With the second wave of the pandemic and a series of localised lockdowns across several states, parliamentary committees have swung into action, and are likely to step up their scrutiny on issues related to COVID-19.
Issues To Be Discussed in the Parliament This Week
At least four department related standing committees – labour, urban development, science and technology, and education – have meetings lined up for later this week, on the issues of lives and livelihoods related to the pandemic.
While the standing committee on labour will look into ‘rising unemployment and loss of jobs/livelihood in organised and unorganised sectors’, the one on urban will scrutinise implementation of a loan scheme for street vendors launched last year.
The committee on education, women, children, youth, and sports will discuss the issue of children orphaned during the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel on science and technology has sought evidence from top officials on vaccine development and genetic sequencing.
The development is significant because the parliamentary committees are meeting after a gap of more than 1.5 months, and could see a clash between Opposition parties and the Union government.
Early signs of the same could already be discerned in a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) earlier this week, where the two sides clashed on issues related to vaccination drive.
Parliament Session on Science and Technology
The standing committee on science and technology, environment, forests and climate change on Wednesday, 23 June, will hear the views of professor K Vijaya Raghavan, principal scientific advisor to the Union government, Dr V K Paul who is a NITI Aayog member and chairs the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 (NEGVAC), as well as representatives of the departments of biotechnology and scientific and industrial research.
“The key focus of the meeting will be to understand the progress on vaccine development and distribution in the country. Given that there are new variants emerging, we also want to understand what the departments are doing about it in terms of research,” a member of the science committee said, requesting anonymity.
Last year, this committee, headed by senior Congress leader and Rajya Sabha member Jairam Ramesh, had held meetings to discuss preparedness to deal with COVID-19 and other pandemics in the future, and on the impact of air pollution on the pandemic.
Parliament Session on Labour
On the same day, the standing committee on labour will discuss and meet representatives from the ministry of labour and employment on the issue of loss of jobs and livelihoods in both the organised and unorganised sector.
Through a series of consultations last year, this committee, chaired by senior Biju Janata Dal leader, Bhartruhari Mahtab, had submitted a crucial report on “Social Security and Welfare Measures for Inter-State Migrant Workers”.
"“We discussed this matter in detail last year as well. Now the second wave of the pandemic has spelt even more trouble for the informal workers. We are hopeful that this is the beginning to a more detailed analysis of the existing job situation, particularly the informal workers, and we can put forth some useful suggestions to the Union government.”" - Senior Member of Labour Committee
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to loss of livelihoods particularly in the informal sector. According to a report by Pew Research Centre earlier this year, India’s middle class has shrunk and poverty has increased due to the pandemic.
The report has estimated that, “The number of people who are poor in India (with incomes of $2 or less a day) is estimated to have increased by 75 million,” owing to the impact of the pandemic.
The issue of jobs and livelihoods have also been a bone of contention between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Opposition parties like Congress.
Opposition leaders, including former Congress president Rahul Gandhi and CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury, have criticised the ruling party over the issue of jobs, livelihoods, and unemployment.
The Union government has maintained that several of its schemes under the Aatma Nirbhar package last year, including the Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Rozgar Yojana will revive the economy and generate jobs.
Parliament Session on Urban Development
Interestingly on Thursday, 24 June, the standing committee on urban development will hold a meeting to discuss implementation of the PM SVANidhi scheme or the Prime Minister Street Vendor’s AtmaNirbhar Nidhi, which was launched under the Aatma Nirbhar economic package last year.
The scheme aims at giving micro credit facility of Rs 10,000 to street vendors to tide over the impact of the pandemic.
“There is enough anecdotal evidence that street vendors have been affected by the second wave of the pandemic. Some Opposition members have been raising the issue about how the Union government should consider a one-time cash assistance for street vendors,” a senior member of the urban development committee said.
The committee will meet representatives from ministry of housing and urban affairs, as well as from the department of financial services on the issue of implementation of Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014 with special emphasis on the PM SVANidhi Scheme.
"“Parliament is an institution whose accountability is gauged in two ways – through sessions that are more episodic in nature and committee meetings, which are more continuous. In that sense, the meetings particularly on COVID-19 pandemic related issues are very significant.”" - Chakshu Roy, Head of Outreach at the New Delhi-based PRS Legislative Research
Roy added that calling of senior officials, including the one by the science committee on vaccine development, shows that the committees are taking a forward-looking approach to ‘hold the executive accountable’ not just for past strategies but also for future plans.
(Anuja is an independent journalist based in New Delhi who reports at the intersection of policy and politics. She can be reached at @just_anuja.)
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