The 18-day monsoon session, which starts today, will test the robustness of India’s parliamentary system. The government wants to get the legislature to sign off on 40 bills during the session. Its legislative agenda will put pressure on Parliament to pass several bills every day. And with the two Houses meeting in shifts, there will be limited time for discussions. The Lok Sabha can sit late into the evening. But the Rajya Sabha Members of Parliament (MPs) will have to finish their deliberations by lunch to make room for the Lok Sabha.
There are no weekend breaks during the session, so the presiding officers, MPs and parliamentary staff are in for a physically gruelling time. MPs will also face the challenge of debating while being seated with their masks on. On the positive side, the session may see fewer disruptions with MPs spread across Parliament. On the other, discussions on audio and video links may reduce the liveliness of the proceedings.
The session will begin on a sombre note. MPs will pay their tributes to former President, Pranab Mukherjee, who served five terms in the Rajya Sabha and was elected twice to the Lok Sabha. During his long parliamentary innings, he served as leader of both Houses and chaired several key committees. There will be a moment of silence in memory of three sitting Rajya Sabha MPs and one Lok Sabha MP H Vasanthakumar, who succumbed to Covid-19 last month. His last parliamentary intervention was to declare Covid-19 a national disaster.
Parliamentary attention will then shift to the business at hand. In the Rajya Sabha, one of the first orders of business will be the election of the Deputy Chairman. The position fell vacant after Shri Harivansh completed his term as MP earlier this year. He is now back in the Rajya Sabha.
The opposition is fielding Rashtriya Janta Dal MP Prof Manoj Kumar Jha against him. While Shri Harivansh is expected to win easily due to depleted opposition numbers, the election will be an early test of opposition coordination in the session.
In the Lok Sabha, the constitutional position of the Deputy Speaker has been vacant since last year, the longest in the history of Parliament. Opposition parties are demanding an election be held for this position.
Since there is no Question Hour and a curtailed Zero Hour, Parliament’s focus will be on law-making. Government plans to pass 11 ordinances and 12 new bills. The presiding officers of the two Houses will have to decide on which bills to take up for debate and which should be examined by a parliamentary committee.
The legislative focus will be on four broad areas: Agriculture, labour, health and finance.
Four agriculture-related bills will up for discussion during the session. Two of these are ordinances that create a framework for contract farming and a politically-contentious one which allows farmers to sell their produce outside of mandis. Another one is restricting the use of stock limits on farm produce to periods of sharp price rise. And the last one is regulating pesticide usage. Then there are three labour-related bills which were being scrutinised by a parliamentary committee. These bills are about the health and safety of workers, their social security and relations between them and their employers. The committee has submitted its report on these bills, clearing the way for their discussion in Parliament.
In the health sector, first, there is an ordinance which provides punishment for harming health care workers who are performing their duties during the pandemic. Then there is a bill which prohibits commercial surrogacy that was passed by the Lok Sabha last year. A select committee of the Rajya Sabha gave its recommendations on this legal measure, and it will again come up for discussion before the Upper House. The government is also planning to get parliamentary approval for a bill regulating assisted reproductive technology. Another legislative proposal on the Rajya Sabha’s list is about extending the time limit for terminating pregnancies. During the inter-session period, the government promulgated three ordinances related to finance. The first one extends the time limit for compliances under taxation and other laws. The second provides companies protection from bankruptcy proceedings. And the third brings the management, audit and winding up of co-operative banks under the control of Reserve Bank of India. The government will also be discussing its additional budgetary requirements during the session.
While legislative business will be a priority, other items on the agenda for Parliament will be to discuss the government’s handling of Covid-19, the border dispute with China, the plight of migrant labour and the country’s economic situation. The cyclone in Odisha and West Bengal and the floods in different parts of the country are other issues that may come up.
The number of bills passed in the session will not be the only measure of its success. The spirit in which the government engages in the parliamentary debate will also be reflective of it.
Will it only be defensive of its actions or be open to suggestions and criticism? Will the Opposition play the role of an alternative executive by recommending better ideas, or merely be adversarial? And finally, Parliament’s rigour in scrutinising the government’s legislative proposals will determine the strength of India’s parliamentary system.
Chakshu Roy is the head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research
The views expressed are personal