Lok Sabha meets amid pandemic; members don masks, sit apart

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Lok Sabha on Monday met for the Monsoon session under unusual circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic with members seated in different locations, including the Rajya Sabha chamber, in view of the physical distancing norms put in place to check the spread of the virus.

Before the House met at 9 am, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed confidence that Parliament will unitedly give a message that the country is standing solidly behind soldiers guarding India’s borders.

In an apparent reference to the ongoing border row with China in Ladakh, Modi said Indian soldiers are bravely discharging their duties while standing guard in difficult hilly terrains with snowfall expected in the coming days and weeks.

Referring to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said MPs have chosen the path of their duty and added that all precautions will be taken.

Modi also enquired about the health of media personnel while noting that they will not get the opportunity to move around freely like before due to the coronavirus guidelines.

“You will get every news. It is not a difficult task for you, but please take care of yourself. It is my personal request to all of you,” he said.

As some Lok Sabha members attended the House proceedings while seated in the Rajya Sabha chamber, Speaker Om Birla said this is perhaps for the first time that such an arrangement had been put in place.

Birla also said members do not have to stand while speaking as part of the new procedures put in place to contain the spread of coronavirus. Members participated in debates while sitting on their numbered seats.

Special podiums were placed for members, who were sitting in the galleries meant for visitors and VIPs, to speak as there is no mike facility there.

The Speaker said rules have been eased to allow Lok Sabha members to sit in Rajya Sabha and similarly Rajya Sabha members can occupy seats in the lower house to ensure distancing during the session of the upper house.

In a lighter vein, he said it is a dream of some RS members to sit in Lok Sabha.

The Lok Sabha secretariat said 359 members attended the proceedings of Lok Sabha on Monday. With two vacancies, the current strength to Lok Sabha is 541.

Unlike in the past, there were no opposition protests in the Well of the House, which is otherwise a usual occurrence on day one of the session as soon as the House assembles.

A giant TV screen in the Lok Sabha chamber showed very few Lok Sabha members were occupying seats in the Rajya Sabha chamber.

Benches which usually accommodate six members had a numbered sitting plan for only three.

Glass-like plastic shields of varied sizes were installed in front of benches to protect members from coronavirus. The shield also covered part of the members’ sides.

The front seats of the Treasury benches on the right of the Speaker’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.

The front seats of the opposition benches were occupied by T R Baalu of the DMK and Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury of the Congress.

Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav, 80, was helped inside the House on a wheelchair and was seated next to National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah in the second row of opposition benches.

Health Minister Harsh Vardhan made a statement in the House on the novel coronavirus, saying the central government undertook the COVID-19 challenge with the highest level of political commitment.

The nationwide lockdown, which he described as a bold decision, is testimony to the fact that India has collectively stood up to manage COVID-19 and successfully blunted the aggressive progression of the infection.

It has been estimated that this decision prevented approximately 14–29 lakh cases and 37–78 thousand deaths, he said.

During the proceedings, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman sought Parliament’s nod for additional spending of Rs 2.35 lakh crore, which includes a cash outgo of Rs 1.66 lakh crore, primarily to meet expenses for combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government also introduced three bills on the farm sector with Union minister Narendra Singh Tomar asserting that they will help farmers get a remunerative price for their produce as well as private investments and technology.

The Centre also introduced The Farmers’ Produce Trade And Commerce (Promotion And Facilitation) Bill, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, which will replace ordinances promulgated by the government earlier.

Another bill which seeks to reduce for one year the salaries of MPs by 30 per cent “to meet the exigencies arising out of COVID-19 pandemic” was also introduced. It also seeks to replace an ordinance.

On the lack of the usual hustle-bustle during the Parliament session, N K Premachandran, Lok Sabha member from Kollam, said, “These are hard times and the mood was conciliatory. There was, of course, the fibreglass … the liveliness of Parliament was missing because of the extraordinary situation”. In view of the coronavirus scare, only a few MPs interacted with media persons waiting at Vijay Chowk near the Parliament complex.