Day 1 of Monsoon Session sees Question Hour scrapped amid Opposition fury, Rajya Sabha deputy chairman re-elected

The Opposition alleged that the Centre was trying to throttle democracy by doing away with the Question Hour, which it called the 'Golden Hour' of the House

FP Staff September 14, 2020 23:12:39 IST
Day 1 of Monsoon Session sees Question Hour scrapped amid Opposition fury, Rajya Sabha deputy chairman re-elected

Kicking off under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, the Monsoon Session of Parliament saw special arrangements made, including sitting of the two Houses in shifts without any days off, entry only to those having a negative COVID-19 report and masks being made compulsory.

In the run-up to the session, over 4,000 people, including MPs and staff, were tested for COVID-19, most parliamentary operations were digitised, premises sanitised and doors made touch-free. But around 30 MPs and more than 50 employees of the secretariats have already tested positive for COVID-19, news agency PTI quoting sources, reported.

Many of them tested positive after undergoing compulsory coronavirus tests at the parliament premises before the start of the monsoon session, while several of them had undergone tests in their respective constituencies.

All parliamentarians and staff of the secretariats of both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha had undergone mandatory COVID-19 tests before the start of the session. Media covering Parliament's proceedings also underwent these tests and at least one of them has tested positive, the sources said.

"ICMR is honoured to have carried out testing of 2500+ samples of Hon'ble Members of Parliament and other officials on war footing over the weekend in service of the nation", the Indian Council of Medical Research said on Twitter.

All those who have tested positive have been asked to stay in quarantine and they did not come to Parliament, sources said.

BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi took to Twitter to confirm she'd tested COVID positive:

Barring the first day (today), Rajya Sabha will convene in the morning from 9 am till 1 pm and Lok Sabha in the evening from 3 pm to 7 pm.

LS, RS adopt motion to suspend Question Hour

Both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha adopted the motion to suspend the Question Hour, with the government maintaining that it is not running away from any discussion and will reply to all questions raised by the Opposition.

Question Hour, the first business of the day, allows members to ask questions pertaining to the public interest from ministers.

The move was slammed by the Opposition, with the Congress stating that the Centre was depriving the people of the country and the Trinamool Congress saying that the government had struck at the very heart of parliamentary democracy

Moving the motion, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi said the Lok Sabha session is being held in extraordinary circumstances amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the House resolves that starred questions and private members' business may not be brought before it for transaction during the session.

Leading the Congress' charge, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said the argument and rationale put forth by Joshi is far from convincing. He said Question Hour is recognised as an essence of parliamentary democracy and executives are accountable and answerable during Question Hour.

In such an extraordinary situation, if the House is running, "why has the Question Hour been singled out?" he asked. "We get a chance to raise issues of common people. Question Hour is simply a golden hour of the House," he said, adding by doing way with this, the government is trying to "throttle democracy".

AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi said Question Hour and private members' business are a cornerstone of democracy and it is essential for the existence of parliamentary democracy. "I urge the Speaker not to allow the executive to encroach on the territory of the legislature. It is a shameful day," he said.

He also requested for a division, which was not accepted by Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla.

Meanwhile, TMC MP Kalyan Banerjee said the Question Hour is an integral part of the basic structure of parliamentary procedure and "we cannot destroy that part". "We also have our views to express, kindly do not take away this advantage. It will take the entire glamour, 50 percent glamour of running the Parliament," he added.

Joshi said before arriving at this decision, deputy leader in the Lok Sabha and defence minister Rajnath Singh spoke to almost all leaders of various parties.

"I would like to tell various leaders who questioned the suspension of Question Hour that all state Assemblies, including Punjab, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, have run sessions for a day or two and passed several bills, whereas the Government of India decided to run for 18 days and hold discussion on bills," Joshi said.

People are saying this is the basic structure of Parliament then what had happened in 1975, he questioned. In the last five years, 60 percent of Question Hour in Rajya Sabha and 40 percent in Lok Sabha was wasted, he added. There are so many ways to question the government and it is not running away from discussion and "we are going to reply to all questions which you are going to raise," he said.

Rajnath said that he has discussed the matter with several leaders and noted that this session is being held in an extraordinary situation.

"We apprised you (Speaker) of it following which decision was taken by you. I appeal to all members of the House to cooperate as the session is being held in an extraordinary situation. We need support from all as the House will run only for four hours,” he added.

He said that issues can be raised through unstarred questions, which will be replied to by ministers. If members are not satisfied from that reply, then you can seek clarifications during Zero Hour, Rajnath further added.

A similar exchange was witnessed in the Rajya Sabha where TMC MP Derek O’Brien moved an amendment to a motion to suspend starred questions and Private Members' Business in the current session.

Day 1 of Monsoon Session sees Question Hour scrapped amid Opposition fury Rajya Sabha deputy chairman reelected

Day 1 of Monsoon Session in Rajya Sabha. ANI

It has never happened before during a regular session he noted. “It is the Opposition's right and the government has struck at the very heart of parliamentary democracy,” he said.

Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad said “People of the country have no access or means to ask questions to the ministers. MPs ask questions on behalf of the people of India. The people of India are being deprived by suspending the Question Hour.”

The amendment proposed by O’Brien was discarded and the motion to suspend the starred questions was carried through by a voice vote.

Harivansh Narayan Singh re-elected

Incumbent Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman Harivansh Narayan Singh was re-elected to the post. Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu declared Harivansh elected after a motion moved by BJP president Jagat Prakash Nadda, and seconded by Leader of the House Thaawarchand Gehlot, was carried by a voice vote.

Opposition parties led by the Congress and the DMK had moved motions to elect RJD's Manoj Kumar.

Congratulating Harivansh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his impartial role in the Parliament has strengthened democracy."He has conducted proceedings in an impartial manner. He has been an outstanding umpire and will continue being so in the times to come," Modi said.

Modi lauded the JD(U) leader for his efforts to ensure productivity and positivity in Parliament during his first term as deputy chairman. "He is a torchbearer of democracy, hailing from Bihar, a land known for its democratic ethos," the prime minister said.

'Future doctors have committed suicide'

The issue of NEET aspirants in Tamil Nadu was raised by DMK leaders in both the houses. "I would like to draw the attention of this House and the government to the plight of 12 students who had committed suicide, all from rural background, because of NEET," DMK MP R Baalu said in the Lower House.

He added that these students had passed Class 12 through state board syllabus and NEET is conducted only on the basis of CBSE syllabus.

“Future doctors of India have committed suicide,” he said, adding that without knowing much of the CBSE syllabus, helpless students are ending their lives.

In the Rajya Sabha, DMK leader P Wilson raised the issue of student’s suicides and called for scrapping the entrance test.

No discussion on India-China row
Chowdhury tried to raise the issue of India-China border tensions, but the Speaker asked him to raise it in the meeting of the Business Advisory Committee. Birla said this is a sensitive issue and it should be raised in a sensitive manner.

Chowdhury said, "I would like to seek the attention of the government and the defence minister that for the last several months, Indian citizens are worried because of the situation at the border. Today also, there is a news report that China is watching our president".

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is likely to make a statement on the border issue in the Parliament on Tuesday, reported PTI. Singh had met his Chinese counterpart Gen Wei Fenghe in Moscow recently. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi had also met in Moscow a few days ago.

Meanwhile, the Union Cabinet and the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs are also likely to meet over video conferencing on Tuesday afternoon, government sources said.

Over 1 lakh cases in 13 states

Rajya Sabha chairman Venkaiah Naidu said the COVID-19 pandemic was the biggest disaster since the Spanish Flu, but stated that India has been able to contain the damage from the pandemic despite its population.

Health minister Harsh Vardhan informed the Lok Sabha that four months of lockdown helped prevent approximately 14-29 lakh cases and 37,000-78,000 deaths due to COVID-19.

“These four months were utilised to create additional health infrastructure, enhance human resource and produce within India critical elements such as PPEs, N-95 masks and ventilators. A case in point is the increase in dedicated isolation beds 36.3 times and dedicated ICU beds above 24.6 times to what existed in March 2020. Whereas there was no indigenous manufacturing of PPE, with the requisite standards, at that point in time, we are now self-sufficient and in a position to even export the same,” he said.

The minister also said that India has been able to limit its cases and deaths per million to 3,328 and 55 respectively, which is one of the lowest in the world as compared to similarly-affected countries.

The maximum cases and deaths have been primarily reported from Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, West Bengal, Bihar, Telangana, Odisha, Assam, Kerala and Gujarat. All these states have reported at least 1,00,000 cases.

“Constant monitoring of the disease trend, analysis of available infrastructure and planning in advance for the future has averted a major crisis as was faced by many developed countries. In addition, a total of 12,826 quarantine centres with 598,811 beds have been created,” said Harsh Vardhan.

Bill to bring UBCs, MSCBs under RBI ambit introduced

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman introduced The Banking Regulation (Amendment) Bill 2020 to protect the depositors of Urban Cooperative Banks (UCBs) and Multi State Cooperative Banks (MSCBs) in the Lok Sabha. This Bill, which replaces an ordinance issued in the last week of June, seeks to bring UCBs and MSCBs under RBI’s supervision process applicable to scheduled commercial banks.

Replying to objections raised to the introduction of this Bill, Sitharaman said that the Bill is primarily aimed at protecting depositors in cooperative banks and is focused only on those cooperatives that use the word ‘bank’ and therefore receiving and dealing with deposits.

The finance minister also rejected the contention that the Lok Sabha has no legislative competence for this Bill as it related to a subject of cooperatives, which is in the States List of the Constitution. “The legislative competence of this house is well established under Entry No 45 of the Union List. Regulation of Banking also comes under Entry no 43 of Union List. Bill will only apply to those Cooperative societies which uses the word bank, banker or banking,” she said

On the issue of Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s point that there has been a legal challenge in court and therefore the Lok Sabha cannot go ahead with the introduction of the Bill, Sitharaman said there is no interlocutory relief that has been provided in the court and also there are no directions given by the court in the matter against the operation of this ordinance.

She highlighted that cooperative banks in the country have been regulated by the RBI since 1965 and this Bill only seeks to extend the applicability so that some of the banking regulation laws also apply to them. She asserted that State Cooperative laws are not being proposed to be amended. “State cooperative laws are not being touched in this proposed amendment,” she said.

Centre introduces three bills on farm sector

The Centre also introduced three bills in Lok Sabha on the farm sector amid vociferous opposition from Opposition parties.

Agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar introduced 'The Farmers' Produce Trade And Commerce (Promotion And Facilitation) Bill' and 'The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill', while Minister of State for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Raosaheb Danve introduced 'The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill' to replace the ordinances promulgated by the government earlier.

The proposed legislations will enable barrier-free trade in agricultural produce, and also empower farmers to engage with investors of their choice, said Tomar.

The minister said that almost 86 percent of farmers have agricultural land of less than two hectares and they are often unable to benefit from minimum support price (MSPs) but assured the House that the MSP will stay.

"I want to assure on behalf of the government that MSP was there, is there, and will continue to be there," Tomar asserted.

Taking part in the debate, members of the Congress and the Trinamool Congress claimed that the legislations will only benefit capitalists and accused the Centre of attacking the federal structure of the Constitution.

Tomar countered the charge, stating that the bill will help the farmers as they are unable to invest much in their farm and do not attract investments from others.

Opposing the bills, the leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said constitutional provisions are very clear that agriculture is a subject on the State List. "Such a law can only be brought by state governments.... Through this bill, the centre will nullify Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) law enacted by various state governments," Chowdhury said.

Chowdhury pointed out that farmers of Punjab and Haryana are protesting against these bills.

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said the bill violates the basic tenets of federalism enshrined in India's Constitution. "It is beyond the legislative competence of this house to enact any law on agriculture, which is a domain of the state governments," Tharoor said

Tomar rejected the criticism, saying Opposition members should trust the Centre. The minister asked Opposition members to study the content of the bills deeply before "running to oppose them".

He stressed that farmers will benefit a lot from these laws as they can enter into an agreement with private traders for selling their produce. These agreements will be about the produce and not the farmland, he asserted, rebutting suggestions that farmers may lose ownership of their land.

TMC member Saugata Roy claimed that farming will move into the hands of capitalists due to these legislations and that it endangers the right to food.

The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 which seeks to increase competition in the agriculture sector and enhance farmers' income was also introduced. Removing fully the stock limit of farm produce and edible items like fruits and vegetables will be damaging for farmers.

This will lead to black marketing and only a few entrepreneurs will benefit, Chowdhury said. "I oppose the way the bill has been presented," he said.

Congress' Gaurav Gogoi said that the bill does not define extraordinary circumstances.

The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill provides a framework for the protection and empowerment of farmers with reference to the sale and purchase of farm products.

The Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020, bars state governments from imposing taxes on sale and purchase of farm produce undertaken outside the mandis and gives farmers the freedom to sell their produce at remunerative prices.

Besides, any conflicts arising from the transactions will be dealt with exclusively by the Sub Division Magistrate (SDM) and District Collectorate within 30 days and not in the jurisdiction of civil courts.

At present, farmers are allowed to sell their agriculture produce at 6,900-odd APMC (Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees) mandis spread across the nation. There are restrictions for farmers in selling agri-produce outside the mandis.

The ordinances were promulgated on 5 June and notified on 20 July.

Bill to reduce MPs' salaries introduced

The Salary, Allowance and Pension for Members of the Parliament Bill was introduced in both Houses, in order to replace an ordinance to the effect cleared by the Union Cabinet on 6 April and promulgated on 7 April. The ordinance had come into force to amend a law to reduce the salaries of Members of Parliament by 30 percent for one year "to meet the exigencies arising out of COVID-19 pandemic".

It inserted a new sub-section in the Salary, Allowances and Pension of Members of Parliament Act 1954 to give effect to reduction in salaries.

The Lok Sabha passed the National Commission for Homoeopathy Bill and the National Commission for Indian System of Medicine Bill, which had earlier received the Rajya Sabha’s nod.

Some Opposition members protested against the bill, saying the Centre needed to undertake wider consultation.

Health minister Harsh Vardhan said the proposed laws will help in better administration of homeopathy and Indian system of medicines.

Four other bills — the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Bill, 2020, The Homoeopathy Central Council (Amendment) Bill, 2020 and The Indian Medicine Central Council (Amendment) Bill, 2020 and The Aircraft (Amendment) Bill, 2020 were introduced in the Upper House towards the fag end of the proceedings.

The Aircraft (Amendment) Bill provides for converting three existing bodies under the Ministry of Civil Aviation into statutory bodies under the Act while the Aircraft (Amendment) Bill seeks to replace an ordinance brought by the Centre earlier this year.

BJP seeks apology over comments on Nirmala Sitharaman

Personal comments aimed at Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman by  Roy in the Lok Sabha drew sharp criticism from the treasury benches with Joshi demanding an unconditional apology for “insulting womenfolk.” The TMC MP was objecting to the Banking Regulation (Amendment ) Bill when he made the remarks targeting Sitharaman while referring to the stress in the economy.

Targetting Roy, Joshi said, "We can also do it. But this is not our culture. He is a senior member. What is he talking? He should apologise unconditionally. It is an insult to womenfolk," he said.

Other BJP members, including Union minister Smriti Irani, were also seen reacting angrily to the TMC member's remarks.
Sitharaman strongly defended the bill during her statement and referred to Roy's personal dig, saying, "If only Prof Saugata Roy can listen rather than get distracted by other factors."

Roy's comments were expunged by Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla.

MPs bring up EIA notification, drug trafficking

In the Rajya Sabha, Congress MP Jairam Ramesh termed the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 as ‘dangerous’, stating that it is anti-democratic, anti-public health, anti-federalism and anti-jurisprudence.

However, Environment minister Prakash Javadekar denied the charges, saying that the draft EIA adhered to High Court and Supreme Court judgments.

Congress MP PL Punia raised the issue of state governments suspending labour laws.

In the Lower House, BJP MP Ravi Kishan raised the issue of drug trafficking in the entertainment industry, appealing to the Centre to thwart any attempts of drug smuggling from neighbouring countries.

"Problem of drug trafficking and addiction is on the rise. A conspiracy is being hatched to destroy the country's youth and our neighbouring countries are contributing to it. Smuggling of drugs from Pakistan and China is done every year. It is brought via Punjab and Nepal," he said.

At the start of the Rajya Sabha session, newly-elected members, including JMM’s Shibu Soren and NCP’s Fauzia Khan took the oath. Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu read out obituary references to former president Pranab Mukherjee, Amar Singh, Pandit Jasraj and others, following which the House was adjourned for an hour.

​Speaking on the occasion of Hindi Diwas, Naidu coined the mantra of ‘No imposition, no opposition”. “While encouraging Hindi, promote your mother tongue. No language is superior, no language is inferior,” he said.

Lok Sabha MP and former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Farooq Abdullah attended Parliament proceedings for the first time since the revocation of Article 370 on 5 August last year.

Congress interim chief Sonia Gandhi will miss a large part of the Monsoon Session as she left for the US on Saturday for a routine medical check-up and will return after a fortnight. She is accompanied by her son and party leader Rahul Gandhi, who is likely to return within a week to lead the Congress’ offensive in Lok Sabha, PTI reported

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