New Delhi: It is unlikely that all the MPs will be able to attend parliamentary proceedings at once if social distancing guidelines are observed. This was the broad conclusion of a meeting Tuesday, chaired by Rajya Sabha Chairman M. Venkaiah Naidu and Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, where the two assessed the options available for convening the monsoon session of Parliament amid the Covid-19 pandemic, parliamentary sources told ThePrint.
The meeting, sources said, involved discussions on multiple alternatives to carry out parliamentary proceedings. However, the prospect of a wholly online session — a la UK — was completely ruled out over technical constraints and reservations expressed by several members, the sources added.
India has 543 Lok Sabha MPs and 245 members in the Rajya Sabha. At normal times, MPs, especially those of the Lok Sabha, sit packed in the benches, an arrangement that goes against the social-distancing requirements warranted by Covid-19, a highly infectious disease.
However, the current seating areas of the two houses have been deemed inadequate to accommodate all MPs while complying with the social distancing guidelines.
One of the alternatives discussed was allowing as many MPs as possible in the conventional seating areas of the two houses, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, while accommodating some others in the gallery area overseeing it. The latter is usually earmarked for the media and relatives.
The remaining MPs, it was suggested, could tune in online if they are comfortable with the medium.
A Lok Sabha official said Naidu and Birla will hold further discussions with parliamentary officials this week to finalise the best option to holding the monsoon session in keeping with the rules of business of both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.
The alternatives ruled out
One of the sources said that the offices of the secretary generals of the two houses had assessed the seating capacity of the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha, and the Central Hall of Parliament, as well as that of the plenary hall of the Vigyan Bhavan, located two kilometres away.
The details of this assessment, the source added, was presented at the meeting.
The recce came amid discussions about the Central Hall and the Vigyan Bhavan plenary hall as potential alternative locations for the Lok Sabha. There was also a suggestion, sources said, that the Rajya Sabha proceedings may be moved to the Lok Sabha, which is larger. But the assessment, the source said, put paid to the idea.
According to the assessment, the source added, while the Central Hall and the Lok Sabha can accommodate a little over 100 MPs in compliance with social distancing protocols, the Rajya Sabha can accommodate about 60.
“The total seating capacity even in the galleries is not enough to accomodate all the members,” a second source said.
Besides the space constraints, the sources added, parliamentary officials also informed Naidu and Birla that the absence of air conditioning in the Central Hall may prove an inconvenience, as could arranging simultaneous interpretation of speeches in different languages.
Meanwhile, questions also remain on how legislative business, which requires voting, will be conducted. According to sources, Naidu and Birla directed officials at Tuesday’s meeting to look into this aspect.
“Because these are exceptional circumstances, we expect members of both the houses to cooperate and avoid precipitating matters by taking up legislative business that requires division or voting,” said one of the sources. “We are trying to find a way to hold the session because of demands from most MPs to discuss the situation arising out of the Covid-19 outbreak.”
Virtual session unlikely
A section of parliamentarians had earlier suggested holding virtual sessions, as was done in the UK, but parliamentary sources said it does not look likely.
The National Informatics Centre (NIC), the facilitator and backbone of the government’s IT operations, is said to have informed parliamentary officials that they do not have the capacity to allow 500 members to participate in an online session at once.
“The NIC has said they have limited capacity that will not allow virtual participation of so many members,” one of the aforementioned sources said. “Only limited numbers can participate at a time.”
Many of the members have also informed parliamentary officials that they are uncomfortable attending virtual sessions, the source added. A virtual parliamentary session was also ruled out at Tuesday’s meeting, the source said, after officials pointed out that it will require changing of rules. “Any change of rules will require a motion to be carried in both houses of Parliament,” the source added.
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