The government and the Opposition sparred in Parliament on Monday over the cancellation of Question Hour, The Hindu reported. Monday is the first day of the Monsoon Session of Parliament, and daily proceedings will be held for only four hours in each house due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lok Sabha adopted a motion to do away with Question Hour and private members’ bills during the Monsoon Session. The motion was moved by Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi, saying the Lok Sabha session is being held amid extraordinary circumstances. “There are so many ways to question the government, government isn’t running away from discussion,” Joshi said, according to NDTV.

Congress Floor Leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury opposed this move. “Question Hour is a golden hour,” he claimed. “The minister’s reason to cancel Question Hour is not convincing. We had Question Hour even during British Rule. When the House can run, why not have Question Hour?”

Congress leader Manish Tewari claimed that the Question Hour is essential to democracy, The Indian Express reported. “It is the soul of the House. By removing it, the government is trying to stifle Opposition views,” he alleged. He accused the government of trying to “strangulate democracy”.

In response, Joshi said that 60% of the time in the Lok Sabha and 30% in the Rajya Sabha over the last five years had been “wasted” due to Question Hour. “All states are holding session for two days and are passing several bills within 25 minutes,” he said. “We are holding an 18-day session.”

Joshi named non states that had suspended Question Hour. Without mentioning the 1975-’77 Emergency, he also recalled how Parliament was curtailed during the time.

Intervening in the debate, Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said the Zero Hour will be held instead of the Question Hour. “Leaders of most parties agreed over no Question Hour and Zero Hour for 30 minutes,” he said. “I appeal to all members of House to cooperate as Session is being held in an extraordinary situation. We all need your support. Precisely, why I had said we should remove the Question Hour during the session but hold a Zero hour for 30 minutes, in case any one has any questions.”

Singh said he had spoken to Chowdhury about doing away with the Question Hour. However, Chowdhury claimed that he had simply been informed of the same.

All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief said the Question Hour and private members’ business are cornerstone of democracy and it is very much essential for the existence of parliamentary democracy. “I urge the Speaker not to allow the executive to encroach on the territory of the legislature,” he said. “It is a shameful day.”

Trinamool Congress MP Kalyan Banerjee said the Question Hour is an integral part of the basic structure of parliamentary procedure and “we cannot destroy that part”.

As Zero Hour began, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader TR Baalu spoke about the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test. Baalu claimed that 12 Tamil Nadu students have committed suicide over the exam so far and blamed the Centre for these suicides. The NEET was held on Sunday, after Opposition parties had vehemently been against it. The Supreme Court had earlier this month dismissed a petition seeking postponement of the exam in view of the coronavirus crisis.

Tewari said he wanted Punjabi to be included as an official language in Jammu and Kashmir. He was backed by Congress MPs from Punjab.

BJP MP Ravindra Shyamnarayan said drug trafficking from neighbouring countries and drug use are becoming a major problem. “A conspiracy is being hatched to destroy the country’s youth and our neighbouring countries are contributing to this,” Shyamnarayan alleged. “The smuggling of drugs from Pakistan and China is done every year, the items are brought via Punjab and Nepal.”

Meanwhile, Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare Harsh Vardhan claimed that the coronavirus pandemic has been controlled in India. “The maximum cases and deaths have been removed from primarily Maharashtra, Odisha, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and New Delhi among others,” he told the Lok Sabha. “India has been able to limits its cases and deaths, the rate is one of the lowest in the world when compared to country with similar situations.”

Coronavirus precautions

Lok Sabha MPs who attended the session – over 200 of them – were separated by plastic shields installed in front of their benches, PTI reported. While nearly 200 members were seated in the chamber, around 30 were present in the visitors’ gallery. Benches which usually allow six people to sit only had three.

A giant television screen in the Lok Sabha chamber showed very few Lower House members were occupying seats in the Rajya Sabha chamber, where they have been provided temporary accommodation in order to ensure physical distancing.

The front seats of the treasury benches on the right of Speaker Om Prakash Birla’s podium were occupied by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sitting on a seat marked as number one, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on seat number 2 and Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar on seat number 3. All members wore masks, and some wore face shields.

Before the proceedings began, the Lok Sabha met for 20 minutes and paid tribute to former President Pranab Mukherjee, a sitting MP and 13 former parliamentarians who died over the last six months.