NEW DELHI: The Monsoon session of Parliament commenced on Monday amid extensive COVID-19 precautions, with a large number of members attending the proceedings while adjusting to the changes spawned by the epidemic.
In a first, the chambers of both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha were used along with the galleries to seat members of each House which met at separate timings to ensure social distancing.
The usual hustle and bustle was missing in the Parliament complex on the first day of the 18-day Monsoon session in the wake of restricted entry.
Lok Sabha sat in the morning from 9 AM to 1 PM, while Rajya Sabha held its four-hour sitting in the afternoon starting 3 PM where NDA nominee Harivansh was re-elected as deputy chairman and 15 new members took oath.
The Lok Sabha secretariat said 359 members attended the proceedings on Monday.
With two vacancies, the current strength of the Lower House is 541.
The attendance in the 243-member Rajya Sabha was also impressive but no exact number was available.
Around 30 MPs, including BJP's Meenakshi Lekhi and Pravesh Verma, and over 50 employees of Parliament have tested positive for COVID-19, sources said.
Many of them tested positive after undergoing compulsory coronavirus tests at the parliament premises before the start of the Monsoon session, while several of them had undergone tests in their respective constituencies.
The government also introduced some bills, including three related to the farm sector in Lok Sabha.
The Modi government is set to bring 23 new bills, including 11 to replace ordinances, and as many as 20 old bills are pending in both houses.
The opposition also sought to bring the issue of Chinese aggression at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) but were not allowed so by Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla.
There were no usual protests by opposition parties inside the houses.
The members were seated far away from each other and refrained from mingling.
While several Lok Sabha MPs were seated in the galleries and Rajya Sabha chamber, some Rajya Sabha members were asked to sit in the chamber of the lower house.
Both the houses adjourned for an hour after obituary references to former President Pranab Mukherjee and some sitting and former members who died recently.
Ahead of the session, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed confidence that Parliament will send out a unanimous and strong message that the country is unitedly standing behind its brave soldiers guarding India's borders, asserting that doing so is the legislature's "crucial responsibility".
In an apparent reference to the ongoing border row with China in Ladakh, he said that brave Indian soldiers are defending the borders with great courage and high spirits in difficult hilly terrains with snowfall expected in some time.
"This Parliament, particularly in this session, has one more crucial responsibility. Just like the faith with which they (soldiers) are standing, determined to protect the motherland, Parliament and all its members too will send out a message in a unanimous voice, spirit and resolve that the country stands in support of them," he said.
"The entire Parliament stands with the brave soldiers of the country with one voice. I believe that Parliament and all its members will give out a very strong message," he added Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu said Parliament is meeting in extraordinary and challenging times due to the COVID-19 crisis.
He urged the MPs to make the Monsoon session "memorable" by enhancing productivity and responding to the expectations of "anguished people" who are keen to breathe normally and reclaim their social and economic space.
Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla said this is perhaps for the first time that such an arrangement had been put in place where members of the lower house were seated in the upper house.
Birla said members do not have to stand while speaking as part of the new procedures put in place to contain the spread of coronavirus.
Members participated in debates while sitting on their numbered seats.
Special podiums were placed for members, who were sitting in the galleries meant for visitors and VIPs, to speak as there is no mike facility there.
The Speaker said rules have been eased to allow Lok Sabha members to sit in Rajya Sabha and similarly Rajya Sabha members can occupy seats in the lower house to ensure distancing during the session of the upper house.
In a lighter vein, he quipped that it is a dream of some RS members to sit in Lok Sabha.
A giant TV screen in the Lok Sabha chamber showed the members occupying seats in the Rajya Sabha chamber.
Glass-like plastic shields of varied sizes were installed in front of benches to protect members from coronavirus.
The shield also covered part of the members' sides.
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan made a statement in the House on the novel coronavirus, saying the central government undertook the COVID-19 challenge with the highest level of political commitment.
It has been estimated that its decisions prevented approximately 14-29 lakh cases and 37-78 thousand deaths, he said.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman sought Parliament's nod for additional spending of Rs 2.35 lakh crore, which includes a cash outgo of Rs 1.66 lakh crore, primarily to meet expenses for combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Lok Sabha, the government also introduced three bills on the farm sector with Union minister Narendra Singh Tomar asserting that they will help farmers get a remunerative price for their produce as well as private investments and technology.
The Bills -- The Farmers' Produce Trade And Commerce (Promotion And Facilitation) Bill, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, have been brought in to replace ordinances.
Another bill which seeks to reduce for one year the salaries of MPs by 30 per cent "to meet the exigencies arising out of COVID-19 pandemic" was also introduced.
It also seeks to replace an ordinance.
In Rajya Sabha, Harivansh was re-elected as the deputy chairman of Rajya Sabha through voice vote.
Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu declared Harivansh elected after a motion moved by BJP president Jagat Prakash Nadda, and seconded by Leader of the House Thaawarchand Gehlot, was carried by a voice vote.
Opposition parties led by the Congress and the DMK had moved motions for electing RJD's Manoj Kumar Jha but these were not put to vote as they did not press for it.
Leaders of various parties greeted Harivansh, the nominee of the ruling BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, on his election.
The Janata Dal (United) leader received lavish praise from Prime Minister Narendra Modi who said Harivansh belongs to all sides of the aisle.
"He has conducted proceedings in an impartial manner. He has been an outstanding umpire and will continue being so in the times to come," Modi said.
"He is a torchbearer of democracy, hailing from Bihar, a land known for its democratic ethos" and that has close links "with JP, Karpoori Thakur and Bapu's Champaran Satyagraha".
The prime minister lauded Naidu and his team also for making arrangements for the smooth functioning of the House during COVID-19.
At the fag end of proceedings, the government introduced as many as five bills in Rajya Sabha, including on reduction in the remuneration of ministers and protection of healthcare professional in epidemic.
The House adopted a motion to do away with the Question Hour and private members' business during the COVID-curtailed session.
Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad and TMC MP Derek O'Brien criticised the motion moved by Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi.
Jharkhand Mukti Morcha chief Shibu Soren, DMK leader Tiruchi Siva and BJP's Syed Zafar Islam were among the 15 newly-elected members who took oath in Rajya Sabha on Monday.