New Delhi: With around two dozen parliamentarians testing positive for COVID-19, the Union government decided to cut short the monsoon session on Saturday. The decision was taken after consulting opposition parties at the Business Advisory Committee meeting, a panel that decides the weekly agenda of the House.
After most opposition parties, except the Trinamool Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party, supported winding up the session early, it was decided that both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha would wrap up their proceedings by Wednesday (September 23) this week, eight days ahead of schedule.
Since the delayed monsoon session began a week ago, 17 Lok Sabha MPs and eight Rajya Sabha members have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Among those infected are 12 from the ruling BJP, two YSR Congress MPs, and one each from Shiv Sena, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Rashtriya Loktantrik Party. Union ministers Nitin Gadkari and Prahlad Patel have also tested positive for COVID-19. BJP’s Rajya Sabha member Vinay Sahasrabuddhe tested positive after addressing the house on Friday.
Government sources said that although parliament has taken adequate measures to ensure social distancing and other preventive norms, the Union government felt it may be too risky to continue the session. Until now, both the houses have been convening in two separate shifts to accommodate as many MPs as possible while maintaining social distancing norms. The guidelines mandated all reporters and parliament staff to take the rapid antigen test on a daily basis before entering the premises. MPs and their staff had also been asked to take the RT-PCR test every 72 hours.
The shortened session, however, has given the Union government leave to rush through the ratification of at least 11 ordinances, including the contentious farm bills which were passed in Rajya Sabha on Sunday. Despite fierce opposition and a demand for the bills to be sent to a standing committee for a review – many opposition members who wanted a review remained absent during voting, allowing the government to strong arm the bills through parliament despite raging farmers’ protests across the country.
Both the houses also cleared an ordinance to cut MPs’ salaries by 30% to save funds for pandemic relief. The government had earlier shortlisted 14 bills to be cleared this week, and later gave a list of another 6 bills. So far, 11 out of 20 bills have already been cleared by the lower house while five have been passed in both houses. On Saturday, parliamentary affairs minister Prahlad Joshi listed the three labour codes — on social security, industrial relations and occupation safety — FCRA amendments, J&K Official Languages Bill and The National Commission for Allied and Healthcare Bill for clearance too.
The remaining ones may be passed without long debates on the bills, causing further anxiety in the opposition ranks. It remains to be seen whether all of these will be taken up in the remaining days of the monsoon session.
However some opposition leaders didn’t take the matter lightly. The monsoon session was planned as a 18-day affair with no weekend breaks, but a 10-day session gives the government to take up its own affairs swiftly while delaying issues which the opposition wants to raise, some leaders said, adding that even the budget session was called off in a similar way when a nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 23. The monsoon session itself was deferred by two months before beginning on September 14 to meet the constitutional requirement that a session should start within six months of the previous one.
Congress chief whip K, Suresh said that the monsoon session has allowed only the government matters to be cleared while the opposition parties’ issues were not discussed as much. The Congress has been insisting that the controversial draft Environment Impact Assessment, the New Education Policy and other issues related to taxation and GST compensation to states needs to be discussed urgently. However, with the shortened session, it is highly unlikely that these matters will be taken up anymore.
The Trinamool Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party have still not concurred with other parties to curtail the session. TMC MP Derek O’Brien tweeted to raise his objection, “First, this government calls an 18-day parliament session. After six days, have they realised it’s a hare-brained idea? Now want opposition to find them a solution.”