India adopted the Parliamentary form of government after independence. Primary reasons for choosing the Parliamentary form of government over the Presidential form was to avoid concentration of power in the hands of a single person and in order to provide adequate checks and balances on the elected form of government so that it does not function in an authoritarian manner. In India, the three organs of the State are the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. These organs of the State perform individual duties within their own jurisdiction and also act as checks for the other organs so as to ensure that none overstep their authority. The Executive or the Government of India consists of elected representatives of the people and its primary duty is to enforce laws and to maintain law and order in the State. The Executive is answerable to the Legislature which consists of the President of India, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.
Indian democracy has three major pillars: the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. All the 3 organs work in their respective jurisdictions and simultaneously act as a check on the other organs. During the ongoing pandemic, the Legislature has stopped working and this has left the executive to function without any checks. The policies of the government are free from debates and scrutiny. Worldwide different nations have adopted means like conducting Parliamentary sessions with reduced number of MPs strictly following social distancing norms, working remotely etc. There is a dire need to adopt an alternative way for commencing the working of the Legislature.
The Legislature acts as a much needed check on the actions of the government and ensure accountability of the government by using different means like debating on issues, motions, questioning about details of government policies, voting for and against policies, criticising the government for mistakes etc. However, due to the pandemic, the Parliamentary works have come to a standstill in the present times. The lockdown put in place to control the spread of the virus and the need for maintaining social distance and avoiding gatherings in order to stop the spread of the virus has severely affected the Parliament and its regular mode of working.
Parliamentary Sessions, Constitutional Provisions and Features in India
Parliamentary sessions refer to the time span for which the Houses of the Parliament meet in order to conduct business. A session of the House may also be defined as the time period between the first sitting of the House to its prorogation (it terminates the sitting as well as the ongoing session of the House after business of a session is completed). In India, the Parliament usually has three sessions: the Budget session (from January/February to May), the Monsoon session (from July to August/September) and the Winter session (November to December). The Parliamentary sessions consists of meetings. The presiding officer of the House uses adjournment in order to suspend the work of the House for a specified period of time. Further, the presiding officer may also terminate the sitting of the House for an unspecified period of time which is called as adjournment sine die. However, the President of India has been vested with the power to summon and prorogue the meetings of the Houses. The President of India summons each House of the Parliament from time to time and the presiding officer declares the House adjourned sine die after completion of business of the session following which the President issues a notification for prorogation of the session.
The Constitution of India provides guidelines for duration of Houses of the Parliament and the Sessions of the Parliament, its prorogation and dissolution. As per Article 83 of the Constitution, the Rajya Sabha shall not be subjected to dissolution rather about one-third of its members shall retire after every second year. In case of the Lok Sabha, the House shall continue from its date of first meeting to five years unless it is dissolved earlier. Article 85 of the Constitution states that “the President shall from time to time summon each House of the Parliament to meet at such a time as he thinks fit, but six months shall not intervene between its last sitting in one session and the date appointed for its first sitting in the next session. The President may from time to time prorogue the Houses or either House and dissolve the House of the People.” As per these provisions of the Constitution, the maximum gap between two sessions of the Houses must not exceed 6 months. Article 100 Of the Constitution provides that at least 10% of the total number of members of the House must be present in order to constitute a meeting of either House of the Parliament.
Article 118 of the Constitution allows the Houses of the Parliament to makes rules for regulating the procedure and conduct of its business. The Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business have been laid down to govern the conduct working of both the Houses. These rules also mention that “A sitting of the House is duly constituted when it is presided over by the Speaker or any other member competent to preside over a sitting of the House under the Constitution or these rules”, in case of Lok Sabha and “A sitting of the Council is duly constituted when it is presided over by the Chairman or a member competent to preside over a sifting of the Council under the Constitution or these rules”, in case of the Rajya Sabha. Further, Article 123 empowers the President to promulgate ordinances during the recess of the Houses under circumstances that call for immediate action.
Comparison with Other Countries
The UK Parliament has 5 sessions spread over the 5-year term of a government. Though there is no fixed length for a session, each session usually starts from spring season of a year and ends in spring season of the next year and it has number of recesses in between usually including the Christmas, Easter and summer breaks. The House length for both the Houses varies slightly. The House of Commons is presided over by the Speaker of the House and the House of Lords is presided over by the Lord Speaker. The monarch opens and prorogues the session of the Parliament with a speech prepared by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
The Parliament of Japan consists of the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors. As per Japan’s Constitution in the bicameral legislature known as the National Diet, at least one session must be convened each year. The Emperor officially reads a speech and opens the session and also prorogues the session. The National Diet usually has 4 types of sessions: First, the regular annual sessions of the National Diet those generally are called during January and is for 150 days and the session may be extended once. Second, the extraordinary session of the National Diet those are called during autumn or summer after completion of regular election of the House of Councillors or after completion of general election of the House of Representatives. The length is decided by both the Houses and it may be extended twice. Third, special sessions of the National Diet which are called only when the House of Representatives has been dissolved and an early general election had to be conducted. Fourth, is the HCES which are called in cases of emergency arising at times when the House of Representatives is dissolved.
The Parliament of Canada has two Houses: the Senate, and the House of Commons. The Parliamentary sessions are officially started and prorogued with a speech from the Throne. The number of sessions in the Parliament is not fixed and even the length of each session is not fixed. A calendar issued by the House of Commons sets out a schedule of adjournments thereby setting out the time period for sitting throughout the year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the normal working of Parliaments all over the world. In such a scenario, different nations have adopted different methods to continue the works of the Parliament. The British Parliament adopted a mixed model including in-person and video attendance. In April 2020, the UK House of Commons met virtually with about 120 MPs joining the meeting through Zoom software and about 50 attending the meeting in the House chamber only having strictly adhered to social distancing norms. The European Parliament also held a trial during March by means of e-mail voting. Brazil has passed a resolution to allow the Parliament to work by using means like video conferencing and other virtual management tools. The functions like amendments, the results of each voting round, speeches etc and each session has to be registered by MPs. Remote sessions are also being conducted that are telecasted live for public. Canada organised meeting of 280 MPs through video conferencing during April. The MPs attended the meeting and were involved in questioning the government regarding varies policies adopted by it during the pandemic.
French Parliament has resumed work and the Senate has commenced work with reduced members following the social distancing norms and reduced sittings of the Parliament. Also, the National Assembly of France has been working with meeting being conducted remotely. In Germany, the Bundestag has been conducting meetings with reduced members and a restricted programme for addressing only essential debates. The Italian Parliament has restricted its working to include only absolutely urgent matters that need debate and discussion that are being conducted in large conference rooms so that social distancing norms can be followed and time has also been provided between meetings in order to sanitise the rooms. New Zealand Parliament has made arrangements for conducting work remotely as much as possible and also meetings in-person are to be attended by limited number of MPs for short durations only.
Non-Functioning Indian Parliament During the Crisis and Its Impact
The Parliament of India was supposed to run till April 3, 2020 but the budget session was cut short after curtains fell on both the Houses on March 23 due to the lockdown put in place to control the COVID-19 spread. Since then the Parliament has not resumed its working. Other nations suspended their Parliament session only after the cases of virus peaked but Indian Parliament took a premature step by shutting itself down since March 23. Even the State Assemblies followed suit and shut themselves down. The usual meeting of MPs or MLAs for sessions in the respective chambers is a mere practise and not a legal obligation. Further, even though none of the provisions of the Constitution bars the MPs from meeting in places other than the chambers and there are no such restrictions on conducting the Parliamentary session on virtual media, yet India has not taken any step in the direction of adopting alternate means for calling the session of the Parliament. A virtual meeting of the Joint Committee on Salaries and Allowances of MPs took place during April and opposition parties had called for organising virtual meetings of other standing committees but the opposition has remained silent on the matter of resuming the session of the Parliament.
The primary functions of the opposition in the legislature include challenging the government policies, demanding explanations for its actions and drawing the government’s attention to matters of local and national importance. However due to the non-functioning of the Parliament, this duty of the opposition has not been fulfilled. During the ongoing major crisis, two of the pillars of the State i.e. the Legislature and the Judiciary have not been functioning properly. In fact, the Legislature has stopped functioning completely. This has given a free hand to the executive to function without the much-needed checks. The executive is solely taking all the decisions for the Parliament without any opposition or need to explain its actions. The results of the executive functioning without any checks have been seen in the plight of the poor people and migrant workers ( swaths of jobless migrant workers and poor people started migrating towards their hometown after a sudden lockdown was declared by the government with only about 4 hours to prepare for it, ill treatment of migrants, harassment by the police etc), further loss of jobs, damage to the economy, avoidable deaths, inadequate medical facilities, social exclusion of certain sections like the minority Muslims, ensuing chaos and rapid spread of the virus etc have remained unchecked.
The Legislature is one of the major pillars of Indian democracy. It functions as a major check to the unaccountable and faulty actions of the executive. During the ongoing crisis, the Parliament has stopped functioning as a result the executive has become the sole body to form and execute laws and that has led to catastrophic consequences. The Constitution of India does not bar the meetings of the Parliament on virtual platform or by maintaining social distancing norms, but Indian Parliament has not been keen on resuming its working. In case of virtual meeting the issue of security and secrecy may arise, but India is well equipped to harness its technological power without compromising on the privacy and security issues. Different nations all over the world have adopted means like conducting Parliamentary meeting in person with reduced number of members or over the virtual media by means of video conferencing or a combination of both. India needs to take a cue from these nations and needs to adopt its own alternative way to conduct the Parliamentary sessions without violating the social distancing norms. Non-functioning of Legislature during a crisis period as the one ongoing is neither advisable nor acceptable as it will have grave consequences on the people, the democracy and the overall growth and prosperity of the nation.