Virtual sessions, physical distancing or staggered timings? The jury is still out.
22 July 2020 (https://scroll.in/article/968272/how-can-indias-parliament-safely-conduct-its-monsoon-session-amid-the-covid-19-pandemic)
By Dr. Narmadeshwar Prasad [Director, Parliamentary & Administrative Research Institute (PARI)]
Enabling transparency in governance and allowing members to voice their concerns about their constituencies, most parliaments around the world are successfully conducting hybrid sessions– that is, combining virtual and physical. India’s public representatives too need to be able to put their legitimate questions to the government about public health and its management during the pandemic, among other issues, and adequately perform their parliamentary duties of being accountable to the public.
However, the modalities about holding a virtual or hybrid session are still ambiguous. The media is abuzz with speculation various methods that are likely to be adopted in the proposed monsoon session, which should have been convened by now, had the circumstances been different.
The United Kingdom parliament, touted as the mother of all parliaments, has shown the way. MPs can ask questions and hold the government accountable without endangering their health through a hybrid mode. The UK parliament has limited the number of MPs entering the Chambers to 50. The remaining members can be seated elsewhere, even in their own constituency if necessary, and are connected virtually over Zoom.
The UK parliament has exempted members from attending parliament in person in three instances – if the member is Covid-19 positive, if any of their close associates/family reports coronavirus positive, or if the member is unable to travel due to lockdown-related disruptions.
The Canadian parliament is running its business mostly virtually. Every Tuesday and Thursday of June, 338 Canadian MPs logged into Zoom from their homes or offices to question ministers, replacing the daily in-person question period. Speaker Anthony Rota while calling the virtual running of parliament “historic” cautioned MPs not to post photos of the sessions on the Internet in accordance with the parliamentary rules. Although few Canadian law-makers have raised concerns over Zoom’s data security, the modality remains the same as of now. The Canadian prime minister claims that the nation has developed a perfect hybrid system where 30 MPs also meet each Wednesday in person in the parliament.
The American parliament has put out guidelines for their MPs about how to attend sessions in person and envisioned provisions for virtual participation, especially in the context of conducting committee meetings and hearings. Although no in-person member strength has been outlined, guidelines have been issued to senators.
The attending physician to the Congress in the US, Dr Brian Monahan, circulated a seven-page letter suggesting senators and visitors alike maintain six-feet distance, limit staff and visitors in offices, and encourage masks. Key suggestions included staff and lawmakers avoid gatherings when possible, stagger schedules and try to bring their meals from home to avoid crowding at dining facilities. It was also suggested that office layouts be modified to improve safety and sneeze guards be installed where possible.
Staff working in the Capitol building were also advised to attend health monitoring programmes and temperatures are to be monitored every morning by a designated office. The guidelines strongly advised offices to have regular cleaning schedules during work pauses and check if ventilation systems need improvement. The guidelines, however, did not advise testing of the senators but enabled the provision of testing any senator or staffer if needed.
Newly-elected Rajya Sabha member and BJP leader Jyotiraditya Scindia greets Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Digvijaya Singh at Parliament House in New Delhi on July 22. Credit: PTI
Solutions for India
It is imperative for the Indian Parliament to meet before September 23. As per the constitutional provisions, there cannot be a gap of more than six months between two sessions. The last being the budget session, prematurely declared sine die, 11 days ahead of schedule on March 23, due to the countrywide lockdown.
Official consultations are ongoing towards formalising the modalities of holding the monsoon session. However, with no consensus in sight, it seems unlikely that the session will be held before the last week of August or the first week of September. To declare the session dates, the government needs to be sure about the logistical paraphernalia. Concerns such as the venue of the meetings in the Parliament that can adequately accommodate all the MPs and at the same time ensure physical distancing is a stiff call. Enabling MPs to participate in debates, discussions, question hour and passing of bills is therefore, doubly arduous.
Indications are that arrangements will be made for all MPs to be present in both the houses when the session is summoned. There are 11 ordinances that need to be replaced by an Act in the monsoon session. The physical presence of members is therefore essential for voting procedures. This seems to be the primary limitation in holding a virtual session.
If one were to observe physical distancing norms, the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha chambers would not be able to accommodate more than a third of its members. The additional members would then have to be accommodated in public galleries, located on the first floor overlooking the chambers and in the lobbies which are the outer enclosure of the Chambers, as opined by a few experts. However, this added area may not suffice and also may not befit the stature of the members.
Another suggestion envisages the Central Hall situated between both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha chambers being brought into service. The Central Hall is where joint sittings are held in the Parliament. If all the members of Rajya Sabha were to attend, this Central Hall could probably be run as a Rajya Sabha chamber, but it would be inadequate for the Lok Sabha MPs. Although Vigyan Bhawan’s huge auditorium could be pushed into service for the Lok Sabha, the idea did not find favour due to its functionality concerns.
The parliamentary business, therefore, can only be viably conducted within the precincts of the two chambers – Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha – with the possibility of using the central hall as a partial/additional chamber. But the usage of the central hall cannot be shared as conventionally Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha are convened simultaneously.
Newly elected Rajya Sabha members took oath for the first time without the Parliament being in session. Credit: PTI
The best option could then be to hold odd-even sessions for Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, or even perhaps morning and evening sessions. In both these situations, all three facilities can be available to both the Houses in an alternating manner. The three premises can be well connected with the video links and sound systems so that one can interject in a particular discussion or participate in voting either by voice or by division.
However, conducting sessions on alternate days as some experts opine seems to be a better option as compared to morning-evening alternations as businesses can be time insensitive. Detailed guidelines on medical precautions and physical distancing can be issued by the Central Government Health Services which takes care of health services in the parliament. They should also have an in-built provision of testing MPs and staff of the Parliament if needed.
Although several suggestions are under consideration, none of them point towards the virtual convening of the sessions. With the pandemic situation in India being fluid, the number of Covid-19 cases rising further is highly likely. This may result in re-lockdown in many areas as we have seen recently in Patna, Bengaluru and several other cities. If such a situation arises during the session, it may deter MPs from travelling to Delhi.
To counter this, a hybrid provision has to be put in place, as democracies world over have done. The online facility can be fairly simple as members can be connected through a platform installed in the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha chambers. Viewed on a large screen next to the Chairs of the presiding officers, such MPs can participate with rigour and can be covered by the live telecast cameras too. The MPs located in their constituencies can be directed to uphold the seriousness of the proceedings by placing a carefully chosen backdrop and installing a secured ethernet connection to avoid disruptions.
With regular sessions not likely to resume until early next year, the Indian parliament must be willing to experiment with the hybrid medium. It needs to be synced with present-day realities. However, despite the various options being explored the modalities of conducting business in the Indian parliament remain largely person-centric.
(Narmadeshwar Prasad is the director of the Parliamentary and Administrative Research Institute and a former officer of the Rajya Sabha.)