The first attempt to scrutinise the coronavirus-driven lockdown and the Centre’s handling of the outbreak has been deferred ostensibly due to travel restrictions and quarantine rules imposed by some states. Anand Sharma, who heads the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs, Monday deferred a meeting of the panel scheduled for June 3 after several MPs expressed their inability to attend because of different lockdown protocols in states.
The Rajya Sabha Secretariat had also not given permission for the members to join the meeting through video conference. The committee was to scrutinise the implementation of the lockdown and related aspects such as the movement of migrants and the Centre’s coordination with states. Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla was expected to brief the committee on various aspects of the lockdown and its handling by his ministry.
However, even before Sharma’s announcement, the proposed meeting, which could resume the parliamentary proceedings after a two-month freeze, was preceded by shadow-boxing between the Congress and the ruling BJP with a number of ruling party MPs writing to the Chairman seeking postponement of the meeting, citing their inability to attend. BJP sources also cited provision of the Rules of Procedures and Conduct of Business to say that the Standing Committees could not take up matters pertaining to day-to-day administration of the concerned ministries. “The panel can discuss the policy matters, not the administrative functioning,” said a party leader.
While the Congress, which insisted on resumption of Parliamentary Standing Committee meetings, tried to push barriers with demands to hold the meeting through video-conference, it did not cut ice with both presiding officers. The Secretariats of both Houses were not in favour of holding virtual meetings, citing a confidentiality clause that Committee meetings are strictly in-camera events.
Sharma is now planning to write to Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu again to allow members to join the meeting through a secure video-conferencing platform. He said the meeting had to be deferred as many members had written to him saying that “they have travel constraints.” At least two of them, including DMK’s Dayanidhi Maran, wrote to him saying they want to attend the meeting but are in a difficult situation because they will be forced to undergo a 14-day quarantine upon return to their states because of state protocols.
“Those members who were to come by road… the Delhi borders were sealed today for a week,” Sharma said.
“Some members had asked for exemption from the SOP on quarantine upon their return after attending the meeting. I had taken it up with the Rajya Sabha Secretariat but no such exemption has come through. Secondly, in this situation, to have the maximum participation it would have been better if the members were facilitated to join through video-conferencing. That has also not been acceded to… I am forced to defer the meeting,” Sharma told The Indian Express.
While Sharma had scheduled the meeting for June 3 with a briefing from the Union Home Secretary on the lockdown and the ministry’s handling of the Covid-19 situation, sources in the BJP have indicated that it was reluctant to be part of the meeting. At least seven members of the panel belonging to the BJP told The Indian Express — before Sharma’s decision to defer the meeting — that they would not attend Wednesday’s meeting.
Rajya Sabha MP and BJP General Secretary Anil Jain said he had already written to Sharma saying that the meeting should be postponed as the members are busy with handling the Covid situation in their respective states. Rakesh Sinha, another BJP member from the Upper House, is also learnt to have written to the Chairman saying that the MPs were implementing and assisting the government’s efforts to contain the virus.
Of the 30 members in the panel, 17 belong to the BJP.
Khargone (Madhya Pradesh) MP Gajendra Singh Patel said he would not be attending the meeting as the number of virus affected people in his constituency was going up. “I was to write to the chairman that I would not be able to attend the meeting,” Patel said.
Vishnu Dayal Ram, BJP MP from Palamu (Jharkhand), said that he had written to Sharma that he was not attending as he had an important meeting scheduled in the state.
Sharma said it is ironic that the government is not able to provide a secure video platform for the Parliamentary Standing Committees to meet when the National Informatics Centre can provide secure video platforms for the Prime Minister to have regular meetings with the Chief Ministers and for the Cabinet Secretary and Home Secretary to have meetings with Chief Secretaries of the states.
Arguing that parliaments and committees of at least 43 countries are meeting virtually, Sharma said, “We are the largest democracy and we should continue to function as one. We have to see that Parliament as an institution remains functional in these extraordinary times. If every other institution is being facilitated to function and being encouraged to do so using technology … denying the same to the highest institution in our democracy… actually is unfortunate and needs to be corrected. It must be corrected in the larger interest so that Parliament as an institution is able to discharge what is expected of it constitutionally as its duty.”
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