COVID-19, Cancelled Sessions, Absent Debates Mark the Functioning of Parliament in 2020

Some key Bills were passed even as a pandemic raged. Most of them, including the contentious farm and labour Bills, were passed in the absence of opposition.

Parliament in the year 2020 will be remembered for two distinct features – the way the COVID-19 pandemic led to the reduction of two sessions and the cancellation of the third and the way key legislations were pushed through in both houses without much debate.

In terms of the impact these legislations have had on society at large, it can be said that while rumblings around the three contentious farmer laws are being heard loud and clear, the concerns around three crucial labour laws too are lurking.

Budget session cut short

The parliamentary proceedings this year kicked off with the budget session held from January 31 to March 23, with a recess from February 12 to March 1. Though the session was to have 31 sittings, due to the pandemic, the houses sat only for 23 days before parliament was adjourned sine die on March 23.

Also read: Parliament’s Monsoon Session Starts Amid Slew of Changes Effected by COVID-19 Situation

According to PRS legislative research, during the budget session this year, Lok Sabha spent 39% of its time discussing the budget and 31% of the time on non-legislative business, such as the discussion on the presidential address to the parliament at the beginning of the session. It also spent 15%  of its time discussing Bills, such as the Mineral Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2020, and the Direct Tax Vivad Se Vishwas Bill, 2020.

Nirmala Sitharaman presents the Union Budget 2020-21 in the Lok Sabha, in New Delhi, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. Photo: PTI

On the other hand, the Rajya Sabha spent 45% of its time on non-legislative debates and 19% of the time discussing Bills. As experts point out, much of the budget session was utilised for discussing and debating financial matters, including the Union budget.

Delayed monsoon session

It was the monsoon session that got delayed due to the pandemic and was held amid major changes to follow COVID-19 protocols that gave the fireworks.

It was held from September 14 to September 23 without any break. While it was originally supposed to continue till the end of the month, like the budget session, it was also cut short by eight days in view of the pandemic.

Also read: Monsoon Session Cut Short by Eight Days After Over 20 MPs Test Positive

However, the short session was used by the Centre to push through some key labour and farm reforms. Despite the opposition saying that they have not been given adequate time to go through these reforms, the Centre quickly introduced and passed them in the parliament. Many of the clauses were put to vote when the Opposition members were protesting against those Bills outside the house.

Farm Bills passed in the absence of opposition

Among the three farming sector reform legislations is the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Production and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, which state farmers could trade their produce in “any place of production, collection, aggregation”, allowing for electronic trading and e-commerce of scheduled produce, and prohibits states from imposing any market fee, cess or levy on farmers, traders, and electronic trading platforms in an “outside trade area”.

Also read: RSTV Footage, MPs’ Accounts of Farm Bills Debate Paint Picture of RS Rules Violation

The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 provides a legal framework for farmers to get into pre-arranged contracts with buyers and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 removes several food articles and stockholding limits except under “extraordinary circumstances”.

Ruckus erupts in Rajya Sabha as opposition rushes to Well of the House over farm Bills, during the ongoing monsoon session, at Parliament House, New Delhi. Photo: RSTV/PTI

Though the committee which had been set up in July 2019 to discuss implementation of these laws, was yet to submit its report, the Centre first promulgated three ordinances related to these laws in the first week of June 2020 and then brought these Bills and got them passed in both the houses even as the opposition protested that they were not in the interest of the farmers.

The contention of the opposition as also the farmers, who are now on the streets seeking repeal of these laws, is that these farm laws would ultimately lead to the destruction of the government-run mandis or wholesale agricultural produce marketing committee markets, lead to privatisation of the sector and force the farmers to first sell their produce and then their land holdings to large businesses. Though the claims have been contested by the Centre, the standoff persists.

No debate over changes in the labour laws 

Another set of related laws that were passed during the monsoon session pertained to labour laws. The concerned Bills, with 411 clauses, 13 schedules and comprising 350 pages were accorded just three hours of discussion. They were passed even as much of the opposition had staged a walkout over the farm laws and was protesting outside the houses.

The three laws – Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020, the Industrial Relations Code, 2020, and the Code on Social Security, 2020 – thus came into being without the Centre allaying the fears of the workers’ rights groups who claimed that these Bills were anti-worker as they paved the way for a “hire and fire” policy and restricted the right to strike. It was also claimed that the Bills introduced in the session were significantly different from earlier ones introduced in 2019 and should have therefore been again referred to a standing committee.

In 2019, the Centre had proposed to replace 29 existing labour laws with four Labour Codes on wages, social security, occupational safety and industrial relations. Since the issue of labour came under the concurrent list of the constitution, there were over 100 state and 40 central laws regulating the various aspects to it. The idea behind the move was to improve ease of compliance and ensure uniformity.

Of these four codes, the code on wages dealt with setting a national-level floor wage for all workers and it was subsequently passed while the other three Bills were referred to the standing committee on labour, which later submitted its report on the same. These three Bills were, however, replaced with new Bills by the government on September 19, 2020.

The Centre claimed that 174 out of 233 recommendations, or 74% of all recommendations, of the standing committee on labour had been included and the Bills had been brought after nine tripartite consultations and 10 inter-ministerial consultations during the drafting stage of the codes.

Also read: The Way Farm Bills Passed in Rajya Sabha Shows Decline in Culture of Legislative Scrutiny

But experts pointed out several differences between the 2019 and 2020 Bills. They said whereas the 2019 Bills provided that the Central government will act as the appropriate government for any central public sector unit (PSU), the 2020 Bills add it would remain so even if its holding in that PSU drops to less than 50% after the Bills were passed.

Also, there was a difference in the two Bills in relation to the ‘appropriate government’ for certain industries and on dealing with offences relating to non-payment of proper wages. Furthermore, the new Bills provides size-based applicability of the laws to various organisations.

Experts said while most labour laws apply to establishments with 10 or more employees, certain Labour Codes do not. As such, they took out a large number of organisations from their ambit.

Inherent flaws in the labour codes

The workers’ rights groups thus charged that the news laws would promote a ‘hire and fire’ regime and adversely affect the workers by exempting certain categories of companies from adherence to the laws that safeguard their rights.

Apart from the laws pertaining to labour and farm reforms, several other key Bills were also passed during the monsoon session. These include the Salary, Allowances and Pension of Members of Parliament (Amendment) Bill, 2020 that reduces the salary of MPs by 30% for a period of one year in view of COVID-19; the Insolvency and Bankruptcy (Second) Amendment Bill, 2020 that temporarily suspends initiation of corporate insolvency resolution process under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code for a specified period of six months or up to one year; and the Banking Regulation (Amendment) Bill, 2020 that expands RBI’s regulatory control over co-operative banks.

Also read: Explained: Here’s Why Workers, Opposition Parties Are Protesting Against the 3 New Labour Laws

The Centre also cleared the Taxation and Other Laws (Relaxation of Certain Provisions) Bill, 2020 that provides certain relaxations related to tax compliance to provide for making donations to PM-CARES fund eligible for 100% tax deduction.

Another important legislation passed during the short session was the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 that consolidated 13 laws related to health, safety, and working conditions of workers. Applicable to all mines and docks, it covers all establishments with over 10 workers.

No winter session

The winter session of parliament is generally held in November-December but the Centre cancelled it this year citing COVID-19. In mid-December, Union parliamentary affairs minister, Prahlad Joshi, said the outbreak of pandemic as the primary reason for not having a session.

Also read: No Winter Session Of Parliament, Govt Suggests January 2021 Budget Session

It was stated that several MPs and parliament officials who had attended the monsoon session held over 10 days from September 14 had tested positive for the novel Coronavirus. Besides, three MPs – Anil Gasti, Balli Durga Prasad Rao and H. Vasanthakumar – and Union minister of state for railways Suresh Angadi also died after contracting the virus.

Opposition parties staged a walkout from the Rajya Sabha on September 22, 2020. Photo: RSTV screngrab via PTI

However, the opposition criticised the Centre’s decision and many of the parties claimed it actually did so because it did not want a discussion on the raging protests by farmers against the three farm laws.

Key Bills deferred

Due to the cancellation of the session, several Bills had only been passed in one house and have been pending in the other will now get deferred to the upcoming budget session or even later.

Among these, the Lok Sabha has already passed the Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019; Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2019; Dam Safety Bill, 2019; and Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020; and these all yet to be passed by Rajya Sabha.

Also there are various Bills which are pending in both houses from earlier sessions and these too would get deferred.

These include Bills like the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, 2019; the Anti-Maritime Piracy Bill, 2019, and the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens (Amendment) Bill, 2019.

However, as the budget session usually deals with only financial matters, it remains to be seen if these and other pending Bills will be taken up in the upcoming session or if they would get delayed further.