Asia

Commentary: India shows how not to hold a parliament session

NEW DELHI: After a nearly six-month hiatus, the Indian parliament has reconvened at a time of deepening national crisis. But I fear that it may be unable to hold the countrys failing government to account.

Parliament is obliged to meet now, because Indias constitution limits the gap between sessions to six months, and the COVID-19 pandemic has forced all sessions to be suspended since March.

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With 4.5 million cases to date, India is now the worlds second worst-affected country, surpassing Brazil and Russia and behind only the United States.

Moreover, infection rates are rising, especially in rural areas where testing had not been adequately extended earlier.

READ: Commentary: Making, distributing COVID-19 vaccine in good time may depend on India's manufacturing might

LISTEN: The COVID-19 vaccine will be the biggest product launch in history. Can we pull it off?

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TROUBLE BREWING AT HOME AND ABROAD

Fortunately, the COVID-19 mortality rate remains relatively low, at 55 per million people, representing just 1 per cent of deaths from all causes.

But if lives have not ended, livelihoods have, owing to ineffective lockdowns introduced in March. India's GDP collapsed by 23.9 per cent year-on-year in April to June, making India the worlds worst-performing major economy.

Unemployment is rife – some 21 million salaried jobs have been lost during the pandemic, and millions more in the informal sector, especially among day labourers, who are now unable to make ends meet.

Small and micro enterprises are being shuttered throughout the country. And the millions of migrant workers who trudged home in despair during the lockdown have found themselves no better off in their home villages stagnant economies.

READ: Commentary: India grapples with COVID-19 migrant worker chaos

FILE PHOTO: Migrant workers walk on a flyover as they look for transport to return to their home state of northern Uttar Pradesh, during an extended nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of COVID-19, in Ahmedabad, India, May 19, 2020. (Reuters/Amit Dave)

A much-hyped fiscal stimulus turned out to be less than one-tenth of the size that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had claimed, and failed to alleviate nationwide distress. The budget adopted just before the lockdowns is in tatters, its every assumption rendered irrelevant.

As if all this werent bad enough, a major crisis has erupted on the countrys disputed border with China, where 20 Indian soldiers were brutally killed in June in the icy Himalayan heights of Ladakh.

READ: Commentary: China's boundary skirmishes with India have wider economic and geopolitical implications

Talk of disengagement has failed to translate into withdrawals, and both sides have sent reinforcements to the tenuous Line of Actual Control that divides their forces.

This week, the two countries foreign ministers announced a new agreement to disengage, although it remains to be seen whether this will be realised.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has stepped up its cross-border militancy in Kashmir, which is seething with unrest following last years clampdown by Modis government. Many increasingly fear that India may be facing a two-front war before the year is out.

READ: Commentary: Has India lost its way?

AN EXTRAORDINARY SITTING

All this should normally make for a lively parliamentary session. But the legislature will itself meet in abnormal and straitened circumstances, reflected in the extraordinary measures announced in advance of the session.

No MP may enter the premises without a COVID-negative certificate from a test administered within three days of the session. Inside, social distancing will apply in the usually cramped chambers, with MPs distributed throughout the upper and lower houses and the visitors galleries.

As a result, the two houses will take turns meeting for a half-day each in sessions lasting four hours instead of the usual six, and on all seven days of the week rather than the traditional five.

READ: Commentary: Can there be an Indian National Congress without Gandhi leadership?

The Indian parliament building is pictured on the opening day of the parliament session in New Delhi, India, June 17, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi)

Worse, the government and the presiding officers have decided that, given the shorter sessions, they will dispense with Question Hour, the only opportunity for MPs to demand unscripted answers from ministers on a variety of subjects.

In response to the outcry, the government has agreed to accept written questions two weeks in advance, to which ministers will provide written answRead More – Source