Time for Parliament to meet, virtually – analysis
With coronavirus disease (Covid-19) upon us, there are bound to be changes in the way we get involved to get things done. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is holding cabinet meetings and interacting with political leaders through videoconferences. Last month, 82 congressional leaders discussed the party’s response to Covid-19 in a video call. The Supreme Court is using video conferences to hear cases. Government conferences are moving online.
Parliament has been interrupted and the Budget session was interrupted for eight days, delaying the debate on key bills. Many state legislatures like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala reduced their sessions. Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh issued ordinances to allow them to spend money in the new financial year.
This is where technology-focused solutions can ensure continuity of work in legislative institutions. Parliament has been agile in its adoption of technology throughout its history in three key areas.
First, to train Members of Parliament (MP) to work more efficiently, as early as 1954, a teleprinter was installed in the lobby of the Lok Sabha to allow parliamentarians to keep up to date with major developments. Parliamentarians can now access wireless Internet on their phones and tablets inside the Houses. Gone are the days when parliamentarians or their staff had to visit Parliament House to present notices of their interventions. Now, there is a dedicated portal where you can electronically file your questions, zero-hour submissions, and other notices to participate in discussions.
Secondly, there has been a rapid adoption of technology in the two parliamentary secretariats. They started using computers for their work in the mid-1980s. An example of their digital prowess is the daily uncorrected debate: a transcript of the proceedings in the Chambers is uploaded online the same day the debate takes place.
Making Parliament an open and transparent institution is the third area where the institution has taken advantage of technology. The Houses proceedings are broadcast on dedicated television channels and are also broadcast online. Parliamentary websites keep records of all their work, and the two secretariats have also digitized the parliamentary debate since 1858, making them freely available to the public.
The pandemic challenges the institution’s ability to physically meet and debate issues of national importance. There are two occasions when parliamentarians have to meet in person. One, when they meet together to constitute a session of the House. This situation will emerge in July when parliamentarians meet for Parliament’s monsoon session. Parliaments around the world are preparing to ensure that some parts of their procedures can be carried out online. For example, the Scottish Parliament recently held Question Time practically for the first time. Meanwhile, in London, 100 MPs signed a letter calling for the creation of a virtual parliament. In response, the Speaker of the House of Commons has urged the government to ensure that part of parliamentary procedures can be carried out virtually before the house resumes next week. The second time that parliamentarians meet in person is during parliamentary committee meetings. These committees are small subgroups of parliamentarians who meet outside the House to deliberate on issues. Committees play a critical role as they are tasked with thoroughly examining government bills. Currently, there are six bills that are being examined by different committees.
There are international examples that our Parliament could examine to restart the operation of the commissions. For example, the House of Commons has successfully completed a trial to carry out its committee procedures digitally. His treasury committee recently heard witnesses in a video conference on the topic of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. In New Zealand, the Outbreak Response Committee, led by the opposition leader, has been operating by videoconference to assess the government’s response to Covid-19. The committee’s proceedings are broadcast on social media and on Parliament’s website. The Australian Parliament also has a provision in its rules of procedure to allow audio and video links to be used for committee procedures.
The operation of legislatures in India and around the world is marked by ceremony and rigid operating rules. But they also have an advantage. They can regulate how it works, allowing them to make institutional changes quickly. Working remotely is the new normal, and having Parliament adapt to it is a must.
This interruption by the pandemic is an opportunity for our Parliament. You should evaluate what aspects of its operation are likely to be done online. The virtual functioning of parliament in other countries underscores a key principle. Parliament is a publicly trusted institution and needs to continue its scrutiny of government actions, especially in times of crisis.
Chakshu Roy is Head of Legislative and Civic Engagement, PRS Legislative, Abhijit Banare is a Chevening Academician at Cambridge University
The opinions expressed are personal.