Convene Parliament, now
With the coronavirus pandemic spreading in India, the budget session of Parliament ended abruptly on March 23, 12 days ahead of the schedule. This was the right call at the time. Social distancing norms were not being enforced; there was speculation about the possible spread of the disease among Members of Parliament (MPs); and the nation soon went into a lockdown.
But a lot has happened since then. India is facing the most serious public health, economic, and humanitarian challenge in its independent history. This has led to a range of both immediate and far-reaching decisions by the government. Migrant workers across the country are heading back home and are largely subject to what can only be termed as rather arbitrary orders of the central government. India is now opening up — but this is expected to increase the number of cases. Through this process, while the government has addressed regular press briefings, and the prime minister has spoken to the nation, there has been no institutional accountability. It is time to convene Parliament and perhaps even call a special session.
In this backdrop, the presiding officers of both houses met on Monday and came up with a set of options, including the possibility of a virtual Parliament using technology. This initiative is positive. But in the more immediate context, the big question is of logistics. A column in this newspaper had suggested the possibility of using the Central Hall for Lok Sabha sittings, and holding Rajya Sabha sittings in the Lok Sabha chambers. The Lok Sabha speaker and the Rajya Sabha chairperson have asked their officials to explore this option, as a way to enforce social distancing norms. With air travel and limited passenger trains operational, it is also possible for MPs to come to Delhi. The fact that the parliamentary standing committee on home affairs is scheduled to meet on June 3 in Parliament House itself is also a sign that other committees can be activated soon, through either direct meetings or on secure digital mediums. There are, of course, risks and precautions need to be taken. But democracy is too precious and Parliament is too valuable an institution to sit out a national crisis. India’s battle against the pandemic and its economic revival needs national buy-in; it also requires the executive to be accountable. And this can only happen in Parliament.