The committees of Parliament cannot be held virtually amid the coronavirus crisis as that would require an amendment of rules which is not possible at the moment, a Rajya Sabha communique to Leader of the Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge said on Friday.

Departmentally-related standing committees are committees with members from both Houses of Parliament that deal with expenditure, laws and policies of specific ministries. These panels form an integral part of Parliament as they discuss laws by analysing them in depth, scrutinise bills and seek expert advice.

Nearly all meetings of Parliament’s standing committees have come to a standstill in the past few weeks as a fierce second wave of the pandemic sweeps through the country, making it impossible for lawmakers to travel to Delhi to participate in the proceedings.

Last week, Kharge wrote to Rajya Sabha Chairperson Venkaiah Naidu, requesting him to hold the meetings virtually. The Congress leader said that this was necessary as parliamentary panels could contribute to the ongoing endeavours in containing this pandemic and providing relief to people, according to PTI.

Besides, Kharge said, there were several key subjects of importance that were pending for discussion, reported The Hindustan Times. A similar demand was also made by Trinamool Congress Floor Leader in the Rajya Sabha Derek O’ Brien.

But the Rajya Sabha Secretariat refused the requests arguing that it would break the confidentiality conditions under Rule 275 of the Lok Sabha. In its response to Kharge, the secretariat said that any amendments of rules to allow virtual meetings can be taken up only during the next Parliament session.

The secretariat said that last year, when the first wave of the pandemic brought things to a halt, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla had decided that the matter regarding holding of virtual meetings of the parliamentary panels vis-à-vis existing provisions and confidentiality of the proceedings of the committees may be referred to the committee on Rules in both the Houses.

But because the infection rate eventually came down, and physical meetings of committees resumed, “the matter rested there and the situation had not arisen for considering the matter by the Rules Committees”, the letter added.

Therefore, “the issue of confidentiality can be resolved during the session as any amendment to the Rules can be approved by the respective Houses only after the matter is considered by the Rules Committees”, the secretariat added.

Not surprised, says Congress leader

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh rejected the explanation offered by the secretariat, and accused the Centre of running away from its duties.

“A wasteful new Parliament building is being constructed in the midst of a national catastrophe, and it is considered an ‘essential service’,” he wrote on Twitter, referring to the Central Vista Project. “But a simple rule cannot be changed to allow virtual meetings of Standing Committees.”

The Congress leader pointed out that several key meetings, including those of the Union cabinet and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have been held digitally for the past many months. “The PM has all his meetings virtually, but 30 odd MPs cannot,” Ramesh added. “Nowhere in the world has Parliament run away from its duties like in India.”