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Thursday, July 29, 2021

Not my call; no consensus among parties on virtual House panel meetings, says Speaker

In an interview to The Indian Express, Birla, who is completing two years in office on Saturday, said, “In fact, there was no consensus over conducting the Standing Committees online... Of the 16 committees, 14 did not want to have virtual meetings... Anyway, I have never given any instructions not to hold Standing Committee meetings.”

Written by Liz Mathew | New Delhi |
Updated: June 19, 2021 9:56:05 am
Speaker Om Birla, who has completed 2 years in office, during an interview with The Indian Express. (Express File Photo: Renuka Puri)

Speaker Om Birla, who has had to preside over the Lok Sabha through unprecedented restrictions because of the pandemic, said there was “no consensus” among parties over holding meetings of the parliamentary Standing Committees online, and that he had issued no restrictions regarding not convening the same.

Some Opposition members, mainly of the Congress, had demanded that the committees be allowed to meet virtually rather than not being convened at all. They had argued that through these committees, the House could give a message of solidarity to the people amidst the pandemic rather than appear as a mute spectator to Covid. However, the demand had been rejected.

Speaker Om Birla during the interview. (Express Photo: Renuka Puri)

In an interview to The Indian Express, Birla, who is completing two years in office on Saturday, said, “In fact, there was no consensus over conducting the Standing Committees online… Of the 16 committees, 14 did not want to have virtual meetings… Anyway, I have never given any instructions not to hold Standing Committee meetings.”

This week, after a two-month-long gap, Standing Committees started holding meetings again.

Birla also pointed out that Rule 266 regarding the Lok Sabha clearly says that the Standing Committee meetings be held in private. “Their proceedings can be made public only with special permission, when it is necessary. So the rules do not allow virtual meetings… If we need to change the rules, there has to be a discussion in the Rules Committee, with every party expressing its views. Once this is done, the mandate of the House has to be sought,” he said.

Sources in the Lok Sabha Secretariat said chairpersons of several committee had expressed apprehension over “not just the confidentiality aspect, but also the kind of discussions that would be held online”. The senior leaders, said sources, were of the view that MPs would be apprehensive about holding discussions keeping aside party differences — which is usually the norm at such panels — due to fears these might leak. The officials concerned also noted that it would be difficult for them to respond to questions raised at the meetings.

Om Birla during the interview with The Indian Express at the Parliament on Friday. (Express Photo: Renuka Puri)

Asked about the government pressing ahead with the construction of a new Parliament amidst Covid restrictions, Birla said, “There is a need for a new Parliament House building… Our old building is still magnificent, but there is no scope to expand it… There will be delimitation and the number of members will go up, security measures have to be modernised and digital facilities have to be improved.”

On the Opposition criticism that the government did not take Parliament seriously, Birla said, “In the 17th Lok Sabha, there has been maximum participation of MPs in legislative business in Lok Sabha history. Look at the productivity graph, it’s the highest now… The members sit till midnight to take part in discussions.”

Asked whether the government should make more efforts to take everyone along, Birla said, “I think the government does that. It holds discussions with every party during every session. I hope the government will make such efforts in the future also.”

In the interview, Birla also addressed the factional war within the LJP, defending the Lok Sabha Secretariat’s decision to recognise Pashupati Ram Paras, who has rebelled against party chief Chirag Paswan, as the leader of its parliamentary party.

“Its leaders held a meeting and gave me a letter saying it was the party’s decision to elect one (Paras) as the leader of the parliamentary unit. We were given a copy of that decision. If anyone had raised an objection before it or even after it, I would have looked into it. There was no objection before or after that letter,” Birla said. He said he could not do anything if Chirag objected to this two days later, at a press conference. “Still we will look into that aspect also.”

The Paras-led group had submitted the letter to the Lok Sabha Secretariat on Sunday. Soon after, the Secretariat had issued a revised list of floor leaders of parties, officially naming Paras as the leader of the LJP.

Paras has claimed control of the LJP, with all the other five MPs of the party, except Chirag, backing him. He has also called the decision by Chirag to separate from the NDA during the Bihar elections in protest against JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar wrong.

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