For nearly five months, in the midst of a pandemic that has claimed more than 50,000 lives in India, the Parliament and state assemblies have not been in session. Policies have been framed and decisions made by the Cabinet without parliamentary debates, discussions or legislative scrutiny that define the country’s democracy.

To highlight this absence of checks and balances, several civil rights organisations across the country have organised a “Janta Parliament” – a series of virtual discussions on policy measures addressing problems triggered by Covid-19 and the lockdown.

Hosted by Jan Sarokar, a collective of civil rights campaigns, Janta Parliament meetings began on August 16 and will continue till August 21, with more than 200 speakers discussing the fallout of Covid-related policies in 10 different sectors. These include health, the economy, agriculture, food security, education, environment, labour, vulnerable communities and civil liberties.

Each session is attended by select members of Parliament and state assemblies. The discussions are streamed live on multiple platforms, including Jan Sarokar and the social media pages of various campaign organisations.

In the sessions, grassroots activists and citizens’ representatives highlight the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown in their respective districts and propose a set of demands from the government, which all speakers and session participants then vote on. Each session has a small group of parliamentarians

“The Parliament should have convened during these Covid times but it did not,” said Nancy Pathak, a member of Jan Sarokar’s secretariat. “One of our objectives was to show the government that if we ordinary people, with less resources, can convene like this, surely they can too.”

Aruna Roy, Justice AP Shah, Jignesh Mevani, Soni Sori and Syeda Hameed speaking in the inaugural session of the Janta Parliament.

In his speech during the inaugural session of the Janta Parliament on Sunday, Justice AP Shah, a former chief justice of the Delhi High Court, pointed out that the Parliament was always intended to function as a body that keeps the executive in check. “It exercises this form of accountability on behalf of the people it represents. Tools and instruments such as questions and debates are used for this purpose,” he said.

“But what happens when Parliament itself stops working?” Shah added. “Besides failing to provide leadership to the people in a time of crisis, like the pandemic, it compounds the problem of representation and accountability by granting the executive a free rein to do as it pleases.”

Adivasi rights activist Soni Sori, who also spoke at the inaugural session, highlighted the key role of opposition parties in this process. “If the Parliament is not allowed to have sessions and the Opposition is not allowed to criticise or raise questions, what will happen to the country?” she said.

Lack of food security

A Janta Parliament session on Monday focused on one of the biggest fallouts of the lockdown – hunger and food insecurity among millions of vulnerable Indians because of mismanagement of the public distribution system.

The session was led by the Right to Food Campaign, with speakers from several states highlighting the same problems: inadequate ration distribution to people who needed food the most. In May, for instance, the Centre announced that migrant workers without ration cards would be entitled to 5 kg of grains under the Atmanirbhar Bharat economic package.

“But in most of our villages in Chhattisgarh, the government order reached only on paper – the grains did not reach,” said Gangaram Paikra, the all-India convener of the Right to Food Campaign, based in Chhattisgarh. “Panchayats were told to distribute rice to people, but panchayats themselves were not provided with the rice. The government is not fulfilling its responsibilities.”

In Karnataka’s Belgavi district, Right to Food activist Sharada Gopal pointed out that the state government had offered 5 kg of rice to ration card holders in April itself, but did not begin providing the rice to people till May. Even then, she said, grains were given only after ration card holders were verified through a one-time password system that excluded many people who did not have access to functional mobile phones. “After people protested, the state government had issued an order to remove the OTP system, but many ration shops are still using it,” said Gopal.

The key demand from participants of the food security session was that food distribution should be universalised – a long-standing demand from food rights activists that has not been accepted by any government so far.

The Janta Parliament session on food security and nutrition.

No Parliamentary oversight

In a Janta Parliament session on health, led by the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan group on Sunday, demands were made to universalise the right to good quality healthcare and increase public investment on healthcare to at least 3.5% of the GDP.

The session also focused on the need to ensure the safety of health workers fighting Covid-19 and to regularise the employment of contractual frontline health workers – the women who serve as ASHAs, auxiliary nurses and anganwadi workers – who have only been regarded as honorary workers so far.

The Janta Parliament session on health.

At the inaugural Janta Parliament session on Sunday, social activist Aruna Roy emphasised that these online sessions are an effort to highlight the need for government accountability in the time of a nationwide crisis.

“There has been no Parliamentary oversight in the last five months, and it is shocking that this is happening in the middle of a pandemic,” said Roy. “A pandemic needs to be addressed at multiple levels, you need to get feedback from people and talk to them through their representatives. It is unthinkable that policy should be framed by a handful of people and not be vetted through Parliament or the state governments. Without this, how can we ensure that Constitutional rights are not violated?”