On Monday, Rajya Sabha Chairman Venkaiah Naidu told a meeting of Rajya Sabha secretariat officials that a decision on whether to hold parliamentary standing committees’ meetings would be taken after the third phase of the nationwide lockdown comes to an end on May 17.

With meetings suspended because of the nationwide lockdown imposed on March 25 to contain the spread of Covid-19, several Congress MPs had asked for them to be held via video conferencing.

On April 20, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor had tweeted that Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla had permitted holding the conference virtually. However, this did not happen because the amended rules were not approved.

With the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha quoting business rules to state that video conferencing cannot be allowed as it could violate the confidentiality of the proceedings, the Congress has accused the Narendra Modi government of avoiding parliamentary scrutiny of executive action.

However, opinion seems to be divided among members of other parties on holding virtual meetings during the lockdown.

Standing Committees

In any constitutional democracy, there are two important functions of the Parliament. The first is law making. In India, elected representatives debate and vote on laws in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. This is considered the primary responsibility of the members.

An equally important function of Parliament is to act as a check on the executive. The Constitution says that the executive is answerable to Parliament, where its actions are scrutinised by the representatives to ensure potential excesses are challenged.

For this reason, parliamentary panels are composed of members from across political parties. They have the right to call for records and witnesses and prepare reports that are then placed before Parliament for necessary action.

There are several parliamentary standing committees in both houses of Parliament related to specific departments. The different ministries are divided among these panels.

For example, the Rajya Sabha rules state that the committees can consider demands for grants by ministries, scrutinise Bills referred to it by the house, consider the ministries’ annual reports and consider long-term policy documents referred to them.

Some of the important Bills currently under scrutiny of standing committees include those on data protection, surrogacy and DNA technology regulation and the Industrial Relations Code, 2019.

Unlike on the floor of the two houses where members are expected to toe the line of their parties, parliamentary panels provide the members certain degree of independence. In the panels, the idea is to investigate the actions of the government.

Lockdown and committees

But ever since the lockdown was imposed, the meetings of the committees have been suspended. Congress MPs Tharoor, a member of the committee on information technology, and Anand Sharma, who heads the committee on home affairs, had sought for virtual meetings. But no decision has yet been taken either by the Lok Sabha speaker or the Rajya Sabha chairman on allowing meetings over video conferencing.

Rule 267 of the Lok Sabha states that committee meetings have to be held in the Parliament building. However, the Speaker has the powers to change the venue.

However, it is Rule 266, which mandates that all committee meetings have to be held in private, that has become a roadblock for videoconferencing. This is essentially to protect the confidentiality of the information shared by the government in the meetings. The argument is that it may be difficult to protect confidentiality in virtual meetings, when members function from different places. Officials have also cited the inherent problems with technology that could facilitate breaches.

Chakshu Roy, head of legislative and civic engagement at PRS Legislative Research, said parliamentary panels regularly undertake study tours to different parts of the country. “The Speaker and the Chairman are given full discretion under the rules when it comes to running the houses,” he said. These powers mean rules can be suspended under certain circumstances.

Roy said that in many countries, parliamentary panels hold hearings in the open. He gave the example of the US Congress members grilling Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg last year when concerns over privacy and political manipulation using social media platforms emerged.

Further, he said Parliament has been open to the idea of discussing how the functioning of the committees could change. “In the last Parliament, a subcommittee of the PAC [public accounts committee] was mulling whether committee meeting could be opened up to the media,” Roy said. “The institution of Parliament has to continuously evolve to not only keep a check on the increasing canvas of government functioning, but to also stay relevant as a governance institution.”

MPs cautious

While the Congress has taken the lead in demanding virtual meetings of the committees, MPs of other political parties Scroll.in spoke to were cautious.

Telangana Rashtra Samithi Rajya Sabha member K Keshava Rao said there are several challenges in virtual meetings. “These committees have over 30 members,” he said.”I am not sure if it would be smooth.”

Rao added that considering Bills was not an easy work and requires time and research. “Plus many MPs are in their constituencies attending to people’s needs during the lockdown,” he said.

Janata Dal (Secular) MP Kupendra Reddy said given the nature of discussions, videoconferencing with 30 to 40 members could be chaotic. “I am not against virtual meeting but it has to be planned perfectly,” he added.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Rajya Sabha MP P Wilson said that if rules allow for videoconferencing, technology should be used to ensure proper functioning of the committees. “Even the meeting between the Prime Minister and chief ministers happened virtually,” he pointed out.

Wilson added that even the Supreme Court and High Courts were now using videoconferencing for their proceedings.

Scroll.in emailed the Rajya Sabha Secretary General and the Lok Sabha Speaker asking about the challenges of holding meetings through video conferencing.