With Parliament in Limbo, ‘Janata Parliament’ Takes Up Cudgels for Pandemic-Affected Poor

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Tribal activist Soni Sori said that in the name of coronavirus, tribals were being forced to stay at home and every time they stepped out even to relieve themselves or collect firewood, they were intimidated and threatened

Clarion India

NEW DELHI – In the wake of the crippling effect of the pandemic on the lives of the poor and in the absence of debate and deliberation by the Parliament, the six-day digital Janata Parliament, spearheaded and shaped by civil society organizations, networks and representatives of people’s movement, has taken on the responsibility of articulating the national response to the coronavirus disease.

The Budget Session of Parliament has been curtailed and the Monsoon Session has been delayed due to covid-19.

With registration of thousands of people representing a wide coalition of concerned citizens and civil society organisations who work across diverse fields, the online Janata Parliament, or People’s Parliament, began with Aruna Roy, well-known social activist, emphasising that in the context of the pandemic, there is a greater need for public accountability and monitoring. She said that since the Parliament had not met for the last five months, the executive had not only been opaque in the manner it had addressed Covid-19 but had also used the opportunity to push through policies in the most undemocratic way.

This, she said, included diluting or distorting labour laws, waiving all environmental impact assessment and forcing a new education policy upon the nation with no vetting by Parliament and no serious attempt to confer with the state legislatures and governments and with absolutely no wider consultation with communities and people most affected by these policy changes.

In his inaugural address, Justice A.P. Shah, former Chief Justice of the High Court of Delhi, observed that the day after the World Health Organization announced “Covid-19 pandemic to be a public health emergency of international concern”, the budget session of Parliament began on 31 January 2020. The session was scheduled to go on till 2 April but was suddenly adjourned sine die on 23 March, “with no signs of activation since.” This, he said, is in contrast with responses of other countries around the world to the pandemic by “holding hybrid or complete virtual sessions of parliament.” He went on to add that what was most worrisome was the lack of executive accountability.

He said the Constituent Assembly in its wisdom had reposed more faith in the “sanctity of the legislature as the protector of people’s rights” and, in keeping with this, fundamental principles had made the executive accountable to the legislature and ensured that all actions of the executive were kept in check by the latter, on behalf of the people it represented.

The question he raised was: “What happens when Parliament itself stops working? He responded by stating that apart from “failing to provide leadership to the people in a time of a grave crisis like the pandemic, it compounded the problem of representation and accountability by granting the executive a free rein to do as it pleases.”

He pointed out that the Constitution had ensured executive accountability through institutional checks such as the “judiciary to ensure accountability to the Constitution and adherence to the rule of law, as well as to other institutions like the auditor-general, the election commission and through entities like the press, academia, and civil society.”

He stated that “since 2014, every effort had been made to systematically destroy these institutions, not necessarily in the blatantly destructive way that the Indira Gandhi government did in the past, but certainly in the ways that had rendered the Indian democratic state practically comatose, and given the executive the upper hand in most matters.”

Jignesh Mewani, Dalit MLA from Gujarat, pointed out that as a first-time member of the state legislature he felt extremely disappointed at not being able to play his role since the assembly sessions had not been held. “Many life-and-death questions were and are emerging due to the spread of the pandemic and we have no forum to demand timely explanation from the government or seek answers that the people we are representing are clamouring for.” He stated that this included measures taken to save lives of people affected by the virus and were in a critical condition.

He found that immunity-enhancing injections they needed had been procured in bulk by the health department ostensibly to save all patients critically affected but ended up saving only the lives of VIPs and influential people. More importantly, it was their responsibility as peoples’ representative to do everything in their power to ensure proper distribution of ration and management of livelihood programmes such as MGNREGA and other social security schemes, he added.

Soni Sori, well-known social activist espousing the cause of tribals, said that in Bastar while the exploitation of tribals continued, they found that unlike in the past, in the context of the pandemic despite many human rights violations, they could not do anything or raise any questions. Apart from the state repression, tribal people have been hit in many ways. One of the worst fallouts of the pandemic and lockdown, the activist said, had been the breakdown of education as tribal children were not able to access online education.

She went on to state that in the name of coronavirus, tribals were being forced to stay at home and every time they stepped out even to relieve themselves or collect firewood, they were intimidated and threatened and, what was worse, was their inability to take collective action. This was being used by the government to seize their water, forest and lands and give contracts to industrialists like Adani and Jindal, she added.

Syeda Hameed, women’s rights activist, said that Justice AP Shah’s inaugural speech had clarified the importance and significance of the Janata Parliament–which was streamed live–  as it sought to foster an honest dialogue with the executive on the many policy decisions that were being taken without adequate consultation with the people most affected by the recent crisis and related developments.

Pointing out that as a member of the Planning Commission and Women’s Commission in the past, she ensured that no decision was taken without hearing the people or consulting affected communities. Such processes were essential to restore a sense of confidence among Muslims, Dalits and Tribal population.

She concluded by saying that “let us remove the curtain that is separating the marginalized community and groups from the government and make the Janata Parliament a channel to foster a meaningful conversation and hear the voices of people.” She went on to add that the Janata parliament “is a big step not only for India, but for South Asia and the world.”

The online Janata Parliament which opened on August 16 is scheduled to be held till 21 August with the last session discussing ‘Impact on Vulnerable Communities and Civil Liberties, Laws and Governance.’

The civil society bodies that are part of the Janata Parliament include People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), Maadhyam, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, Right to Education Campaign, Vikalp Sangam and All India Kisan Sabha.

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