Covid-19 and governance: End the political lockdown and summon Parliament

Among several compelling reasons for an early summoning Parliament, is the oversight of the stimulus package committed by the government to deal with the pandemic
The long shadow cast by the coronavirus pandemic calls for a national mobilisation across party lines. Effective strategies for recovery cannot be left to the government alone, especially when it is evident that its shambolic policy measures have repeatedly failed to either control the pandemic or redress its consequences.

The government is unwilling to listen to political criticism of the avoidable hardships imposed on the most vulnerable citizens. It has dismissed questions raised by opposition leaders as mere politicking. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman thus accused Congress leader Rahul Gandhi of being a dramebaaz when he interacted with returning migrant workers and bureaucratic machinery blocked his party’s attempt to ferry migrant workers to their homes in UP.

A number of young men and women activists are being arrested under cover of the lockdown. Harsh laws have been invoked against this emerging youth leadership. It is clearly much harder for the government to control criticism from youth outside the political parties. Unlike the mainstream political parties which have romanced soft-Hindutva because of electoral compulsions, these youngsters protesting against citizenship law changes have targeted the core of the government’s majoritarian agenda. However, with street protests closed to them because of the pandemic, they are being arrested at an alarming rate.

The voices of opposition to the government have no institutionalised forum to express themselves. Video press conferences by Opposition leaders and petitions to the Prime Minister by public intellectuals are no substitute for institutionalised constitutional processes. The judiciary flip-flopped on free testing for coronavirus infections and failed to direct the government to act quickly and effectively to prevent mass hunger and impending homelessness among migrant workers. The Chief Justice rationalised the court’s restraint in an interview citing executive control over the 3Ms – money, men and material. The Supreme Court shows where it stands today when it claims that it cannot “supplant the wisdom of the government” on migrant workers or that it “cannot monitor who is walking and who is not walking”.

The government’s policy decisions therefore can only be debated by reviving institutional political spaces like the legislatures. Both Houses of Parliament were pro-rogued prematurely on March 23 and must be immediately revived.

Although the Monsoon session of Parliament is due to be summoned in July, there is no guarantee that the government will do this. Since the Union Budget has already been adopted by Parliament it is not clear what will come of ongoing discussions between the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha on the “feasibility” of holding the Monsoon session. Since the President, has to call a sitting within six months of proroguing Parliament, this technically gives the government time till September 23.

Among several compelling reasons for an early summoning Parliament, is the oversight of the stimulus package committed by the government to deal with the pandemic. The government could well argue that the entire amount is expenditure already accounted for. However, since expenditure would have to be re-allocated, to provide for better health infrastructure for example, Parliament must debate and approve it. Legislators must know if such re-allocation threatens to unbalance the Budget.

Whether the Rs. 21 trillion Atmanirbhar Bharat package can effectively revive the economy and provide relief to the worst affected must also be discussed by Parliament. Experts point out that the stimulus package does not offer immediate relief by absorbing losses due to the economic lockdown. It instead offers credit to stressed sectors which will be able to show results only after a lag of a few years. The Reserve Bank of India has admitted that India’s GDP growth will be in the negative territory in 2020-21 and could get worse since the states that account for 60% of India’s industrial output remain under complete or partial lockdown (red or orange zones). Rating agency ICRA has also sharply revised its growth expectations for India to a 5% contraction from the 1-2% growth forecast earlier.

Parliament must pool its wisdom to discuss employment (and not only dole) for returning migrants, impart new skills if they do not want to return to the cities, and question the regressive changes in labour laws initiated by many states. The disarray in the education sector and its increasing fixation on digital education also cannot go unquestioned as this severely disadvantages children of the poor households.

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There are also a plethora of ordinances that the government promulgated during the lockdown which must be tabled and passed within six months by Parliament. They include the Indian Medicine Central Council (Amendment) Ordinance, Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance to protect healthcare personnel and their property during epidemics, Salaries and Allowances of Ministers (Amendment) Ordinance to reduce the sumptuary allowance by 30%, the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Adaptation of State Laws) Order issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs to insert the domicile clause for reservation of jobs and the Taxation and other Laws (Relaxation of Certain Provisions) Ordinance to extend tax return deadlines and enable tax payers to contribute to PM-CARES Fund.

As a government that swears by digitisation, it should not be difficult to overcome physical distancing requirements for a Parliament session or meetings of Parliamentary Committees. These committees can only question bureaucrats and not the ministers who can only be questioned by Parliament.

The House of Commons in the UK held its first virtual session in the third week of April with MPs asking questions from remote locations; France and Italy are working to reduced schedules and in Germany and Poland legislators attend parliament while maintaining physical distance. Other national parliaments holding virtual sessions include Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Iceland, Indonesia, Maldives, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Ukraine, USA, and Venezuela.

It would be a great disservice to Indian democracy if the peoples’ representatives failed to advise the government during this crisis. In fact, the Monsoon Session of Parliament ought to be brought forward.
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