The fate of the Monsoon session of Parliament, usually held in the third week of July, is still uncertain. There is no official word yet on when the House, brought to an abrupt standstill by the COVID-19 outbreak, which cut short the Budget session in March, will reconvene. The pandemic seems to have subdued even the parliamentary committees, which carry on Parliament’s work of scrutiny of government’s functioning in between sessions and form a crucial bridge between the parliamentary institution and the people. Ever since both Houses adjourned on March 23, the over 3-month-long silence was broken only last week when the Committee on Welfare of Other Backward Classes met and made recommendations to various ministries — two parliamentary committee meetings are scheduled for today, Friday. The apparent hesitation, or reluctance of India’s Parliament to resume work amid the pandemic, even as legislatures worldwide are designing innovative and hybrid modalities for doing so, is taking a toll that may not be visible but it is there — arguably adding an accountability and representation deficit to a serious and prolonged public health emergency.
Since March 23, according to PRS Legislative Research, the central government has issued about 850 COVID-related notifications and 11 ordinances. These range from international travel restrictions to board exam dos and don’ts, from prohibitions on exports of ventilators to mandating of the use of the Aarogya Setu. Many of the measures were needed, but many have also sparked questions and controversy about the nature of government response to the pandemic — its proportionality and its responsiveness to the anxieties and needs of the most vulnerable, including migrants. It is also true that across the world, even as they scramble to respond to a mostly unknown virus that does not yet have a cure, governments have used the crisis to extend and enlarge their own powers, impose stricter, even draconian laws, restrict freedoms, short-circuit privacy concerns, or simply resort to a technocratic solutionism that isn’t mindful enough of human costs and unintended consequences of policy responses. It is all the more important, therefore, that spaces and forums for the scrutiny of executive decisions, and for enforcing accountability, remain alive and kicking — especially in crisis.
India’s Parliament must meet sooner, rather than later, physically or virtually. If the rules of procedure stand in its way — parliament secretariat has flagged the confidentiality of virtual meetings as a concern — they must be tweaked and the NIC’s technological prowess harnessed. After all, the Prime Minister and other ministers and high government officials continue to meet amid the pandemic. The nation needs its Parliament to get back to work.