministers and MPs.”
The second person, who is familiar with the proceedings at the meetings also said that several MPs had indicated that since the House has to only reconvene before September 23, the secretariats should be given more time to come up with a sustainable model that will ensure safety of the members, their staff and the security personnel.
“There are between 20,000-40,000 people who visit Parliament EVERY DAY when the sessions are on. It is not an easy task to create a safe space for such large numbers,” the second person said.
As per convention, Parliament meets for three sessions in a year, the Budget session, the monsoon session and the winter session.
Experts say that the government must do more to find a workable solution.
“A session of the Andhra Pradesh legislature was recently held where the Governor gave his address by video conference. Media reports suggest that to ensure physical distancing between legislators, the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Saha might consider holding its next session in a large conference venue opposite the Vidhan Sabha building. The constitution tasks the government with the responsibility of convening the legislature. It is now for the government to ensure that MPs can meet safely either within Parliament or at any other larger venue where norms of distancing can be ensured,” said Chakshu Roy, Head of Legislative and Civic Engagement, PRS Legislative Research.