It is time the Narendra Modi government called the monsoon session of Parliament. The Indian Parliament was in session when the country was in war with China in 1962 and when our armed forces were liberating Bangladesh in 1971. It met the very next day after a cowardly terrorist attack in 2001 on the Parliament building while the two Houses were in session. Parliament sessions are crucial for deliberation, exchange of ideas and consensus-building. Its decisions are vital for directing the country in these challenging times brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and an aggressive China.
And yet, the monsoon session of Parliament is nowhere in sight, even as rains have come to Delhi. The second session of the legislative calendar usually begins in the third week of July and goes on till August. But there is still no news about the starting date of the monsoon session. The responsibility for deciding the calendar of parliamentary sittings rests with the government. The cabinet committee on parliamentary affairs, currently comprising 9 ministers — including those of defence, home, finance, and law — decides the date and duration of a legislative session.
In the last 20 years, excluding election years, 12 monsoon sessions started in July. On three occasions during the UPA 2 and once during UPA 1, they began in August. It has been now 119 days since the last Parliament session. The last time there was this long a gap between a budget and monsoon session was in 2011 — of 128 days. Assuming Parliament meets in the first week of August, it will be the most prolonged absence for Parliament between a budget and monsoon session in the last two decades.
In most mature democracies, the power to decide the parliamentary calendar rests with the legislative institution. However, India’s Constitution gives this power to the executive. It only requires that six months should not elapse between two sessions of Parliament. Since the curtailed budget session ended in the last week of March, the Modi government has until the end of September to call a meeting of the two houses of Parliament.
Importance of a session
But the purpose of convening a session of Parliament is not to fulfil a constitutional requirement. MPs from all over the country come together to highlight the plight of their people. They point out the successes and shortcomings of the government’s machinery and its measures. They suggest ways for utilisation of the country’s finances and deliberate on legislative proposals for addressing the policy hurdles before the nation.
And there is a lot for MPs to discuss in Parliament. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the gaps in India’s social security measures and policies related to daily wage labourers. The boundary dispute with China and the sovereignty of our territory in Ladakh are other vital issues that require an extensive deliberation in Parliament.
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A session of Parliament is an opportunity for MPs to bring the voices of their constituents to a national forum. Every day, using the mechanism of Zero Hour, they draw the attention of the central government to the peculiar issues facing their region or state. In Lok Sabha, the government responded to approximately 80 per cent of the issues raised by MPs during the Zero Hour. In the upcoming session, MPs would also want to question ministers on their ministry’s handling of the pandemic and their future course of action.
Finances have gone for a toss
At the time of the passing of India’s budget in March, the government’s earnings were pegged at Rs 30 lakh crore. About Rs 22 lakh crore were to come from taxes and other income and the rest from borrowings. The government was planning to spend this money for the benefit of farmers, rural employment, education, health and infrastructure.
But the pandemic has resulted in a new economic reality for the country. Job losses, shrinking demand, impact on the industry will temper the Modi government’s earning potential. It has also pumped in money for fighting the pandemic and providing relief to different sections of society, which will further limit its pre-pandemic plans for social sector spending.
State governments are also haemorrhaging money to the extent that some of them had to delay salaries to their employees. They will also be looking to the Centre for help. In the monsoon session of Parliament, the government will have to bring in a supplementary budget and seek Parliament’s approval for new allocation and spending.
The bills are pending
But this is not all. There is a backlog of legislation before Parliament. Some 40 bills are awaiting deliberation and passage by one or both Houses. Out of these, five are pending before parliamentary committees. These bills, including the ones on DNA technology, social security, personal data protection, can’t be taken up by Parliament until the respective committees finalise their reports. Adding to the backlog of legislation are 11 ordinances that have been promulgated by the Modi government during the intersession period. These new laws deal with issues ranging from agricultural markets to insolvency proceedings and economic measures necessitated by the pandemic.
The secretariat of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have been hard-pressed to find options for the safe holding of Parliament session. Using larger seating spaces, such as the central hall, and repurposing the galleries of the two Houses were considered but ruled out because this solution does not allow for physical distancing by all MPs. Media reports said that a “hybrid” solution where some MPs are physically present in Parliament and others join proceedings through video conference had to be abandoned as well.
Apparently, the government’s video conferencing platform can only accommodate 600 people at one time. For a country that has successfully sent space missions to Mars and Moon, and can identify a billion people by their biometrics, this should be an easy problem to solve, especially when such a solution is critical for our deliberative democracy.
The author is the Head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research. Views are personal.