Time for Parliament to meet, virtually

With the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) upon us, it is inevitable that there will be changes in how we engage to get things done. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is holding Cabinet meetings and interacting with political leaders through video conferences. Last month, 82 Congress leaders discussed the party’s response to Covid-19 on a video call. The Supreme Court is using video conferencing to hear cases. Government conferences are moving online.

Parliament has been disrupted and the Budget session was cut short by eight days, delaying the debate on key bills. Many state legislatures such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala curtailed their sessions. Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh issued ordinances to enable them to spend money in the new financial year.

It is here that technology-centric solutions can ensure work continuity in law-making institutions. Parliament has been agile in its adoption of technology through its history in three key areas.

First, to empower members of Parliament (MPs) to work more efficiently, as early as 1954, a teleprinter was installed in the lobby of the Lok Sabha to enable MPs to keep up to speed with important developments. Now MPs can access wireless Internet on their phones and tablets inside the Houses. Gone are the days when MPs or their staff had to visit the Parliament House to submit notices for their interventions. Now, there is a dedicated portal where they can electronically file their questions, zero-hour submissions and other notices for participating in debates.

Second, there has been rapid technology adoption in the two parliamentary secretariats. They started using computers for their work in the mid-1980s. An example of their digital prowess is the daily uncorrected debate: A transcript of proceedings in the Houses is uploaded online on the same day the debate takes place.

Making Parliament an open and transparent institution is the third area where the institution has leveraged technology. The proceedings of the Houses are broadcast on dedicated TV channels and also streamed online. The parliamentary websites maintain records of all its work, and the two secretariats have also digitised parliamentary debate since 1858, and made them freely available to the public.

The pandemic challenges the ability of the institution to physically assemble and debate matters of national importance. There are two occasions when MPs have to assemble in person. One, when they meet as a whole to constitute a sitting of the House. This situation will arise in July when MPs assemble for the monsoon session of Parliament. Parliaments around the world are gearing up to ensure that some parts of their proceedings can be conducted online. For example, the Scottish parliament recently conducted its question hour virtually for the first time. Meanwhile, in London, 100 MPs signed a letter calling for the creation of a virtual parliament. In response, the Speaker of the House of Commons has urged the government to ensure that some part of parliamentary proceedings can be done virtually before the house resumes next week. The second occasion when MPs meet in person is during meetings of parliamentary committees. These committees are smaller sub-groups of MPs which meet outside the House to deliberate on issues. The committees play a critical role as they are tasked with the in-depth examination of government bills. Currently, there are six bills being examined by different committees.

There are international examples that our Parliament could examine to restart the functioning of committees. For example, the House of Commons has successfully completed a trial in conducting the proceedings of their committees digitally. Its treasury committee recently heard witnesses on a video conference on the subject of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. In New Zealand, the Epidemic Response Committee, led by the leader of opposition, has been operating via video conferencing to evaluate the government’s response to Covid-19. The proceedings of the committee are streamed on social media and on the Parliament website. The Australian Parliament also has a provision in its rules of procedure to allow for audio and video links to be used for committee proceedings.

The workings of legislatures in India and around the world are marked by ceremony and rigid rules of functioning. But they also have an advantage. They can regulate their functioning, allowing them to effect institutional changes quickly. Working remotely is the new normal, and for Parliament to adapt to it is a necessity.

This disruption by the pandemic is an opportunity for our Parliament. It should evaluate which aspects of its functioning are amenable to being done online. The virtual working of parliament in other countries underlines one key principle. Parliament is an institution of public trust and needs to continue its role of scrutiny of government’s actions, especially in times of crisis.

Chakshu Roy is head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative, Abhijit Banare is a Chevening scholar at Cambridge University