One of the shortest parliamentary sessions ended on Wednesday, a week ahead of schedule, due to rising fears of coronavirus infections among lawmakers. Thirty-two MPs, including two ministers, tested positive and had to be quarantined. Minister of State for Railways Suresh Chanabasappa Angadi, 65, succumbed to the virus in the AIIMS on Wednesday.
Aside from the panic over the spread of the virus, the session was also marred by a sharp and acrimonious divide over the farm sector legislations. The Opposition in the Rajya Sabha sought to block the passage of the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill and Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill.
When the ruling benches frustrated the attempt to obstruct the passage of the Bills, Opposition members created chaos, jumping on the table of the Secretary-General of the Rajya Sabha, uprooting mics, charging menacingly towards Deputy Chairman Harivansh, etc. It was a new low for the Parliament. Eight members were suspended for their gross misconduct for the rest of the session. Given an opportunity to offer regret for their boorish behaviour, they dug in their heels, justifying their unruly conduct.
All with an eye on the ongoing agitation against the farm sector reforms instigated by the 'arthiyas' or middlemen who fleece the actual food producers, giving them less than a quarter of their due. This did not find articulation on the Opposition benches, while they harped on the fear of corporatisation of agriculture, the feared exploitation of the farmers by the moneybags and such-like concerns aimed at misleading the farmers against the true objective behind the farm Bills.
The Opposition bid to refer the farm Bills to a select committee was earlier dismissed by the government as a ploy to further delay long overdue reforms. The government contended that though it had majority support for the controversial Bills, the reasons for their passage by a voice vote lay in the chaotic conditions created by the Opposition which prevented a division.
Even otherwise, the session turned out to be most business-like, approving a total of 25 Bills, including three pertaining to the labour code. The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020,the Industrial Relations Code, 2020,and the Code on Social Security, 2020, merged 20 central labour laws. The objective was to encourage employers to hire more people on regular rolls rather than indulge in all sorts of jiggery-pokery through informal and contractual hiring to get round the archaic provisions in the labour laws made to reflect the outdated socialist era anti-capital, anti-growth thinking.
Liberal labour laws, while providing for all the necessary social and economic protections for workers, seek to balance it with the need for productivity, discipline and competitiveness. In other words, the new labour codes are no longer one-sided. The stranglehold of the trade unions on employees would further ease after the passage of the new labour codes. This ought to be welcome, especially when we are seeking to invite direct foreign investment in the manufacturing sector.
Meanwhile, the 10-day session set a record for productivity, 167 per cent for the Lok Sabha and 100.5 per cent for the Rajya Sabha. One of the more memorable exchanges in the Lok Sabha pertained to the PM-CARES Fund. While Modi’s critics had pounced on him for suggesting that only he seems to care for the people, the official side turned the tables on the Opposition, revealing how the more than 70-year-old Prime Minister Relief Fund was not registered to this day and, worse, had the President of the Indian National Congress as one of the trustees. No head of any other political party found a place in its management; nor did the RTI Act apply to the PMRF.
On the other hand, PM-CARES Fund is a registered trust, of which no political leader is a trustee. A handful of ministers are ex-officio trustees of the new fund. And like the earlier PM Relief Fund, contributions to the PM-CARES Fund too are tax-exempt. With the session over, the Government’s number one priority ought to be contain the spread of the coronavirus while calibrating the reopening of the economy.