Giant screens, engineers from the National Informatics Centre (NIC) on call, provisions for possible latency — these are among the issues Rajya Sabha chairman Venkaiah Naidu and Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla and their teams are wrestling with as they finalise plans to hold sittings of the Lok Sabha across both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha chambers to meet the requirement of social distancing made necessary by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The plan is to stagger timings of the two Houses so that they never sit simultaneously, and hold sittings of each across both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. The exact timings of each House have not been finalised yet. HT learns that the government is likely to call the session after August 15.
Also part of the plan are fibreglass or plexiglass sheets between seats, reduced workforce across the Parliament complex, working over weekends to ensure the Houses can sit for enough time, inputs from multiple ministries, teething technical troubles and countless queries—all part of an ongoing, mammoth exercise to hold Indian Parliament’s monsoon session in these uncertain times.
With 770 seats across the two Houses, India has the world’s fourth-largest Parliament by number of lawmakers after the UK, Italy and France. Holding a session is such a big affair that Naidu and Birla have already met six times to strategise.
Both are familiar with every small detail of Parliament complex, but they undertook field visits to physically check how MPs could sit across different areas.
The ministries of home affairs, health, urban development, and civil aviation and CPWD were consulted in the last few weeks, a top functionary added, as aspects related to logistics, security, and health were worked out.
The Lok Sabha MPs will sit in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha chambers, the galleries of both houses, and the Central hall. Similarly, the Upper House MPs will be divided between the two Houses and the galleries.
The Lok Sabha has 529 members. The Rajya Sabha has 242.
The Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha chambers can accommodate 60 and 158 lawmakers respectively if strict social distancing norms are followed. The galleries of the Upper House (barring the press gallery) can seat another 67 MPs. The Lok Sabha galleries can seat 132.
That works out to a total of 417 spots, enough to seat the Rajya Sabha members. The remaining Lok Sabha members will be seated in the Central Hall — typically, these will be members with no business in the House. Central Hall can seat another 190.
A second functionary said that Central Hall will largely be treated as a “buffer area”, which means it will be filled last, and only with people who do not need to be in the House to conduct some business. A third functionary added that the expectation is that attendance will not exceed 420, which means that the hall will not be needed.
Vigyan Bhawan, another prospective venue that can hold at last 200 MPs, was ruled out as it has facility for telecasting live proceedings, and it will be difficult for MPs and ministers to shuttle between Parliament and Vigyan Bhavan through the day.
An idea for the Houses to sit on alternate days was shot down as it would have meant a longer stay for MPs from other states in Delhi.
A Rajya Sabha official said that Naidu “has even received suggestions to hold proceedings on Saturdays and Sundays. MPs told him since there will not be much to do (outside the House), it is better that the House sits on weekends too, so that the session can be wrapped up early.”
On a typical day, around 3500 people visit Parliament complex. That will come down.
“We decided only those who are absolutely essential for the daily proceedings would be allowed to enter. It means reduced staff for ministers, select visitors and limited parliament officials,” said the top functionary.
In addition to fibreglass or plexiglass dividers in the House chambers, the health plan also includes jet-sprays with disinfectants that will be used in public spaces and on vehicles, hand sanitizers that are placed across Parliament complex, more medical staff and additional ambulances to attend to emergencies. Birla and Naidu are aware that if any lawmaker tests positive after attending Parliament, they will come in for criticism and are ensuring that every precaution is taken, the second functionary said.
As the plan to sit across two Houses was being crystallised, officials pointed out to Naidu that there would be latency and that if a Rajya Sabha member seated in the Lok Sabha chamber said something, it would reach Naidu and the Upper House’s system with a fractional lag.
So, the proceedings might get slower this time as both the chair and the members will need to provide for these lags.
NIC, the government’s IT arm, will send engineers who will sit in both Houses and supervise the live proceedings that will be shown in giant screens in both Houses. The NIC officials will also help presiding officers mute members in the other chamber. And the interpreters of each House will sit in their respective Houses and interpret for members looking at live proceedings in one House and at the screen in the other.
Naidu is also in touch with senior Opposition leaders such as Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, The main subject of discussion is the pandemic’s trajectory, especially in Delhi. The possible peak of infections may eventually settle the fate of the monsoon session of Parliament.