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Covid-19 and Parliament: Virtual Reality

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Demands to hold Parliamentary Committee meetings via video-conferencing have been rejected, citing confidentiality. Can we have a hybrid model where witnesses are examined and the report discussed physically?

By Vivek K Agnihotri

In the context of a large number of official meetings in public as well as private sector organisations being held through video-conferencing on account of Covid-19 restrictions and precautions, there has been a demand from the chairmen of certain Parliamentary Committees to permit them to hold their meetings virtually. However, it has been reported that the government has refused to allow this, citing confidentiality norms. 

The latest demand came from Congress leader and chairman of the Standing Committee on Science and Technology Jairam Ramesh on July 7, 2020. The Committee met physically on July 10. Apart from Ramesh, three other chairpersons of department-related Standing Committees, namely, Shashi Tharoor (Information Technology), Anand Sharma (Home Affairs) and B Mahtab (Labour), had made similar requests earlier, but to no avail. Suggestions for virtual sittings of the two Houses of Parliament too have not found favour so far.

Committees are the backbone of the parliamentary system of democracy. A great deal of business of Parliament gets transacted through them. Even when the proceedings of the two Houses of Parliament get disrupted from time to time, the meetings of the Committees proceed uninterrupted. The output of many of them feeds into the business of Parliament and, occasionally, makes the outcome of the proceedings of both Houses on the subject a foregone conclusion.

parliamentary system

The Committees are constituted to deal with specific issues either on a regular basis (Standing Committees) or to make recommendations on a particular matter of urgent public interest or importance (Ad hoc Committees). In the Indian Parliament, a large number of Parliamentary Committees have come to be constituted over time. In addition to the 24 department-related Standing Committees, comprising members of the two Houses, there are independent Committees of the two Houses to deal with specific matters of their internal business. There are also significant Financial Committees (Public Accounts Committee, Estimates Committee and Committee on Public Undertakings). There are also Joint Committees of the two Houses on specific subjects (Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Empowerment of Women, Railway Convention and Salary and Allowances of Members). 

Important among Ad Hoc Committees are Select Committees on Bills, Committees on Provision of Computers and Member of Parliament Local Area Development, Parliamentary Forums and Groups, among others. Further, the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs has constituted 37 Consultative Committees for various ministries and departments, chaired by the concerned ministers.

The “confidentiality” norm being cited to deny permission for conducting virtual meetings of Standing Committees is based on the sound logic of yore and relates to the decision of the two Houses with regard to televising the proceedings of their Committees. Time and again it has been held that opening up the proceedings of Parliamentary Committees to the public would not be in the interest of their functioning. Under the existing system, deliberations are held within closed doors and, therefore, members participate and contribute openly, cutting across party lines. The Committees thus function in a cordial and congenial atmosphere and, since no formal whip is issued, the members express their considered views freely and frankly on the matters under consideration, be it a Bill or a policy matter. This arrangement enables Committees to arrive at a consensus on sensitive issues. On account of the confidentiality of the proceedings, the witnesses too, particularly the civil servants, feel free to present their frank opinion. If the proceedings of the Committees are thrown open, it is felt, the members would be compelled to take their stand along party lines and the officers would present only the official point of view.

Hamid Ansari, former Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, who was party to a decision about confidentiality of the proceedings of the Parliamentary Committees in 2008 in the Upper House, spoke on July 12 to a newspaper in favour of the need to permit use of new technology. “The British Parliament is just one of the parliaments around the world which has been meeting regularly via video-conferencing,” he said. “There is no point in saying that what happened 12 years back is relevant today. Under present circumstances and compulsions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, there is no option but to use the virtual medium,” he added.

Hamid Ansari, former Chairman of the Rajya Sabha
Hamid Ansari

The issue here is, of course, not opening up the proceedings of Parliament to the public. On December 20, 1989, for the first time, the Address by the President to members of both Houses was telecast by Doordarshan. The presentations of the Railway Budget and the General Budget were first telecast live on February 25 and 29, 1992, respectively. On December 14, 1994, the vice-president of India and the Speaker, Lok Sabha, launched two separate satellite channels for telecasting the live proceedings of the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha. On July 24, 2006, with the commencement of the Monsoon Session, Lok Sabha Television, independent of Doordarshan, began continuous 24-hour broadcast, including live telecast of all its proceedings. Rajya Sabha Television followed suit on December 18, 2011.

The issue is also not of opening up the proceedings of the Committees to the public. The demand is for conducting the proceedings through video-conferencing. The official concern appears to be that if it is permitted, the proceedings may be leaked to the public. Encryption and network security are key  to protecting data transmission during a video-conference. The level of encryption depends on the sensitivity of the data. For most non-military organisations, the built-in encryption that comes with the video-conferencing product or service is sufficient. However, if confidentiality is crucial, video-conferencing may not be the best option. No conferencing service can guarantee the security of information; alternatives need to be considered if the topic is particularly sensitive. The crux of the matter, therefore, is whether MPs and the officials will feel comfortable and secure in expressing their opinions in the vi­deo-conferencing mode.

Again, this is a matter to be decided by Parliament and not the government. At present, the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the two Houses do not make any provision for holding virtual sittings of the Parliament or its Committees. Amending the Rules would require the recommendation of their respective Committees on Rules and also perhaps their General Purposes Committees, before the matter is placed before the two Houses for final approval. The fact that a few days after a physical meeting of the Public Accounts Committee was held on July 10, an officer of the Lok Sabha Secretariat tested positive for Covid-19 underscores the urgency of the matter. One way out is to hold routine meetings virtually; but those in which witnesses are examined and the report is discussed may require the physical presence of the members.

Read Also: No lockdown exemption for Eid-ul-Adha, rules Allahabad HC

Alternative scenarios for starting the Monsoon Session in the physical mode are being developed. The two Houses may meet on alternate days or while one House sits in the forenoon, the other meets in the afternoon, and so on. Amidst these speculations, in the context of Hamid Ansari’s reference to the sittings of the British parliament via video-conferencing, one ponders whether the Indian parliament would consider at least a hybrid model in which apart from MPs present in the socially distanced mode in the House, those opting out are allowed to sign in virtually. Will it augment reality?

—The writer was Secretary, Parliamentary Affairs from 2003-2005 and Secretary General of Rajya Sabha from 2007-2012

Lead picture: PIB

Lead caption: Vice-President and Chairman, Rajya Sabha, M Venkaiah Naidu at a meeting with the chairmen, Standing Committees, Rajya Sabha

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