Interview National

No demand for virtual session, says Om Birla

Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla addresses a press conference in New Delhi on June 18, 2021.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Opposition parties may have written letters about holding a virtual session of Parliament during COVID-19 period but none raised the issue on the floor of the House, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla said on June 18 in an interview to The Hindu s Nistula Hebbar and Sandeep Phukan.

Mr. Birla, who completes two years in office, not only defended the construction of a new Parliament in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic but also argued in favour of increasing the number of members in the Lok Sabha to ensure that one member doesn't have to represent an electorate size of 15-16 lakh people.

Asked about the pending disqualification request by Trinamool Congress against two of their members — Sisir Adhikari and Sunil Mondal — for alleged anti-party activities, Mr Birla said he would refer the matter to the Privileges Committee once he has heard the views of the two rebel Trinamool MPs.

Talking about demands for a virtual session of Parliament by Opposition leaders, Mr Birla said,"They may have written but when Lok Sabha proceedings were going on during COVID period, none said on the floor the House that Parliament should function virtually or that Rule 266 needs to change. To change the rules, we needs the approval of the House.”

Edited excerpts:

‘Nobody objected to building new Parliament when it was proposed’

As you complete two years, what would you say have been your achievements and the challenges you have faced?

Running the House at a time when COVID infections were fairly high was certainly a challenge. After a lot of brainstorming on how to run the House, Rajya Sabha Chairman and I agreed to have staggered timings for both the Houses and make seating arrangements for members of one House to sit in both the Houses. What’s heartening is that even during this session, members participated the same way as they would during a normal session, with 167 members taking part. The next big challenge for me, as a second term MP, was to take along all the political parties as well as the very experienced members. I must say that everyone cooperated with me and we didn’t face any disruption in the first session of my term.

I also started some new practices that came out of my experience when I was a first time member. I made it a point to encourage and allow all MPs to raise Zero hour notices, where most don’t get the opportunity. Where can an MP raise issues except on the floor of the House before the government. On a single day, as many as 161 members spoke during Zero Hour. And in the first session of the current Lok Sabha, I think more than 400 MPs have spoken on the floor of the House.

Several Opposition members wrote letters asked why Parliament as well as Parliamentary committees can’t meet virtually when the Prime Minister can conduct his meetings chief ministers virtually.

They may have written but when Lok Sabha proceedings were going on during COVID period, none said on the floor the House that Parliament should function virtually or that Rule 266 needs to change. To change the rules, we needs the approval of the House since they were framed with House’s approval. I don’t think anyone wanted Lok Sabha proceedings virtually. As far as parliamentary meetings are concerned, while framing the rules, it was decided to keep the proceedings secret because members rise above party lines while debating issues. It’s a forum where members can enforce accountability and officials are expected to speak their mind freely. I don’t remember anyone asking for the rules to be changed while the House was in session.

Several members have asked for the restoration of the Member of Parliament Local Area Development (MPLAD) especially in COVID times?

Members have raised this issue in the House, and it’s for the government to take a view.

There seems to be a breakdown of relations between Opposition and the Treasury benches. What has been your personal experience, especially with Opposition?

I have faced no difficulty with anyone, be it with the Opposition parties or the ruling party. I frequently meet honourable members from every party. In a democracy, any solution can always be found through dialogue and discussions. I don’t think anyone has levelled any charge against the Chair in that respect. My attempt is always to have a conversation with members and not resort to action. I have always given more time than was agreed upon in the Business Advisory Committee (BAC) for important debates, be it the changing the status of Article 370, the Farm Laws or the Citizenship Amendment Act. When there were repeated disruptions, I told the members I will come to the House only when you are ready for discussions.

Some Opposition leaders including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi have often complained that the Opposition don’t get adequate time to speak or their microphones are turned off.

None is ever stopped from speaking if they want to speak on any issue as per the rules. Every member is elected and are leaders in their own right.

What was the need for a new Parliament and why was the decision to continue construction in the midst of the second wave of COVID19 taken, despite criticism?

The current Parliament House is a revered building for us, as it figured prominently in our fight for independence. For the needs of that time, this building was appropriate too. But as the work of the Parliament expanded, the number of members increased, the outer shape of the building saw little alteration, but inside ad hoc changes to adapt to new needs took place making it vulnerable due to these changes. For a long time there was talk of building a new Parliament that was appropriate to the times. Rajya Sabha chairperson and I had mentioned in both Houses that there should be a new building, looking at future scenarios. No one dissented when I raised this issue within the general purposes committee where leaders of all political parties in Parliament are represented. I have no comments on what is being said outside of that meeting, but inside nobody differed on the need for a new Parliament building. The cost of the project is Rs 970 crores and not Rs 20,000 crores as being said. Nobody in the government has said that the cost of the project will come in the way of any spending on COVID19 management. Is the opposition saying that all infrastructural activity in the country should cease due to COVID19? Much of it was continued. And the point is that not a single objection was raised at the appropriate forum over which I was presiding.

But many opposition leaders, in fact, most, boycotted the foundation laying ceremony held last year.

Former Lok Sabha Speaker Shivraj Patil did attend. My basic point is that nobody objected at the General Purposes committee meeting which was the forum where this should have been raised. What is said outside is just political.

It’s been two years since you have been Speaker, but no deputy Speaker has yet been elected. Leader of the Congress parliamentary party in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Choudhary has written to you on the issue.

Its not my purview to elect a deputy Speaker. Its part of the election process.

The proposed new Parliament has a seating capacity of 1000 people for Lok Sabha. Former president Pranab Mukherjee had suggested raising the number of MPs because constituencies were too large and unwieldy. What is your view?

I agree with Pranab Babu. Constituencies currently have populations running into lakhs, 16-17 lakhs in some cases. The government and appropriate authorities may consider increasing the number of MPs, as a single person representing so many people is very difficult. One of the reasons I made it a point that as many MPs as possible should raise Zero Hour notices was because MPs are elected by such large electorates and many don’t even get a chance to speak in the House.

The Trinamool Congress asked for disqualification of two of its MPs (Sunil Mondal and Sisir Adhikari) for anti-party activities. What is happening to that request?

They have written to me with their complaints. I have said that the complaint be taken on board as per form required, I shall ask the two named for their version and later refer it to the Privileges Committee which will then hear the matter.

Any time line by when this will be over?

Well, the Anti-Defection law doesn’t specify a timeline in dealing with such complaints. All I can say is that the process will be carried out in the most transparent way.

But the recognition of the breakaway Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) as a group in the Lok Sabha was done almost overnight?

The LJP passed a resolution, the chief whip came along with the other four MPs and met with me. Even then I checked the signatures on the letter in person with all of them. No letter came challenging it, Chirag Paswan wrote two days after the event. Our job was to verify the report, the signatures, and the numbers and we corrected the record.

When is the Monsoon Session to be held, do you think?

It is the government that decides on the dates but if the COVID-19 numbers continue with the current trend I expect that the session will be held as per the old calendar which is around the third week of July.

Will you be asking for vaccination certificates from MPs for attending future sessions of Parliament?

We have only respectfully requested MPs to get vaccinated. As per our record, 425 MPs are vaccinated, some members suffered from COVID19 recently and their vaccination is on hold. And we have not received any information from about 40-odd MPs. We are not making vaccination mandatory but want all MPs to be vaccinated as and when protocols suit.

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2021 9:28:56 PM |

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