Covid cloud may end session by Wednesday

Parliament’s monsoon session may end as early as on September 23, eight days ahead of its schedule, after many political parties agreed to cut it short amid a rising number of Covid-19 cases linked to the Parliament House complex.

So far, two Union ministers, 30 MPs and several House officials have tested positive for Covid, posing a serious challenge on the ongoing session schedule despite the health safety makeovers. Both ministers attended some days of the session that started Monday.

At Saturday’s meeting of the Business Advisory Committee (BAC), a panel that decides the weekly agenda of the House, the government’s floor managers said they had no objections to cut short the session but wanted 20 laws — including the ratification of 11 ordinances — to be cleared. It had previously shortlisted 14 bills for the week amid talks of shortening the session at the BAC meeting, and furnished a list of another 6 bills.

So far, nine out of 20 bills have been cleared by the Lok Sabha and 5 have been approved by both Houses. Now, amidst the push to cut short the session, more bills might be cleared without long debates, two Opposition leaders said.

As India faced the first wave of Covid-19 cases, the budget session of Parliament was cut short on March 23. Two days later, a sweeping federal lockdown that eventually lasted 68 days kicked in. As Covid cases kept increasing, particularly in Delhi, the monsoon session was deferred by two months from its usual mid-July start. It finally started from September 14; the Indian Constitution makes it mandatory to start a session within six months of the previous one.

At Saturday’s meeting, 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 passage.

Congress chief whip K Suresh argued that it’s not feasible that only government agenda would be cleared and issues raised by the opposition parties not find any mention. The Congress insisted in the meeting that the environment impact assessment draft that has become controversial, the new national education policy, and issues related to the economy and delays in GST compensation payments to the states be discussed.

A non-Congress Opposition leader said that both sides may come to an adjustment to take up one or two Opposition-sponsored debates. And a few bills may be quickly passed to save time, this person added. While all 20 legislations might not get cleared, all bills replacing ordinances and the labour reform bills are likely to be cleared.

Only two parties, Trinamool Congress and Bahujan Samaj Party have not agreed to the curtailment plan so far. Trinamool’s floor leader Derek O’Brien tweeted, “First, this Govt calls an 18-day Parliament Session. After 6 days have they realised it’s a hare-brained idea? Now want Opposition to find them a solution.”

The monsoon session set an ambitious 18-day schedule with no weekend breaks. Aiming to keep MPs in Delhi for as less time as possible, it was decided to hold the two Houses in shifts, with lawmakers spread across both chambers and galleries to ensure social distancing, and with added protection such as plexiglass partitions in the lower house and a complete ban on visitors. All MPs were also required to take a RT-PCR test ahead of the session. With two ministers and some officials testing positive, they have been recommended to take these tests as many times as they want. Other officials and journalists attending Parliament have to take a rapid antigen test everyday.

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