India has been largely, but needlessly, preoccupied this week with debating whether to hold university and college examinations in the face of the coronavirus pandemic or not. Apart from the practical difficulties in conducting the examinations, there are more pressing priorities at this stage of the pandemic in the country. The contagion is spreading and lives and livelihoods of people, particularly the most vulnerable populations, have to be saved, whatever it takes.
The examinations can wait. Students in exit classes waiting for the award of degrees and diplomas can be evaluated based on their previous performance. Students of intermediate classes can be admitted to the next class and exams, if needed, can be held as and when the situation permits. The main concern in this imbroglio is the requirement of degrees and diplomas for jobs and further studies. If jobs could be, for once, delinked from degrees and diplomas and instead based on skill and merit, examinations will be rendered redundant.
Some academicians have suggested online examinations. But, it is anybody’s guess how many students have access to reliable technology. The importance of digital education is realised more now than ever before; however, will it not widen the already persistent digital divide in our class and caste-ridden society?
And while education, examinations and learning are important, right now India is facing some serious legal and constitutional predicaments, which need to be addressed urgently.
First, justice delivery has almost come to a complete halt. The virtual non-functioning of courts around the country is an unprecedented situation. It has a direct impact on the basic rights of citizens. Digital courts, wherever functioning, may not ensure justice for the most oppressed and denial of entitlements to the poor threatens to become chronic. The rules of judicial business need to change in favour of the poor and oppressed. And the digital divide persists there as well.
The working of other constitutional institutions such as the human rights commissions, Scheduled Caste commissions, women commissions too has been impacted. This also impinges upon rights and entitlements of citizens.
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All eyes on this account are now on the Supreme Court. The top court prides itself in being occupied by some of the best judicial and legal brains in India. A solution beyond virtual hearings has to be found.
Shut Parliament and legislative assemblies
Second, since the onset of the contagion in March, no legislative business has been transacted in Parliament and state assemblies. It is also not certain whether these bodies will be able to hold their sittings in the near future. The Constitution requires that these bodies meet at least once in six months, though there are different rules of business for different states.
If the coronavirus pandemic refuses to recede, which seems likely, we will have to find a way to conduct the business of these legislative bodies. Innovative, digital, physical or distance modes of organising legislative sessions will have to be established within the framework of our Constitution.
Democracy on hold
Third, the pandemic has dramatically impacted democratic processes. An uneasy calm prevails among politicians because they are restricted in their outreach to constituents. Their legitimate democratic functions and even rights are curtailed due to the lurking fear of the virus. Political and social gatherings are either banned or restricted; as a result, free-wheeling political activities have stopped. In a diverse and aspirational society like ours, such activities only help in strengthening the roots of democracy.
However, the most perilous aspect of this situation is that the government may not be able to conduct timely elections to Parliament and state assemblies. Although the Election Commission has announced Bihar assembly election will be carried out as scheduled. But even elections to the Panchayati Raj institutions and urban local bodies may prove difficult to conduct. Other statutory elections such as those for cooperative societies and committees are also being adversely affected.
For Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and the state legislative assemblies, elections cannot be deferred beyond six months. Elections to Parliament and state legislatures have never been delayed except in the case of an internal emergency in 1975. The current pandemic is a health emergency not foreseen even in the otherwise very elaborate Constitution of India. Either we brave the threat to the lives of people due to the pandemic or change constitutional provisions to seek time for elections.
On a lesser scale, the government may also face difficulties with emergency legislation, which the Constitution allows through the promulgation of ordinances. The Union government and the state governments have issued several ordinances to contain and manage Covid-19. These ordinances have to be passed by the legislatures to convert them into laws within six months or 45 days of the convening of the legislatures, whichever is earlier. If legislatures are not able to do so, these can be reissued or allowed to lapse; which is a choice with the executive.
The coronavirus pandemic has seriously affected the rights of people, justice delivery, democratic processes and structures. It has badly impaired the functioning of India’s executive, legislatures, and judiciary. Even with a written Constitution, there are no obvious choices or solutions. Innovative preparedness is required to deal with the crisis. Stark and bold constitutional, legislative reforms and changes may be required. The sooner we start to work in this direction, the better, else a constitutional logjam may be unavoidable.
The author is the Chief Principal Secretary to CM, Punjab. He is a retired IAS officer with core experience in policy, planning and implementation. He is an elected International Policy Fellow of Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP), Cambridge University, UK. Views are personal.
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