Postponing the winter session should have been avoided
The government has offered a specious reason to cancel the winter session of Parliament and club it instead with the Budget session in January 2021. The threat of Covid-19 spiking during the winter months, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Prahlad Joshi said, had prompted the government to hold informal talks with floor leaders of various political parties to approve a postponement. Given that the monsoon session of Parliament was held around the time the number of Covid-19 infections was peaking — it crossed 80,000 cases per day just before the session was truncated by eight days ending on September 24 — this cannot be a valid explanation for postponement now that the number of fresh cases is tapering. Since the last session, in fact, political parties have held rallies and the country has seen politicians physically campaigning for an Assembly election, a host of by-elections and municipal polls, suggesting that fear of infection cannot be rife among elected representatives. Also, it is by no means clear that the pandemic would have vanished by the time the Budget session comes around.
It is true that some 40 MPs tested positive at the end of the monsoon session, but given that experience, it is difficult to believe that heightened safety protocols could not have been worked out in advance. The winter session could well have included pre-planned relaxation of parliamentary rules to allow it to function with fewer MPs or leveraged remote attendance for a certain number of MPs. This is the kind of contingency planning that is required for future external shocks in any case and would have offered a potent demonstration of India’s IT prowess. All told, Parliament has convened for just 33 days this year — the Budget session was cut short owing to the national lockdown and the monsoon session was shortened owing to the pandemic — making it the lowest number of sittings since 2008. Data from PRS Legislative Research shows that, starting from 1952, the Lok Sabha met for under 50 days just twice before — in 2008 (46 sittings) and in 2004 (48 sittings). The Rajya Sabha has recorded three instances of sittings of less than 50 days — 2004, 2008 and 1999.
Convening Parliament cannot be regarded as observing an inconsequential procedural routine. Indeed, this winter session, which usually convenes in the last week of November or the first week of December and runs for three weeks, would have had an important legislative agenda. For one, it would have allowed MPs to discuss the pandemic and the progress on the vaccine. For another, it would have allowed discussion on some critical Bills that are before Parliamentary committees— the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill; Personal Data Protection Bill being two of them.
Clubbing these agendas with the Budget session, which involves the debate on the Finance Bill that needs to be passed before March 31, is likely to result in inadequate or almost non-existent debate. This was the key reason the three controversial farm laws that were rushed through the monsoon session have met with such implacable opposition from farmer groups, mainly from Punjab and Haryana. Indeed, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the postponement was driven no less by the government’s desire to avoid being challenged on the farm laws. Skirting Parliament is the last thing it should be doing in these circumstances.