Moving House Online: How crucial legislative work could continue in crisis

Our parliamentary rules do not require MPs to meet physically at the Parliament House. Discussions have taken place on multiple occasions for holding its session outside Delhi. The only requirement for a duly constituted sitting of a house is that it be presided over by the chairman/speaker or any authorised MP.

Earlier this month, 12 MPs created history when they met virtually in their official capacities. These MPs are members of the joint committee on salary and allowances. Lok Sabha MP Rita Bahuguna Joshi heads the committee, which has nine other Lok Sabha MPs and five Rajya Sabha MPs. On April 6, an online meeting of the committee took place. There were two sittings of 15 minutes each, by the end of which, they recommended a 30 per cent reduction in the constituency and office allowances of MPs. Despite its membership being made exclusively of MPs, the joint committee is not like other parliamentary committees. It was set up in 1954 under the Salary, Allowances and Pension of Members of Parliament Act. But if MPs can meet online to discuss issues under a particular law, can they also assemble online to do legislative work?

Our parliamentary rules do not require MPs to meet physically at the Parliament House. Discussions have taken place on multiple occasions for holding its session outside Delhi. The only requirement for a duly constituted sitting of a house is that it be presided over by the chairman/speaker or any authorised MP. The rules also give full discretion to the Rajya Sabha Chairman Venkaiah Naidu and Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla when it comes to running the houses. On matters which are not apparent in the rules, both of them have the residuary power to decide on them. The Speaker also has the discretion to allow the parliamentary committees to meet outside the House, which he has allowed on multiple occasions. As the next session of Parliament is a few months away, it gives the parliamentary secretariat time to draw up plans for holding an online session should the need so arise.

It is the stoppage in the work of parliamentary committees which needs immediate attention. Two committees are scrutinising pending bills on issues related to labour and regulation of personal data. Both these issues are important and have gained prominence during the ongoing pandemic. Committees invite stakeholders to appear before them and share their viewpoints on the bills. Perhaps an initial step towards resuming the work of parliamentary committees could be to hear the testimony of stakeholders through a video conference. Since there are only 30 MPs in each committee, it might be easier to conduct a pilot meeting for these committees. The added advantage could be that the committee could get to hear a wide range of stakeholders who might otherwise find it difficult to appear in-person before the committees. Speaker Om Birla is considering such a move.

Across the world, legislatures are using a combination of technology, physical separation and reduced physical presence to continue their work. The Brazilian parliament passed a resolution to work remotely during the public health emergency. The Chilean Senate has passed a law to allow it to meet remotely using appropriate video conferencing technology. In Indonesia and Maldives, a sitting of the parliament has happened remotely. In the UK, the House of Commons Commission has suggested a hybrid model of virtual and physical presence. It has recommended that 120 MPs can participate in certain house proceedings via video conferencing and 50 of them can be in the house physically under social distancing guidelines. The committees of parliaments of more than 15 countries are working online.

Many of our MPs are already interacting with their constituents and party colleagues via video conferencing. Therefore, the switch to a virtual meeting for their legislative work might be easy. What will require work is the setting up of protocols for ensuring participation, security and robust technology. It is time that our Parliament leverages its technological ability and steps up to fulfil its constitutional duty.

This article first appeared in the print edition on April 21, 2020 under the title ‘Moving House online’. The writer is head of legislative and civic engagement at PRS Legislative Research.