Who’s afraid of COVID-19? Not our members of Parliament (MPs); well, not anymore. The scare of coronavirus infection that was looming large over the Parliament sessions of 2020 has evaporated gradually and even senior MPs are moving around the iconic Parliament complex with renewed confidence.
As the first part of the Budget Session draws to a close, worried faces and the omnipresent concern over COVID-19 pandemic has receded to the background. Some emboldened members of the Rajya Sabha are planning to demand restoration of normal seating pattern when they return for the second part of the Budget Session on March 8.
The renewed confidence does not mean throwing caution to winds. The lawmakers are still using face masks and hand sanitisers. Social distancing is being maintained meticulously. Seating arrangement made by Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla and Rajya Sabha Chairman Venkaiah Naidu is being followed, which allows only a limited number of members in the House while spreading the rest to other locations within the Parliament building to ensure members are not required to sit close to each other. Running Rajya Sabha in the first half and Lok Sabha in the second half also ensures there is no overcrowding inside the heritage building.
In a nutshell, all precautions are very much in place. However, the panic that haunted MPs during last the year’s Budget Session and the subsequent monsoon session is definitely gone now. Smiles are back. While facemasks are being worn, many members remove the masks while speaking and sometimes even while they are not speaking. Most importantly, there is no demand for curtailing the session due to fear of Coronavirus spreading. Last year, the Budget Session had to be cut short abruptly on March 23 after passing The Finance Bill without discussion; the monsoon session was delayed and curtailed by a week; while the winter session had to be written off as Covid-19 spread like wildfire across the country.
Panic No More
With the number of new infections coming down sharply in most states except Kerala and Maharashtra, there is no panic over unabated spread of infection. The situation in Delhi, where the MPs stay during Parliament sessions and home to most officials working at Parliament House, is also under control with daily incremental infections hovering around 125 and the number of active cases limited to a thousand. Also, very few positive cases emerged when RT-PCR tests were done before the Budget Session for all MPs and officials as well as security personnel posted at the Parliament complex. K K Ragesh and K Somprasad were among the handful of MPs who tested positive for COVID-19 during the current session of Parliament. Recovery rates have improved steadily and there is no rush at hospitals since daily all-India infections dropped below 10,000 on a few occasions during this month. All these steps have resulted in boosting the confidence of MPs who now feel the situation would be better during the second part of the Budget Session. We plan to ask the Rajya Sabha chairman to scrap the current seating system and go back to the regular system when we return, said Tiruchi Siva of DMK. Many other opposition MPs also feel the current seating system was not conducive to interventions and impromptu exchanges.
Victory over Virus?
The Modi Government has virtually declared victory over COVID-19 even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, among others, have been advocating continued use of masks and hand sanitizers till the pandemic comes to a complete end. Social distancing is also being advocated without any let-up. While replying to a discussion on Motion of Thanks to the President for his joint address, Modi credited the people of India for fighting the “unknown enemy” of Coronavirus successfully. He also termed doctors, paramedics and sanitation workers as ‘Gods’ who saved India from the pandemic. Treasury benches have also been harping on the effectiveness of strict lockdown in containing COVID-19 and appreciating the government for taking steps that resulted in low mortality in India as compared to most other countries.
No vaccine clamour
Unlike the previous year’s Parliament sessions, which were disrupted by coronavirus, this session also comes after launch of the Covishield and Covaxin vaccines. However, there is no clamour for vaccinating MPs on a priority basis. Almost 60 lakh people have been vaccinated all over India and Indian vaccines have been exported to more than a dozen countries. Under such circumstances, it will be easy to vaccinate MPs within a single Parliament session when all of them will be present at Delhi, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already advised against any attempt to jump the queue. Also, it is clear that only medical professionals and healthcare workers will be vaccinated now, according to the Central Government’s nationwide vaccination plan.
Since the fear of coronavirus has subsided, MPs are not even talking about vaccination on a priority basis. On the other hand, a different idea landed on the floor of Lok Sabha with DMK MP Dayanidhi Maran suggesting that the President of India and Prime Minister should be vaccinated, like Joe Biden in the US, to instill a sense of safety among those taking vaccines in India.
Unlike the monsoon session last year, Question Hour and Zero Hour have made a comeback during the 2021 Budget Session, indicating that things could be normal soon. Also, opposition as well as treasury benches spent hours discussing the Budget and Motion of Thanks to the President’s Address, despite disruptions that almost wiped out a week of Lok Sabha’s precious time. The first part of the Budget Session also saw the debut of ITDC canteens in Parliament house, replacing the erstwhile canteens run by railways for decades. Also, work on construction of a new Parliament House and the Central Vista project have started with some portions of the heritage building being cordoned off. With so many things kicking off, Parliament House is all set to buzz actively once again after a year of Covid-19 restrictions, but face masks and other precautions are likely to be the new normal for the time being.