The rapid spread of COVID-19 has hindered the monsoon session of the Parliament from resuming as per the schedule. So far, no solution has emerged to recommence Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha with fail-proof social-distancing norms. The conduct of businesses in both the Houses is unlikely to be as usual.
According to current indications, the session will likely be shorter than usual in view of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis. Most options considered by Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla and Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu have been found inadequate and efforts are on to find ways to accommodate all 542 sitting Lok Sabha members and 242 Rajya Sabha members.
The use of Vigyan Bhavan’s huge Plenary Hall for Lok Sabha proceedings and shifting Rajya Sabha proceedings to the Central Hall of Parliament have been found to be inadequate to meet social-distancing norms. Most MPs, especially from Rajya Sabha, are also wary of the risk involved in being part of a large gathering at Parliament and also the hitches in travelling to the Capital for the monsoon session.
Officials of both the Houses recall how difficult it was to maintain social distancing during the fag end of the second part of the Budget session that was prorogued ahead of schedule due to COVID-19. The number of active cases were very few at that juncture as compared to the lakhs who are under treatment now for the infection.
When it is a huge challenge to hold even Parliamentary Committee meetings that involve much smaller numbers, one can imagine the precautions needed when it comes to Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha sessions, a senior official explained. That is why a detailed exercise was done to see how the spread of COVID-19 can be prevented when the monsoon session of Parliament is convened.
Besides hundreds of MPs, officials and staff of the Secretariat, security personnel and a large number of others engaged in support services are required to be present. What makes it more difficult is the fact that Delhi is one of the country’s worst affected cities, with only Mumbai and Chennai rivalling the Capital city.
There have been instances of COVID-19 scare in the Parliament even after the Budget session was prorogued and some offices, including those at Parliament House Annexe, had to be sanitised after some persons working there tested positive for Coronavirus.
Initially, it was felt that the COVID-19 curve would flatten and things would come under control by July when the monsoon session usually began. However, as the situation started going from bad to worse, it became clear that a session, as usual, was not possible. Officials first checked out if a Lok Sabha sitting, with social distancing, could be accommodated at the Central Hall of Parliament.
The Hall is large enough for a joint sitting of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha under normal circumstances. However, when the space was found inadequate, the Plenary Hall at Vigyan Bhavan was considered. Later, officials realised that even the Plenary Hall—the largest in Vigyan Bhavan—was not large enough and started looking at other options.
The feasibility of holding a session through video conferencing is under consideration now, but it is important to note that even Parliamentary Committee meetings have not been held through the digital mode. Will it be possible to arrive at a solution whereby presiding officers and senior members sit in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, respectively, while some tech-savvy younger members join through video conferencing?
This option is under consideration now and it is not clear if this will be acceptable to all concerned persons.
However, time is running out and a feasible solution has to be worked out soon. The next session of Parliament has to be convened next month as the last sitting was on March 23, before COVID-19 forced early conclusion of the second part of the Budget session and the country went into lockdown to prevent the spread of Coronavirus.
The maximum gap between two sessions cannot be more than six months and this is the deadline that necessitates an early decision at this juncture. Will Birla and Naidu allow video conferencing? Or will they opt for a regular sitting with senior members from each party physically present in the House, along with Ministers, while others join through video conferencing?
If video conferencing, even if partially, is allowed, then arrangements have to be made to digitally connect those who cannot be accommodated physically and issues like a live translation of speeches in various languages has to be integrated into the system. Therefore, it will be a digital challenge and for the first time ever, a Parliament session will depart from the usual tradition.
Besides the September deadline, some parties want an early start to the monsoon session to discuss important issues like border tension with China, state of the economy and rampant unemployment suffered by migrant labourers.
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha, and Ghulam Nabi Azad, leader of the Congress in Rajya Sabha, are on record emphasising the early convening of Parliament. However, MPs from various parties, especially senior citizens, are wary of COVID-19.
When the virus has spread all over the world, a senior member of the upper house questioned how would it be made sure that infection did not spread among members. In March, when it was found that Dushyant Singh had attended a session after taking part in singer Kanika Kapoor’s infamous get-together, panic had set in and many members started questioning why the session was continuing.
With such a scare triggered by Coronavirus, officials have banned visitors to the Parliament Complex and an estimated 800 assistants of MPs have also been barred from entering the premises. However, apprehensions linger on over social distancing since the Parliament House buzzes with activity during each session.
Going digital with all documents—one of the initiatives that have been rolled out by Parliament along with other environment-friendly steps like banishing plastic bottles—is being speeded up now. Since printed documents could be a potential carrier of COVID-19, MPs are being urged to use digital documents.
Also, norms like compulsory wearing of masks, maintaining social distancing, and the use of sanitisers according to latest standard operating procedures being followed internationally are likely to be implemented. Legislating bodies of several countries have met with such precautions despite COVID-19, while many countries have adopted the digital mode.
Under such circumstances, the monsoon session of Parliament will be interesting to watch for Coronavirus prevention measures too, besides heated discussions on border tension with China that has resulted in the deaths of 20 army personnel; the economic slump caused by COVID-19 and the resultant huge job losses, especially among migrant labourers.